5 ways to fail your PhD

In Australia most theses are examined through blind peer review. Other countries have different ways of doing examination, but in every system judgment of any PhD is the job of a small group of experts. This is an assessment process unlike any other in academe and it pays to make yourself familiar with it.

You’ll be pleased to know that people have spent time studying how examiners read a thesis and what sort of document they expect you to deliver. The seminal paper is “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experience examiners assess research theses” (2002) by Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley. I consider this paper required reading for every research student, regardless of their location or discipline. There’s a lot I could say about this paper. In fact I have been talking about this paper for about 5 years in one of my On Track Workshops “What do examiners really want?”, where I spend two hours examining it in detail (there’s sessions coming up next week for students at RMIT – check your email!).

As you can imagine this is one of our more popular sessions, but I must admit I’m beginning to feel like one of those aged rock stars. Although the audience expects it, I don’t want to sing a straight version of my hit wonder from the 1980s. I want to sing songs from my new album. So here I turn around my normal presentation of the paper. If Mullins and Kiley are right about how examiners examine – what are 5 things you could do if you really wanted to fail (or at least be asked to do major revisions)?

1. Don’t talk to your supervisor about who you think should examine your thesis

I am located in the School of Graduate Research, who manage the examination process, so I get to read a lot of examiner reports and see the occasional complaint go by. Far and away the most common complaint is that the examiner didn’t understand what the student was trying to do. Usually this means there’s some kind of disagreement about method and how the student has handled (or not) validity, reliability and so on.

You don’t have to know exactly who the examiners are, but you do need to know if the supervisor is thinking about the right kinds of people. There aren’t too many academics who are truly broadminded. It’s best if you have someone who will be sympathetic to your methodology.

Sometimes supervisors take the confidential nature of the examination process seriously and may brush off your attempts to have a conversation about what sort of people they have in mind. However most universities, including ours, include an option for you to send a list of people who would not be appropriate. In my opinion every student should send a list of inappropriate people to their supervisor – if only for the record.

Just in case ok? Humour me.

2. Send your thesis to someone who has never examined a thesis before

Mullins and Kiley found that even more than methodological orientation, the amount of experience the examiner has matters. This probably makes sense to those of you who teach. Young teachers tend to have high expectations because they haven’t had time to see the full range of student abilities out there. The longer you teach, the more forgiving you become because for every new student you encounter, you have probably seen another who was worse. Some people can be nervous about sending their thesis to the world’s expert in *blah*, but they are exactly the sort of people you should be aiming for.

3. Write your introduction first

One of the most interesting and useful observations Mullins and Kiley made is that most examiners don’t read your thesis like it’s a novel – starting at the beginning and reading through to the end. Shocked? I was the first time I read this, but then I reflected on the last academic book which I read from start to finish… and I couldn’t think of one. Academic texts are  dense, difficult, cumbersome beings at the best of times and a thesis is even worse.

Most examiners read the abstract, introduction and the conclusion to see what the work is about and then look in the references, so you should write these last – or rather rewrite them at the end. Any questions you raise in the introduction should be answered in the conclusion. If these parts act as righteous ‘bookends’ the examiner will form a better impression of you as a scholar – and is likely to  be more forgiving of you if you slip up a bit in the middle parts.

4. Write a bad literature review

Oh boy. Where do I start? There are so many ways to write a bad literature review that it deserves a few posts on its own. 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 (LBD). In thesis land the LBD is a simple, but competent run through of the major authors with a thread of an argument running through the whole. The argument should be connected to why you are bothering to do the study. It’s up to you of course, you can be more daring, but I would stop short of trying to be Lady Gaga.

5. Don’t let anyone else do your copy editing

Mullins and Kiley note that across all disciplines examiners report being put off  by ‘sloppiness’. Yep – typos, missed footnotes, badly formatted bibliographies and so on. 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. I’m not sure how much it costs to get a copy editor – but most universities will allow you to employ one under certain guidelines. If not, do a lot of favours for a grammar enabled friend and ask them to perform the duty for you. It’s hard to see the mistakes in your own work on the 700th read

I’d be happy to have a discussion in the comments section about fears and questions relating to examiners and examination – and a special shout out to all the RMIT students due to submit at the end of March!

*Update: Later Mr Thesis Whisperer found another 3 mistakes in this copy, other than intentionally missing full stop. That’s why I made him read my masters thesis :-)

Related posts

Learning from ‘Avatar’

The ‘It’s time’ talk

The dead hand of the Thesis Genre

24 thoughts on “5 ways to fail your PhD

  1. “It’s hard to see the mistakes in your own work on the 700th read”

    Point well made with the missing full stop :)

    But this is so true. I’m on the n-th revision of my thesis now and wouldn’t know the white elephant if there was one.

  2. Such excellent advice. But wait – there’s more! Kiley and Mullins also wrote another paper about inexperienced examiners: Kiley, M., & Mullins, G. (2004). Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41, 121-135. Even more reason to make sure that at least one of your examiners is well-versed in the kind of work you are doing. And, yes, get your thesis read by someone who knows what good writing is (apart from your supervisor). I just read my daughter’s Honours thesis that had been copyedited, and found four small unimportant errors, but also one place where she’d left out a ‘not’ (potentially serious for a major claim!) Luckily she sent it to me before submission.

  3. Wow thank you Inger for this post, so many important points as I am in that stage.

    I really have no idea who should Not read my thesis. It would be difficult to make a list, it will probably be random. I’ve been thinking to trust my supervisors to decide.

    By the way, is the workshop for RMIT students only?

    Many thanks

    • I’m afraid so – the powers that be seem to approve of this public blog, but they’d probably draw the line at inviting others in to teaching spaces. However you might find your uni already does a similar session.

  4. Re: Point 2

    I think you’ll find that it’s actually a requirement for at least one of the examiners to have previously examined an Australian PhD thesis before. This has been a requirement set out by the Graduate Research School at both of the Australian universities I have worked at.

    • We don’t have that requirement, for a good reason – our university has a number of disciplines which are emerging research areas. Art, media comm, design etc. There are not a lot of ppl who are available to examine anyway so we can’t reduce the pool. Part if that discipline’s job in developing a research culture is to develop expertise in examination. In our uni a lot of care and attention is paid to this. Part of the way these disciplines mentor new examiners is to invite them to milestone presentations in the school so they have a chance to get a feel for the range of students they might encounter.

  5. Thanks for this post. Seems like I’m doing the appropriate thing with delaying my introduction, abstract and discussion and conclusions to the end. However, the first thing you recommend not doing depends on the university (or perhaps country).

    At the university I’m doing my PhD (in The Netherlands), there’s not really an examination. For my thesis, me and my supervisor agreed on two committees. The first is involved in the writing process, and gives feedback, comments, improvements, indicates gaps, etc. This should lead to a draft thesis that’s near perfect. This draft is then send to the defense committee which will have to say if this thesis is worthy of defending. If so (and I never heard it wasn’t, otherwise your supervisor shouldn’t have send it out), you can prepare for print. This defense committee is not selected by my as PhD student, but by my supervisor. However, I do have a say. I can recommend a few researchers and discuss if they are appropriate. The final selection is made by my supervisor. The fact that we can talk about the defense committee also means I can pay specific attention to the “frock”, as you perfectly described. I can make sure I involve these authors in my literature study.

    • Yes – I should have made the point more clearly that the systems are very different. I am aware of the processes in your country and I admire their thoroughness – and fairness. Ours tends to privilege the myth that the PhD is a ‘solo’ effort which supposedly produces an ‘independent scholar’. Sometimes it works and other times…

  6. Oh dear….every time I read one of your posts I realise how bloody inadequate and warped my PhD experience ended up being….

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