My hunch is that I’m a lot like most thesis examiners. When we get sent a thesis we often don’t plunge in straight away. We have a bit of a look around first. That’s not an unusual response to a new text.
Think about book shop behaviours. Most people usually check out the title and the back cover and then have a bit of a flick through, perhaps reading some of the first chapter to get a sense of writing. ‘Look inside’ options in online bookshops encourage you to do this.
Or think what you do when you get a new book you’ve ordered on spec. Perhaps you read a few random pages or the start of several chapters. Whatever you do, your little foray into the text gives you an idea about whether the book is going to keep you interested. You also know whether it will be a good read. Then you go for the armchair and the coffee, book in hand.
The thesis examiner is probably no different. They do something equivalent to a bit of a bookshop browse. They pick up or click on the thesis and have a look around.
And what do they see first? The title. Is it dull? Too long? Too vague? Or is it – just right… first impression, right there.
Next, they are likely to look at some or all of – the thesis acknowledgements, the abstract, the table of contents and the reference list. Acknowledgements? Well yes, that’s in part curiosity, but acknowledgements do often give a pretty strong impression of the person who has written them. Thanking the dog and not the supervisor for instance is certainly a statement!
The abstract tells the examiner what the thesis is going to say and gives a glimpse of the writing style. So… Stodgy writing with lots of long sentences and not much variation in style? Tentative claims or no claim at all? Nice turn of phrase and convincing argument? Depending on what there is, the examiner will start looking forward to the reading, feel a little concerned, or in rare cases, summon up the courage for a hard-to-get-through text.
The abstract, together with the table of contents, gives the examiner a pretty good idea of how the thesis is going to go. Add to this the reference list which shows what work has been cited in the text – in other words, the company the doctoral researcher has been keeping for the last few years and the scholarly conversations they’ve been engaged in – and the examiner has formed an initial view of what’s in store for them.
It’s not all bad if some of these initial bits aren’t riveting. Experienced examiners know to put their reservations on hold. For instance a table of contents that uses a lot of generic headings or seems to follow an inexplicable logic can suggest a poorly structured text. But most examiners can put that thought to one side. They know that you only really find out about structure when you get into the text proper.
So where is a poor impression actually made? Well, a bad thing is when the examiner finds typos in the acknowledgments or in the abstract. Or worse still, grammatical mistakes. Yes, careless proofreading, poor grammar and stylistic mistakes make the examiner wonder. They think to themselves – if the writer has been careless here, then perhaps they have been careless elsewhere. They ask themselves whether there is a difficult read ahead. They prepare to start noting corrections.
But equally tricky, if you have a scholarly-nerdy examiner like me, are when there are inconsistencies in the referencing – capitals all over the shop, erratic italics and various uses of : ; , and pp. A sloppy reference list does make the examiner wonder about the quality of the scholarship they will encounter. And it is an automatic correction, right at the outset.
The lesson here is simple. Don’t put your examiners off. Help your examiner browse. Steer them to focus on what matters – your research. Textual mistakes can easily distract examiner-readers from the substantive content. Present a clean text that meets the basic conventions.
Better still, use your writing to show a bit of yourself in your abstract, your headings and acknowledgements. Show the examiner what a pleasurable read they have in front of them. Make them interested in you and what you have done.
And the lesson. Don’t leave the things that create a good or bad first impression to the last minute. Spend time on the abstract. Think about your table of contents. Above all, proof read really carefully – and check that pesky reference list.
Do this, and your examiner will browse and start well disposed to the thesis, to you and to the viva.
(Yes, I’ve written about this before. Hey, after seven years and nearly eight hundred posts it’s still worth saying!)
Photo by Charlie Read on Unsplash
Thanks for the practical, useful advice, Pat. I always enjoy reading your perspective on producing doctoral research.
Just a thought on your perspective on acknowledgements, though. Doctoral researchers who thank ‘the dog and not the supervisor’ may be doing their best at coping with a less than optimal supervisory experience for which there is not always a solution other than to submit the PhD research and leave an institution. We simply cannot know reasons behind the inclusions and exclusions without further investigation, although whether that would be appropriate for the examiner to consider is another question. Thus, it would seem somewhat unfair for examiners to read anything into who is or isn’t included in the acknowledgments. Given what is now known about doctoral researchers (lack of) wellbeing and substantial instances of sexual harassment experienced by postgraduates, it would seem better for examiners to look only only the quality of the research presented and leave the acknowledgements aside. Yes, examiners are only human, but so are PhD students.
Yes. I understand. It was a lighthearted comment. But I do think it’s important for examiners to consider obvious omissions up to a point. If for example it’s possible there’s been a breakdown in supervision the researcher might be even more anxious than usual. I’m not suggesting we deal differently with the text, but we are also working with people. So we might allow for probabilities like this. Not ask nosy questions. Just be aware.
That’s great to hear, Pat. It hadn’t crossed my mind that examiners might see this as a place where doctoral researchers could use understanding as you suggest. Cheers!
And Jane S, kudos re acknowledging your cat! The thesis is, as you say, the researcher’s responsibility. I think that’s a really key realisation. Acknowledgements are valid – they’re the folks that helped you through. The team behind you, if you will! Equally, leaving out those who negatively affected researchers lives is valid and I wholeheartedly support my colleagues who decide to not name harassers, etc., regardless of their official position. FYI, I’ve got kitten acknowledgements a plenty too.
Doing our “best at coping with a less than optimal supervisory experience”? I believe all of us, at some point, reach this stage, (I am assuming that you’re writing from the researcher’s side of the desk.)
While I’m aware of the clichés and legends attached to academia, were one to generate a word cloud about doctoral experiences, ‘supervision’ would loom large. In the end I decided that, basically, it’s down to me alone, to take my thesis from concept to finale. End of. My baby, my responsibility.
Writing and presentation: It’s not been like writing a book, with a friendly professional in-house editor at your shoulder – someone to talk to when the going got rough or tough. Most supervisors, and examiners, are neither friends nor professional editors: they’re *critics*. And what they seize on may well strike the researcher as an excuse to pass judgement. (I know of one candidate who was told to make one correction. She was to change a semi-colon into a colon. … )
I shall re-inspect all instances of : ; , and pp. 🙂
Unfortunately, we can’t employ eye-catching cover art. (Such a pity. I have a real beaut, Pat!) but confess I did employ journo tricks, plus a few from the fiction writer’s manual. I have an allergy to dull dense prose, and I’d be mortified if a reader couldn’t get past the first page. But the advice about quality is 100% correct. If an examiner finds minor errors, what else might be wrong with the actual research findings?
Another tired myth is that you must cite a supervisor’s works as frequently as you can. I’ve cited those I need to cite, or discuss, for an interdisciplinary research topic; the fourteen pages of bibliography reflects the reading. If I had to list the wider research around the field, it would make for a second tome.
However, all acknowledgments are valid. A thesis often takes years, and a researcher needs time, and back-up. More than thanks are owed to many, both directly and indirectly. In the final sign-off sentence of my personal acknowledgments I mention one small black cat, who’s kept me company throughout the long writing days – and reminded me about the vital necessity of *eating*.
Thank you for this simple but insightful read. It does really help those who have just begun the journey on your blog. We sometimes get carried away with the difficult tasks of reviewing literature, collecting data, analyzing and writing a report, and leave these important matters to the last.