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What do examiners really want?

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Inger Mewburn

on 5 June 2012

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Transcript of What do examiners really want?

What do thesis examiners want?
And how can you give it to them?
This presentation was put together by:
Dr Inger Mewburn
Research Fellow
School of Graduate Research, RMIT
Twitter: @thesiswhisperer
Facebook: 'The Thesis Whisperer'
Researchers have studied how examiners approach a thesis and what they think a good one is.
This research tells us a lot about how to write a thesis.
The key papers used in this presentation are:
Mullins, G and Kiley, M (2002) It's a PhD not a Nobel prize" Studies in Higher Education, Vol 27, No.4
Winter, R, Griffiths, M & Green, K (2000) The 'academic' qualities of practice: what are the criteria for a practice based PhD?, Studies in Higher Education, 25, pp. 25 - 37
Some helpful thesis writing books
Gruba, P & Evans, D (2001) How to write a better thesis, University of Melbourne Press, Melbourne
Rugg, G and Petre, M (2004) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, Open University Press, Maidenhead.
Booth, W, Gregory, C and Williams, J (1995) The craft of research, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Kamler, B & Thomson, P (2006) Helping Doctoral Students to Write, Routledge, New York
But, before we start...
Why did you come here today?

In groups of four talk about your questions and concerns about examination and come up with at list of five or so to share with the rest of the group
We'll make a list on the board and make sure we address them all by the end of the session
What would you do if you wanted to fail your thesis? (or at least be asked to do major revisions)
Don't talk to your supervisors about who you think should examine your thesis
Don't match up your introduction with your conclusion
Examiners are not Mr Spock - they have feelings, ideas, preconceptions which they bring to your work
These sections, along with the bibliography act as 'bookends' for your work. They are usually read first and tend to colour the way the examiner approaches the rest of your work
In other words: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Send your thesis to someone who has never examined before
Just as more experienced teachers are more fogiving, more experienced examiners have probably seen a few thesis worse than yours and wont judge you as harshly.
'World experts' might be intimidating - but they should be the ones reading your thesis
How does the examination process work?
In this workshop we will:
Look at the examination process at RMIT
Explore the guidelines to examiners
Think about the nature of the thesis as a genre
Think about the 'graduate attributes' you are meant to develop while doing one
Look at how examiners examine (and how they decide if a thesis is good or not)
Work out how to fail your PhD
Find friendly people at RMIT who can help you
Leave feeling empowered and armed with the knowledge to write a great PhD
How long does my thesis have to be?
Not this long!
There are no strict requirements for the format or the minimum length of a written thesis at RMIT, however:

An upper limit of 55,000 words applies to a Masters by thesis
90,000 is the upper limit for a PhD by thesis and
60,000 for a professional doctorate

A PhD by project can have as few as 40,000 words

Word limit does not include the appendixes, bibliography and footnotes

A Masters by project (depending on the school) may have no written component at all
Bill has to be careful to avoid a conflict of interest when he chooses the examiners
Rebecca has to avoid creating a conflict of interest by not asking potential examiners to read her work in advance
What's a Conflict of Interest (COI)?
A conflict of interest (COI) occurs when an individual or organisation is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other. This means examiners must not:

have worked with the candidate;
be related to candidate or supervisor;
have had direct involvement in candidature; or
have acted in a supervisory or consultative capacity
We send document called 'guidelines to examiners' along with your thesis
Write a bad literature review
The literature review is the nice party frock of your thesis. If the examiner sees that you have chosen the right frock for the occasion they are more likely to want to have a drink with you. It goes without saying your frock should be freshly ironed and have no stains on it – even better if it matches your handbag and shoes.
The kind of dress you think is appropriate is up to you, but I think you can’t go wrong with a little black dress -
That's a competant run through of the major authors with a connecting argument
Don't let anyone else do your copy editing
Those of you writing in a different language don’t need to fret too much, there’s evidence to suggest that examiners accommodate idiosyncratic grammar more than plain mess.
keep an eye out for typos, missed footnotes, badly formatted bibliographies and so on
These guidelines are designed to orient the examiner in making their report

But many will already have an idea of what they think a thesis is, especially if they are an experienced examiner

Their own expectations and how the document ‘feels’ when reading it will strongly affect their judgement

They will also be thinking about how they would have done the project
Can you really fail your PhD?
In 2008, a fairly typical year, there were 263 candidates examined.

Of these:

31 were passed with no changes
113 were asked to make minor changes
97 were asked to make specific changes, such as rewriting a chapter
11 had to spend a year making major changes to the whole document

and 3 failed
But! Since we introduced the completion seminar to all students the fail rate has been reduced. Last year no students failed. We hope this trend continues.
It all began with a door...
To have a thesis means taking a position: putting something forward.
There is some wriggle room however – in creative disciplines for example, the old idea of putting forward a proposition, rather than arguing, might be more appropriate. However you play it, the thesis is a single encompassing idea which should pervade the whole of your research documentation.
Examiners make judgement on the expressive
qualities of your thesis as well as the content
Your thesis text is like an avatar
You aren't there to talk to your examiner - it has to 'speak' for you
Used to be you showed you were of the 'doctor calibre' by knowing the bible in detail and being able to defend it, using syllogistic logic, against all comers. This was done in public and in the presence of local nobles.
Because knowledge used to be 'embodied' you were judged on how well you 'spoke like a scholar'. Now we ask PhD scholars to create 'new' knowledge and put it in writing. But you are still judged on how well you talk like a scholar. This is authorial voice.
Let's think about this...
What is the ‘right stuff’ in your discipline?
Find three words that might describe a ‘good scholar’ to share with the others
Luke: "But how am I to know the good side from the bad?"
Yoda: "You will know... when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack."
Broadly speaking, there are three types of thesis produced at RMIT:
The “Big Book” model
The “Bunch of papers” model
The “Creative Exegesis”

There are epistemological assumptions and conventions underlying each of these types
The big book is your ‘traditional’ thesis model : usually an extended written argument with supporting evidence
The Bunch of papers is popular in the sciences. : a collection of articles which are tied together by a set of interlacing problems or themes.
The creative exegesis a written / aural / visual / tactile accompaniment to a set of creative works
The big book comes model evolved from the interpretive traditions, like history, where an author sets out to examine what is usually a relatively well mapped territory and add their voice
The bunch of papers form is at home in the sciences where the emphasis is on discovery and building a cumulative base of knowledge
The exegesis carries the idea of creative ‘coherence’ over from artistic practice. The various ‘bits’ should resonate together; there may not be straightforward relationships between the parts
(the exegesis is young and still in flux; creative practitioners are still trying to establish what 'research' really means in their field)
Inger - now I feel like this!
Yes I know, but consider this:
Candidates generally think examination as a form of summative assessment:

Examiners on the whole think about the process as formative assessment:
Students tend to think about it as : a matter of passing or failing
As an exercise in giving feedback to the candidate on their work and for their future career as a researcher
There's lots of people at RMIT who can help
The study and learning centre offer one on one assistance; visit their site for details www.rmit.edu.au/studyandlearningcentre

The library can help you with referencing and bibliography formatting, especially problems with endnote.

You can employ an editor, but they must conform to guidelines. See here for details: http://www.rmit.edu.au/graduateresearch/editors

ISIS International student information and support can support you with visa problems

The RMIT Counselling service offers help with depression and anxiety, family and relationship issues, exam and assessment stress. Phone 99254365 to make an appointment (or consult the RMIT website for drop in locations)
Let’s return to our big list of anxieties – which ones can we cross off?
What can we do about the things that are left?
How do examiners read a thesis (and decide if it's good or not?
Obviously different examiners do approach the task differently but many:

Read the abstract or summery
Then introduction and the conclusion together
Look up the references
Then go back and read from cover to cover
Many read them on holiday or in bed because they have too much work to do.
Think about this when you are writing - what sort of non fiction text would you like to read in your spare time?
What's going through their mind as they read?
How they would have tackled the problem?
What questions would they like answers to?
Does the conclusion follow up on the introduction?
How well does the candidate explain what he/she is doing?
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 actually ‘research’ – is there an argument?
What is a 'good' thesis?
A report of work which others would want to read

Tells a compelling story articulately whilst pre-empting inevitable critiques

Carries the reader into complex realms; informs and educates him/her

Be sufficiently speculative or original to suggest you would be an interesting future colleague
Confused or inadequate theoretical framework
Being ‘merely descriptive’ – a data gathering exercise
Researching the wrong problem
Mixed or confused methodological perspectives
Sloppy presentation
Inconsistency between introduction and conclusion
Lacking confidence in the writing
Presenting work that’s not original
Not being able to explain at the end of a thesis what has actually been argued in the thesis
“A thesis is not a murder mystery”, Prof Kevin O’Connor
Amongst other things, the introduction should:
Clearly state the research aims and problems being tackled
Tell us what your ‘contribution to knowledge’ will be
Tell the reader why they should care about it

The conclusion should also include:
Tell us which questions have been answered (and which emerged)
Restate the contribution to knowledge (and make a judgement on it)
Tell us about the implications of your work
When we talk with others we form our opinion of them by how well they play the role we expect of them

What 'role' are you playing in this text?
The idea of the independant scholar
While writing and reading back your text constantly imagine you are ‘talking’ to your examiner

When you re-read your writing ask yourself: how do I ‘sound’?

You should sound like the words that you used to describe ‘the right stuff’

Layout and use of typefaces; Layout of the bibliography; Number of and content in footnotes; Table of contents; Cross referencing; Grammar!; Spelling!
What is a thesis?
You should read these
Thanks for listening
Do you have questions or comments?
Email: inger.mewburn@rmit.edu.au
Here's the whole presentation
You can pan around to read all the details, or follow the path I have set for you.

Most of this presentation is based on the seminal paper:
Mullins, G and Kiley, M (2002) It's a PhD not a Nobel prize" Studies in Higher Education, Vol 27, No.4
All images (except for the movie stills) are from www.morguefile.com and are royalty free
The guidelines start by outlining the criteria for a masters degree and add on extra for PhD
This point does not apply to the PhD where candidates are meant to demonstrate 'independent scholarship'
The film 'The Right Stuff' was about the search to find astronauts in the late 50's. Since no one had gone to space before, decision makers had to base their choices on a 'feeling' about the person, which they formed while subjecting them to a battery of tests....

This is not that dissimilar to the decision making process which an examiner goes through.
Am I going to miss anything
How do I have know I have done enough work?
What if somebody publishes my thesis before I do?
What can I do to prepare?
How do I avoid the 'traps'?
What can we do to make the examiners happy?
What are the processes of making changes about?
How do I structure this thing? The bigness is freaking me out.
What sort of questions the examiners might have.
Full transcript