The wildcard of examination

In Australia, your PhD thesis is examined by a blind peer review process. This can produce mixed results, as we will hear in this story. Joanne Doyle is a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Toowoomba, Australia. Joanne’s research explores academic perspectives on the impact of higher education research. Prior to embarking on doctoral studies, Joanne was the Research Proposal and Project Manager for USQ’s Australian Digital Futures Institute. Joanne has a strong project management background and has worked across a range of sectors including mining, retail, service and education.

Without being too dramatic or self-pitying, it would be fair to say that I have endured more than my fair share of challenges during my PhD candidature.

Along the way, I lost two supervisors, was hospitalised three times, and was made redundant from my work role just prior to finalising a full draft of the thesis. But I had worked hard, and I truly believed that the spiritual principle of karma would ensure that I sailed through examination.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. For reasons outside my control, there were issues selecting examiners for my thesis, causing further disruption to my PhD journey and the process of examination. After spending three and a half years working towards submission, I found another delay to be almost unbearable. But not to worry. Encouraged by my faith in karma, I remained optimistic about the final stages of my doctoral journey.

Eventually I received my examination reports. To say they were polar opposites is no exaggeration. The first examiner judged my work to be “an exemplary thesis… one of the most outstanding pieces of doctoral research I have had pleasure to examine”. He further noted that “the thesis fulfils and then exceeds in most aspects standard requirements of doctoral enquiry”.

On the other hand, the second examiner criticised all aspects of the research, suggesting that the thesis did not demonstrate the skills expected at doctoral level.

The disparity of comments continued throughout the examination reports. The literature review was assessed as both “particularly impressive” (Examiner 1) and “superficial” (Examiner 2). My research design was deemed to be “well justified” (Examiner 1) and yet “a major flaw” (Examiner 2). The thesis was praised for evidencing “strong analytical and conceptual skills” (Examiner 1) and criticised for a lack of “balance and rigour” (Examiner 2). The candidate demonstrated an “ability to delve deep into research inquiry” (Examiner 1) to make an original contribution to knowledge that was high quality. The same candidate displayed limited understanding of the subject matter and was “misinformed” (Examiner 2).

And so I am left with major revisions.

Colleagues have told me that major revisions is a common outcome, and that students will often receive one positive review and one negative review. I understand it’s all part of the process of becoming an academic, and getting used to the system of peer-review and rejection that is so commonplace in seeking publication in prestigious academic journals. I am told it is necessary to have a “thick skin” to survive in this sector.

But I don’t want a life of harsh criticism. I don’t want to develop a discouraged and jaded personality. I am an early stage researcher – albeit with a few lines and some grey hairs – and I want my research to make a difference in the world. I aspire to contribute to the body of knowledge, and I need to believe in myself and the value of my research in order to achieve that. And yet, I am disillusioned by the system that assesses my research – where opinions can be so disparate – and I am annoyed that the perceptions of one individual can have such significant repercussions for another.

Perhaps I am a little more passionate about contemporary processes than others may be. After all, the focus of my doctoral research was exploring perceptions of impact (and I do appreciate the irony of my current predicament!) However, I am still reeling from such diametrically opposed feedback. I know one examiner was complimentary of my research, but I don’t think about him or her very much.

I focus on the second examiner.

I want to meet this person so I can put a face to the comments. Despite conjecture that young examiners are the harshest critics, I picture this person to be a grumpy older academic disgruntled by life. It helps me somewhat as I battle to synthesise the feedback.

It is really hard to read such scathing criticism of something you have nurtured and loved for over three years. In my moment of desperation, I turned to the Thesis Whisperer. I have followed the Thesis Whisperer throughout my PhD journey, and found solace in posts such as The Valley of Shit, and I’m Writing a Book No One Will Read. I typed “examination” into the search box, and was directed to Surviving A PhD Disaster which linked to What To Do When Your Thesis is Rejected by the Examiners. It was comforting to read that I was not alone in my predicament.

But it was the post 4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis that really helped me. In this post, the Thesis Whisperer provides a succinct assessment of the examination grading process: “It’s not really a grade, but an indication of how much work needs to be done; from not very much to rather a lot”. I wish I had read this post earlier as it changed my perspective.

I re-read the examination reports, and the recommended revisions became bearable, even logical, improvements. I have committed to make the changes before the end of this year, guided once again by the Thesis Whisperer and the suggestions in Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind).

It’s not easy to share examination feedback. However, writing this post has been cathartic for me. The act of articulating my anguish has helped me to accept my current dilemma. But, my reason for writing this post is far greater. I want to share my examination experience to help other students that tread this path after me, and to give back in some small way to the Thesis Whisperer blog, as an expression of my gratitude for being there when I have needed you most. But I must go now. I have an estimated four months of major revisions ahead of me!

Post-script: It took me three months to revise the thesis. Although I was despondent at the prospect of more work, I am now grateful for the feedback provided by the two examiners, and I have an increased respect for the peer-review process. In making changes to the thesis, I gained a better understanding of my research, and I was able to rationalise the harsh criticism that my thesis had received. I also developed skills in patience, perseverance and humility. The most valuable lessons are often learned during the hardest times. I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks Joanne! Do you have an examination story to tell? Love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

4 Things You Should Know About Choosing Examiners for your Thesis

Doing Your Amendments Without Losing Heart (or Your Mind)

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10 thoughts on “The wildcard of examination

  1. Dear Dr Mewburn,
    Thank you so much for this latest blog. I too have just sent off my first complete draft to my supervisor, and I am very disappointed with it as it is not anywhere near the required word limit. The confirmation document was strong and I am so co concerned about this next stage. I have had supervisor changes due to retirement and that then lead to days analysis changes which had them led to revisiting methodology etc etc. I am a part time student so I have been at this for 6 years so I expected more. My thesis is mixed method- not what I would have chosen as a music educator, but I had such a great first supervisor who convinced me that this was the way to go, but now this is not the area of my current supervisor. Thankfully we found another supervisor to com onto my team who had been very helpful but I just wish this had happened a year ago. Anyway, I am going to need to apply for another extension. I am a performer and a good teacher , but writing doesn’t come easy to me.
    Anyway, thanks for this blog, I find you very insightful and enlightening- how lucky are the students who work with you!
    Thanks for taking the time to read this.
    Best wishes
    Disheartened doctoral candidate

  2. In NZ, there are 3 examiners (one internal to either the department or home university; one based elsewhere in NZ; and one international examiner – Australia can be either international or domestic external). The candidate also has a convenor – it is the convenor’s role to manage wildly conflicting examiner’s reports by calling a meeting of the examiners in order to gain consensus across all three. It’s not a blind review process, except the candidate does not know who the examiners are until the viva. The situation described in this blog would be very rare, thankfully.

    • I am thankful for the NZ system. Not only does having 3 examiners mitigate against these kinds of problems, our examiners also become academic referees and valuable contacts. Although I was VERY stressed leading up to the oral exam, it went very smoothly and I ended up passing with no emendations. I met the convenor beforehand to see the room and go through the process, I had the option of doing a mock viva if I wanted, and I got the exam reports shortly before the exam to help prepare, and 2 supervisors were in the exam with me. After, we all went out to lunch together (examiners, supervisors, convenor and me).

  3. I had a similar experience – two very positive/no-change reviews, and one luke-warm one. In my case it was quite easy to deduce that the tepid reviewer was an emeritus OWM. In words previously dedicated to an ex-supervisor, “yes, OWM, this thesis was not for you” ( http://onefishtofish.com/2015/12/my-space/ ) . I do regret rushing through the corrections a bit – there were still some typos and other silly mistakes, but I was well and truly exhausted and exasperated with the whole thing. I guess that carries its own authenticity!

  4. At my university you have to do an upgrade examination partway through your PhD to confirm that you are likely to complete successfully. I failed this the first time, because the examiners wanted me to adopt a particular theoretical framework for my research. I made a fairly robust argument in my viva that it was totally inappropriate for my research, but they were insistent that I had to do it or be asked to leave the course and accept an MPhil instead. I dutifully rewrote my thesis and revised my research plan to account for this new framework. Earlier this year, I submitted my revised thesis, only to be told at my viva by my examiners that it was a totally inappropriate framework to choose for my research and that they were thinking of failing me! Mercifully, I passed with major revisions, but I am immensely frustrated with the inconsistent message, especially because one of the examiners was present at both vivas and had apparently forgotten that he had insisted on it in the first place.

    I am writing up my major corrections at present, but my overall PhD journey would be been shortened by about 18 months if this theoretical framework change had never happened in the first place.

  5. One bad review? That’s a major improvement on my experience. I copped two vociferous objections. And that was just the first time. Examiner B was a standard ‘do A, do B etc’ but Examiner A had a virtual vendetta against my thesis producing 14 pages of vitriolic bile spewing most of which was in demonstrable contravention to the academic literature. On top of that, my advisor abandoned me as soon as I said I wanted to do the revisions and re-submit then spent the next six months trying to discourage me leading to a necessary change of supervision. Prior to submitting he had been supportive and even wanted me to write a proposal for a book series he and friend were trying to launch. I suspect there was more to the story re politics and the sway of Examiner A than I’ll ever really know.

    The disparity in the examiners was proven when, after re-submission, Examiner B said all good and Examiner A produced another 14 pages of vitriol all of which was completely different to the original. So contrary to all the times I’d been told ‘They can’t raise new issues’ I now had to do another round of revisions thankfully only to the satisfaction of the school. Thankfully thought I until I found out the then-RHD overseer for the school was friends with Examiner A…

    That’s just a truncated version of what was in effect an 18 month ordeal. But, being a jaded rouge convinced of the worth of my work I persisted even in the face of increasing opposition. Since then the thesis became a book and I’m still continuing down my research path.

    Never give-up, never surrender, kiddies.

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