It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize…

I attended a Graduate School workshop the other day on the PhD Examination process… really valuable session for those of us approaching the final stretch of the thesis journey..

In another session, I was invited to talk to new PhD & EdD students about some of the key issues in the doctoral process. Someone asked me who I was writing my thesis for… I was initially quite taken aback by the question. To me, it was obvious – the examiners! However, a couple of the other doctoral candidates had quite different perspectives on this… answers ranged from writing for themselves, to writing for a community within their discipline and so on…
But, if we look at the thesis itself – in Australia – that document is the final, examinable piece of written work from however many years of research it has taken you to arrive at – that’s what 3 annonymous examiners will read, independently of each other, and base their reports and subsequent recommendations on…  So – why wouldn’t I be writing my thesis for my target audience? My examiners?

Now – back at the exmaination workshop – Dave Boud, Dean of the Graduate School – referred to a paper: " ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses" Mullins & Kiley (2002)  (full reference below) !
This is a must read for any Australian PhD candidates preparing to sumbit their thesis!
The paper reports on a study of experienced examiners (having examined at least 5 theses over the last 5 years)  and their processes for making judgements… !
Here are a couple of findings I found valuable:

  •  experienced examiners expect the thesis to pass
  • experienced examiners spend 3 – 4 days fulltime examining a thesis – often over a period of  2- 3 weeks
  • first impressions count! Most examiners come to a decision aoub the quality of a thesis by chapter 2
  • most examiners read the abstract first, then the introduction, followed by the conclusion to guage the scope of the work – then look at the references
  • questions the examiners have in mind as they read:
    How would they have tackled the problem?
    What questions would they like answers to?
    Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction?
    Is the bibliography up-to-date and substantial enough?
    Are the results worthwhile?
    How much work has actually been done?
    What is the intellectual depth and rigour of the thesis?
    Is this acutally research – is there an argument? (p.377)
  • characteristics of a poor thesis as described by the examiners:
    lack of coherence
    lack of understanding of the theory
    lack of confidence
    researching the wrong problem
    mixed or confused methodological perspectives
    work that is not original
  • the development of a well structured argument was one of the most highly valued aspects of a good thesis

In the discussion of the results Mullins & Kiley summarise the final judgement of a thesis as being determined by:

  • the student’s confidence and independence
  • a creative view of the topic
  • the structure of the argument
  • the coherence of theorectical and methodoligical perspectives, and
  • evidence of critical self-assesment by the student.

And the final comment sums it up really…
" A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize…" (p.386)

So – bummer – for all us who thought there might be a Nobel Prize at the end of the journey…

Reference: Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2002), It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experienced examiners asses research theses, Studies in Higher Education, 27, 4, pp.369-386

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