Selecting examiners

Two examiners are required for the DPhil, of whom at least one must be external to the University. Examiners from within the UK and Europe are preferred as a first choice, going further afield only if there is no-one appropriate within the UK or Europe. Check with your Faculty or Department for further guidance if you anticipate inviting an examiner from outside Europe.

Examiners are proposed by supervisors in consultation with the research student. Supervisors are required to consult with their students, and to forward to the Faculty Board via the Graduate Studies Assistant the names of suggested examiners, and reserve examiners (one internal and one external), using the GSO3 form, together with any special considerations (concerns) that the student wishes to make known about potential examiners. Reserve examiners should be chosen with equal care as they will automatically be invited should the first choice examiner decline.

While the final choice of examiners officially lies with the responsible faculty board or graduate studies committee, it would be unusual not to follow the advice of the supervisor. Even so, it is important that the proper, formal appointment of examiners should never be short-circuited. On occasion, students, their supervisors and the suggested examiners have on their own set up a viva to examine a copy of the thesis submitted directly to the suggested examiners instead of via the Examination Schools. The outcome of such a process will be questioned by the Proctors, and it may not be accepted by the University; questions will be raised about the criteria that were applied without the examiners having received proper instructions, and the identity of the formally and informally submitted thesis will be called into question.

It should be noted that at Oxford, internal examiners hold some responsibilities that would not be the case at other universities. For example, the internal examiner is expected to lead in the matter of agreeing on the date and making the practical arrangements for the viva voce examination.

Start the process early

[As I was doing] my data analysis... it wasn't fitting the theoretical frame that I had originally put in place. It just wasn't fitting at all, and I started to sort of move a little bit and look [for something that] seemed to fit much better. So I had to do a lot more reading and get up to speed with that... And then I've had to change who I'm going to have as an external examiner as a consequence. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Clearly this student had discussed possible examiners with her supervisor relatively early on in the doctorate. Discussing potential examiners early can be helpful for students because it may help them:

  • visualise a possible audience for their work, rather than just (anonymously) "the examiners".
  • keep potential examiners in mind when they present at conferences, and when they are "networking", etc.

Here a supervisor discusses possible external examiners with a student. How would you describe the process to a student?

The thing is, with doctoral theses, you’ve got to be careful about who you choose to be examiners. Someone like [Prof. X], for example, might fail this [thesis] because there’s a bunch of people, of which [Prof. X] is part, and I think that she’d have huge problems with this. There are other people who wouldn’t…. And I think that’s who we’ll suggest. We’ll put them down as the examiners. There’s, if you like, a politics to it, right? (Supervisor, Social Sciences)

Research suggests that useful criteria to bear in mind when choosing the examiners include:

  • topic/ methodology fit
  • an understanding of the system within which the dissertation/ thesis has been developed
  • experience in doctoral examination or supervision
  • personal qualities: high but fair standards; intellectual curiosity and generosity; reliability
  • for outstanding candidates, choosing someone who can help advance their career

Making the final decision

  • When selecting examiners, try consulting the supervisors of students who have previously been examined by those you have in mind about their experience of the examiner.
  • It is a good idea to sound out potential examiners informally on their availability and interest in the topic before nominating them formally.
  • Check the University’s letter of invitation to examiners in order to understand the aspects highlighted there – see Communications concerning appointment of examiners. Note in particular that the Memorandum for Examiners quotes the Examination Regulations (read "the duties of examiners" in paragraph 5 of the section on Examination of Students for the DPhil).
  • International examiners may need additional information on expectations and practice in the UK.

Suggesting examiners is one of a supervisor's most critical tasks. Generally supervisors discuss potential examiners with students as it is understood that students will have a good sense of the researchers in their field and of who would do justice to the work. It is also useful to ask candidates to indicate whether there is anyone they would not want as an examiner, for example, someone they know to have strongly opposing views, methodologies and/ or practices. It may be helpful to consider the question of examiners in the light of the supervisor's and the candidate's thoughts about the significance of the contribution made by the thesis.

Selecting good examiners requires much more than simply looking for experts in the field. For instance, there is now research to suggest that experienced (rather than inexperienced) examiners will be more likely to see the thesis within the context of the research education experience, i.e. the equivalent of 3-4 years work, not a 'Nobel Prize'. An often quoted comment from experienced supervisors is that they avoid sending theses to inexperienced examiners as they are perceived to be more demanding than their more experienced colleagues. One of the main reasons for this view is that inexperienced examiners have little knowledge of other theses against which to benchmark. As one experienced examiner said, "They have a sample size of one, their own" (Kiley & Mullins, 2004).

Careful selection of appropriate examiners can also provide your student with potential referees and sponsorship for their next career step. This can be formal or informal, for example, "Professor Bloggs, a world expert in the field, and one of the examiners for my doctoral thesis, commented that, 'This is one of the best theses I have read in many years of examining'".

A third consideration when selecting examiners comes from early research in Australia into the criteria experienced supervisors use to select examiners. This research suggests that one of the critical factors is the ability of the examiner to give a fair and balanced opinion of the work. Checking out whether potential examiners do possess these qualities can be time consuming, but experience suggests that it is time very well spent.

A fourth consideration (though often the first one that most candidates and supervisors consider) is to find someone with an understanding of the topic and in particular the methodology, who is at the same time broad-minded enough to appreciate alternative and novel approaches. Topic and methodology matching can be particularly difficult in multi-disciplinary doctoral examination.

In summary, recent research involving experienced supervisors suggests that supervisors look for examiners with the following qualities:

Professional and academic qualities

  • Topic/methodology fit
  • Understanding of the system from which the dissertation is coming
  • Understanding of the academy
  • Experience in supervising and examining
  • Availability

Personal qualities

  • High but fair standards
  • Intellectual courtesy and generosity
  • Reliability

The above text was based on the following research:

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2004) Supervising the doctorate: A guide to success. Second edition. Berkshire: SRHE and OU Press.

Kiley, M. (2009) 'You don't want a smart Alec': selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations. Studies in Higher Education, 34(8), 889-903.

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

Trafford, V. (2003) Questions in doctoral vivas: Views from the inside. Quality Assurance in Education, 11(2) 114-122.