Preparing students for examination

There is much institutional as well as international variation in the examination process. At Oxford, the examination of research degrees is governed by the relevant sections of the University’s Examination Regulations - see General DPhil regulations 2015-16 or General DPhil regulations 2014-15.

For an overview, see the flow chart of the examination process. Please note, however, that the flow chart only outlines the process and does not give guidance regarding submission times, etc.

Applications for the appointment of examiners are made by the supervisor in consultation with the student, using the GSO3 form. The application should be made not less than 4-6 weeks, and not more than one term, before submission of the thesis. Members of the Research Degrees admin team are always happy to give advice to both students and their supervisors regarding these processes. They can be contacted by email or by telephone (01865 286382). Contacting the team directly will be particularly helpful if you are facing urgent time pressures.

On submission, students must deliver two copies of their thesis (one for each examiner) to the Examination Schools. The copies should be submitted in separate padded envelopes (the GSO20a form gives advice on how the packages should be marked). Once all other formalities are complete and the thesis copies have been despatched to the examiners, the Research Degrees Team will inform both supervisor and student by email of the names of the examiners. They will also remind candidates and supervisors of what to expect and concerning what matters it may be proper to communicate with the examiners, via the Graduate Studies Assistant.

Supervisors should also ensure that the candidate is supplied with all the information and guidance that he or she needs for the submission and examination process: see Graduate Progression Forms where, in particular, the GSO20a form contains notes for student guidance.

Examiners use a range of forms to report on examinations; the choice depending on whether it is the first time the student's work has been examined, whether minor or major corrections are requested or revision and re-examination required. The range of outcomes available after first and subsequent examinations is explained in Report of the Examiners (GSO11a-d).

In order for a candidate to pass, the forms require examiners to confirm they are satisfied on the following points:

  1. that the candidate possesses a good knowledge of the particular field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls;
  2. that the candidate has made a significant and substantial contribution in the particular field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls;
  3. that the thesis is presented in a lucid and scholarly manner;
  4. that in their opinion the thesis merits the degree of Doctor of Philosophy; and
  5. that the candidate has presented a satisfactory abstract of the thesis.

The suggestions below are designed to help students feel well prepared for successful defence in the way that this student describes:

I guess a successful defence performance is [being] able …to succinctly summarize the work … conducted and the conclusions …drawn from that work … [and] to respond to concerns of academics and others who are coming from … a diverse set of backgrounds. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Anticipate student emotionality

Many students report a sense of exhaustion and reduction in psychological and physical resources, like this one nearing the end of the degree, and rarely have the desire to think about their futures after finishing:

My physical health is deteriorating. That’s something that I have noticed, and I wish I had time to…to address it right now, but I don’t. I’ve got to finish my research and I’ve got to finish my writing …[it’s] a concern to me, but I’ve got to push it off to the background because I simply don’t have time for it right now. As soon as … I submit and finish my viva, em, I’m going to spend a time rebuilding my physical and emotional health. …when I’m looking for another job, when I’m interviewing with people, I need to be in good physical and emotional health in order to [sighs]…in order to make a good impression on interviewers for jobs. So [exercise] will be my next priority as soon as I finish my research and writing. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Students, at this stage of the doctorate, may well experience anxiety and loss of confidence. This may lead to procrastination or perfectionism. Another common emotion at this time is feeling unsupported, because writing the thesis is occupying all of their time, but only a small proportion of the supervisor’s time. A third emotion, which is perhaps not so wide-spread, can result from family pressure. For example, a first generation Greek student had been encouraged by a proud and loving family until he got close to the end of his doctorate when his father started commenting along the lines of "I suppose once you're a doctor you'll think you are too good for this family". This candidate delayed submitting by over a year rather than face the dilemma of hurting his father. Only with the help of an understanding uncle did he finally manage to submit.

After submitting the thesis, other emotions may surface:

By the time I handed my thesis in, I didn’t see any positives about it at all. I thought I’ve handed in just such a load of rubbish, and it took me a while to sort of calm down and reflect on it and then start to prepare. That was September, and obviously, you don’t know when your viva is going to be, so you think "do you start to prepare now?"... it could be a month, it could be three months, you just don’t know. And, I was dreading [the viva] because you hear awful stories, don’t you, about examiners wanting to put their work into your thesis and put their stamp on it and ... you just hear ... so all the negatives really. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Anticipating some emotionality can help make this time easier for both the student and the supervisor. Sharing some comics like Signs you're close to graduating may help to defuse this.

Create a timeline

A number of different activities are involved in preparing for the examination, as this student notes:

[I spent my time] reading over my thesis, checking for spelling/ grammar/ typos, formatting my thesis, checking that the thesis conforms to university requirements, filling out submission forms, sending thesis to printers, confirming university and examiners received copies, setting a viva date. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Working with students to draw up a realistic timeline can help avoid some of the stressful moments that often accompany this stage of the doctorate. For instance, research students generally underestimate the time it to takes to:

  • make the final changes suggested by their supervisor(s)
  • rigorously proof-read their final draft (a read-through to check citations and referencing might also be considered – see Examples of plagiarism)
  • format the final document
  • print, copy and bind

In the last few months prior to submission of their thesis, many supervisors have also found it useful to draw up a timetable with students regarding their availability for reading and commenting on thesis chapters. Students often overlook supervisors' other commitments, or don't know of them, and may be bitterly disappointed when the supervisor cannot read the chapter drafts as rapidly as they had assumed. It is also often a good idea to work out which member of the panel is the most appropriate to read early drafts (the big picture/ structure person) and then the last reader (the attention to detail person).

If a student feels there is a possibility they will not be able to submit by the date given on their GSO3 form, the Research Degrees Team (researchdegrees@admin.ox.ac.uk) should be informed.

See Writing the thesis for more advice on this stage of the doctorate. A reminder concerning understandings of originality, significance and quality may also be helpful.

Preparing for the viva

Reading

Obviously, in the couple of weeks beforehand …I’d re-read my thesis several times, I’ve re-read some of the main articles that I’d drawn on for my literature review and, you know, I’d been reading about how to prepare for the viva and things. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

A tip that many students and supervisors have found useful is to print off the introduction and conclusion of the dissertation and read them as one document to check for coherence and consistency. This replicates the first step that some examiners report taking when they examine a thesis.

Rehearsal

Before the viva …two weeks, [a friend] said, “Do you want to have a rehearsal?” Good idea … and [my friends] asked me a lot of questions, and one of the questions was in the viva! (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

We were all going to have a viva so we did discussions about it, main question spotting, and then we sent each other our abstract and list of contents, and then we just devised questions for each other, and we each had a mock viva, with two others pretending to be the examiner. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

These excerpts highlight the potential value for students of a practice viva. Such an exercise can be especially helpful if those at the practice ask challenging questions. Of particular importance in this regard is bearing in mind that the examiners may not be experts in the specific area of the thesis so are likely to ask linking and bridging questions related to their own epistemologies and methodologies. These kinds of questions can be particularly daunting for students as this one notes:

You know, I should have anticipated some of the lines of questioning that came up because the external examiner was a specialist in an area which I wasn’t massively interested in but my thesis did, you know, draw on a lot of that area, and so she questioned me on that area quite intensively, and I was completely flat-footed by that and came across as a bit of a fish out of water (Doctoral student, STEM)

Supervisors can be particularly helpful in providing strategies for coping with stress during the viva as this student notes:

I was dreading it because … you hear awful stories, don’t you? … My mock viva with my supervisor was fantastic because I just said to him, “Look, I’ve practised for this, I’ve thought of all the questions that I could be asked, but the worst thing is that I’m just so nervous.” …so he was absolutely brilliant because he told me about body language, how to sit, and he just gave me confidence. He just said …think about the strengths of your thesis – put about at least 20 points, all these strong points, and when the examiner is talking to you, think about those positives and always try and put those in, and I just took it from there really, and that did give me a lot of confidence. So that was a big milestone really, for me, as part of my preparation, as well as my friends helping me. He just gave me that final boost at the right time. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Most experienced supervisors agree that talking to students regarding the examination process from early in the doctorate can be helpful. Gradually explaining the process concerning selection of examiners, submission and examination, and how the results are handled and finalised can help allay a student's fears. Such discussions are particularly helpful for international students, who may be used to a very different system. Much that we take for granted about doctoral examination, such as the viva, does not necessarily occur in other countries.

Trafford and Leshem (2002) analysed the questions asked in 25 doctoral viva examinations and summarised their findings in a list of Twelve predictable questions; that is, meta-level questions which are contextualised by the examiners to the particular enquiry. They suggest using these questions to prepare students from the beginning and through all stages of their research projects, guiding the development of, for example, awareness about research design and methodology, appropriate thesis structure and doing the actual writing, as well as preparing for the oral examination itself.

What the examiners will be looking for

Winter et al (2000) suggest that a thesis ought to:

  1. be a report of work which others would want to read
  2. tell a compelling story articulately whilst preempting inevitable critiques
  3. carry the reader into complex realms, and inform and educate him/her
  4. be sufficiently speculative or original to command respectful peer attention (p36).

Research suggests that experienced examiners expect the thesis to pass and want it to pass. Rather than taking a summative approach to the examination process, they generally adopt a formative view where they aim to assist the student in improving their work. However, less encouraging for students, is the view expressed by most experienced examiners that they have a strong sense of the quality of the thesis by the second chapter, and often even earlier in their reading. Based on extensive interviews it appears that the questions examiners have in mind as they read include:

  • How would they have tackled the problem set out in the abstract and the title?
  • What questions would they like answers to?
  • Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction?
  • How well does the candidate explain what she or he did?
  • Is the literature review substantial, relevant and up-to-date?
  • Is the research worthwhile?
  • Does it contribute something new, or provide a new way of looking at existing knowledge?
  • How much work has actually been done and how much of it has been published and where?
  • What is the intellectual depth and rigour of the thesis?
  • Is this actually a ‘thesis’ – i.e. is there an argument?

Examiners report that they are 'turned off' by sloppy presentation (incorrect referencing, poorly labelled figures, inappropriate use of technical terms) particularly as this is considered an indication that the research itself, the data gathering and analysis, may also be sloppy.

Examiners also worry when there are unexplained inconsistencies between what the thesis sets out to do and what is actually done.

In summary, characteristics of a ‘good’ thesis include:

  • Critical analysis and argument
  • Confidence, and a rigorous, self-critical approach
  • Contribution to knowledge
  • Originality, creativity and a degree of risk taking
  • Comprehensiveness and a scholarly approach
  • Sound presentation and structure
  • Sound methodology

and characteristics of a less than ideal thesis include:

  • Too much detail with lack of analysis
  • Lack of confidence, energy and engagement
  • Lack of argument and rigour
  • Shoddy presentation (typos etc)
  • Lack of critique of own analysis, such as sweeping generalisations
  • Inadequate or poorly expressed methodology and scope

The above text was based on:

Bourke, S., Hattie, J., & Anderson, L. (2004). Predicting examiner recommendations on PhD theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2),178-194.

Chen, S. (2013) Balancing Knowing and Not-Knowing: Doctoral Candidates' Performance of Research Selves in the Dissertation Defense. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Educational Research, San Francisco, USA.

Holbrook, A., Bourke, S., Fairbairn, H. & Lovat, T. (2007) Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education, 32(3), 337-356.

Kiley, M. and Mullins, G. (2006) "Opening the black box: How examiners assess your thesis". In C. Denholm and T. Evans (Eds) Doctorates downunder: Keys to successful doctoral study in Australia and New Zealand. ACER Press, Melbourne.

Kiley, M. and Mullins, G. (2004) Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2), 121-135.

Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002) 'It's a PhD, not a Nobel prize': How experienced examiners assess theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Tinkler, P. & Jackson, C. (2000) Examining the Doctorate: institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 167-180.

Winter, R., Griffiths, M. and Green, K. (2000) The 'academic' qualities of practice: What are the criteria for a practice-based PhD? Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 25-37.

Further resources:

Trafford, V. & Leshem, S. (2002) Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 35(1), 31-49.