Many research students in Australia will be planning to submit their thesis next month. Let’s fast forward to that sweet moment you find out your examiners reports are back, or completed your Viva and been told you have passed. Congratulations! Time to ring up the bank and the passport office to get that long awaited ‘Dr’ in front of your name right?


You cannot use the title of Doctor until you graduate.

To graduate you must first get your thesis published in the university library. This involves submitting a ‘camera ready’ or complete copy of your thesis to the relevant administrators, who will then pass it to the librarians to catalogue. I’m writing this post because Laura left a message on the feedback forum asking questions and I realised I have never got around to talking about this aspect of the process.

When I started Whispering, about seven years ago, we used to lodge bound copies in the university library stacks. Now most universities have a public, online repository. This has been a great development; increased accessibility means increased relevance. But before your thesis can take its place there, you must attend to the changes that your examiners have suggested that you make to your thesis.

(If you are in the USA, you may want to stop reading now unless you are interested in what happens in other countries. What I have to say pertains to the Australian and UK system, and some other parts of the world, usually those who were formally colonies of the UK)

How many amendments you have to make will depend on how your thesis was categorised. In most universities I have worked or studied in there is a 5 point categorising system, with varying amounts of time allowed to make the amendments as follows:

  • Category One: no changes, around 2 weeks to submit final camera ready document to the online university repository
  • Category Two*: minor amendments, usually 6 weeks to submit
  • Category Three*: major amendments, mostly 3 months to submit
  • Category Four: revise and resubmit for examination, 1 year
  • Category Five: fail

*Primary supervisor has to approve the final version.

shredderThe categories I listed above are not a scoring system, despite what the numbers might suggest. A PhD is a pass or fail proposition; the scoring system is just a way of communicating how much change is needed before you can pass. In Australia you will get category Four before you get category Five, so you’ll have at least one year to pull yourself out of the hole if the examiners do not think you did a good enough job. Only 2% of research students, nationally, fail on their second attempt. To put this in perspective, as my old boss Denise Cuthbert used to say, with an average attrition rate of around 30% nationally, there’s far more risk of never completing than failure.

The examination process is full of ambiguity. One examiner might think problems with how you have numbered the footnotes means you should get a category two, but another might merely tell you to fix it and give you a category one. There’s no need to panic if you get category 1, 2 or 3 – your thesis can still be considered of high quality. I got category two for my PhD, but both examiners checked the ‘outstanding work’ box which made me feel better. I later won the faculty award for best thesis and was one of the runners up for the university prize (dammit!), so category two didn’t hold me back a bit.

Everyone who has amendments will find it disheartening, if not demoralising. But remember that the overwhelming majority of people have to do amendments of some sort. At RMIT, where I used to work, around 89% of people had to do changes suggested by the examiner before they could submit their camera ready document. Here are five suggestions if you get a Category Two or Three and have to negotiate changes with your supervisory team (I’ll write another post about category four because I think the issues are much more extreme for those who have to be re-examined).

1) Do it now, and as quickly as you can

You’ve probably waited up to 5 months for your exam results or the chance to do your Viva. By the time the reports come in life has moved on; you may have a new job or even be living in a new country. It can be hard to even open that document you sweated over and a time limit of a couple of months can seem both daunting and depressing. But just because you have a couple of months, doesn’t mean it will necessarily take that long. I’ve known people to work through category three amendments in less than a week. The category two changes on my PhD took a day of hard work. The trick is to do the bare minimum of the suggested changes, which leads me to my next point.

2) Work out which amendments you really have to make and which ones you will refuse to do

No one’s work is perfect, so swallow your pride and try to read the reports as objectively as you can – how many of these changes do you HAVE to make? The examiner is not the expert – you are; the report is a list of suggestions, not a shopping list. So take control and address only those concerns you think are important.

In a perfect world you will have a civilised meeting with your supervisors to discuss a plan of attack before you make substantive changes to your document. I should caution you, however, that there’s potential for conflict here. Some supervisors, particularly inexperienced ones, are under the impression that their job is to make sure you carry out every suggestion, no matter how ridiculous. Make yourself familiar with the regulations around examination so you can explain them if necessary.

3) Always make a cogent and well argued case for not taking up a suggestion from the examiners

You’ll need good reasons why you will not make a suggested amendment. Some reasons are more acceptable than others and the language you use is important. Never complain it will take too long; state how and why the changes suggested are impractical within the timeframe you have been given. I think you should resist, as far as you are able, any requests to collect more data. A thesis that honestly needs more data was poorly designed in the first place and should never have passed. If data is highlighted as an issue, suggest to your supervisor that you do more analysis or interpretation instead.

4) Summarise the changes as you go

Your supervisors will want to assess the changes you’ve made without reading through the whole thesis again. This is why it’s important to document the changes as you go in the form of a rejoinder. You might use a table with three columns  ‘suggestion’, ‘response’ and ‘page numbers’, itemising each change as you go. Alternatively you can arrange the suggested changes in themes, and make a written statement of the changes under each heading. This is what I did in attached PDF which is a response to Examiner comments on my own PhD. As you will see, it’s a formal document similar to the kind of document you write for journal editors when you have made changes to your article, but perhaps a bit more forceful.

5) Cross the T’s and dot the I’s

Usually you will submit a PDF to the repository, which might present some challenges to those who have video or other data which accompanies the written work. Check the instructions and get help from the library if you need to. Many universities require you to get copyright permission for any images or tables used in your thesis that you did not make yourself. This involves locating the original copyright holder and writing to them.

Getting copyright permission can take anywhere from 24 hours to never; sometimes even locating the original copyright holder can be tricky. I’ll do a post on this process in the near future, but I mention it here to highlight that there are a lot of small details you need to attend to before your thesis will be considered acceptable. I’ve known people to spend months, even up to a year, working on these details – such a waste of time.

I hope this cheat sheet helps you in the final stages. Are you about to complete and have questions about this process? I might not be able to answer all of them, but feel free to ask away in the comments. I’m hoping some of the experienced supervisors, whom I know read the blog, might chime in and help with advice and suggestions in addition to what I have written here.

Finally – best of luck with your submission!

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