7 Insights into the Mind of a Thesis Examiner

When you’re gearing up to submit your thesis, it’s natural to wonder about the examiners.

While the examination criteria for master’s and doctoral theses are spelt out in black and white, those criteria will be interpreted and applied by human examiners; and you will not know their identities in advance. They will have their own perspectives, backgrounds, and idiosyncrasies, all of which you cannot predict. During the entire thesis-writing journey, your examiners are shrouded in mystery. So how can you give yourself the best chance of impressing them?

Recently, I was fortunate to take part in a long conversation between a large and varied group of AUT thesis examiners. Not being an examiner myself, I was fascinated to listen in as they shared their perspectives on the art of examining a thesis, and what they appreciate (or don’t) in a student’s work. With the permission of the facilitators of that conversation, I’ve compiled some insights into examiners’ mind-sets.

Before we get into the good stuff, bear in mind: each examiner is different, and so the points given here will not represent the views of all examiners. Your particular examiners might not think this way. But these points could give you some insight into what it’s like on the other side of the examination process, and how you could generally tweak your thesis-writing to improve the odds of impressing your examiners.

OK, so what goes on inside the mind of an examiner?

Diagram of an examiners brain and its concerns: word count? Signposts. Outcomes? Research questions! Criteria.

1. Examiners generally give your thesis a lot of attention.

Examiners do typically take their roles very seriously. Those I listened to spoke of reading the thesis twice or even three times, and investing many days really considering and ruminating on the thesis. AUT academics undertake professional development to hone their examination skills, and inexperienced examiners have mentors to help them. In short: examining a thesis is not something that is done lightly.

2. Examiners use the criteria, and pay attention to their wording.

Examiners have to use the set examination criteria. These criteria are in the AUT Postgraduate Handbook. The master’s examination criteria (p.145-8) are comprehensive, and give descriptive phrases demonstrating the standard of work required for each grade range. The doctoral examination criteria (p.126) are more concise, consisting of just six bullet-points guiding examiners as they determine a recommended outcome.

Examiners are given the criteria in their briefing pack – so regardless of whether the examiner is internal or external to the university, they’ll have the same information in front of them. However, the criteria are subjective and quite broad (as they have to be, to accommodate the needs of different disciplines). This means that there is an element of individual interpretation in how examiners read and apply the criteria.

The examiners I spoke with were deeply attuned to the precise wording of the criteria. They expressed a preference to closely read keywords in the criteria for clues as to how they should apply them.

For example, in the master’s examination criteria, the following phrases describe the standards of subject knowledge required:

  • Grade range A – “Sound knowledge of the subject area.”
  • Grade range B – “Good overall knowledge of the subject area.”
  • Grade range C – “Satisfactory overall knowledge of subject area.”

You can see that these descriptions vary mainly in the first words: sound (A grade) vs. good (B grade) vs. satisfactory (C grade) knowledge. Examiners will typically consider these word meanings quite closely, and will draw on their prior experience of reading theses at the same level to determine what they view as sound, or good, or satisfactory. That means that, although you do not directly compete with other research students, your examiner will use their sense of other students’ thesis quality to benchmark the level of your work. (If you want to read other theses, you can browse the selection in AUT’s research repository Tuwhera.)

There are no set weightings or percentages given to each criterion. But although the criteria are not weighted, they are interrelated. For example, a strong literature review can improve the whole thesis, because it can inform and underpin the entire document. While each criterion is assessed individually, examiners also consider the whole thesis (and its internal consistency) when they draft their reports. Each component of the thesis needs to contribute to a cohesive whole. For Format Two theses (by publication) – this means that examiners will closely consider how your manuscripts are linked together.

3. Examiners typically ask the same questions of every thesis.

Given that examiners are marking to criteria, they use those to shape what they look for in a thesis. But the examiners I spoke with shared many phrases and questions that they keep front-of-mind as they read. These questions generally align with the examination criteria, and they also shed light on how examiners use those criteria.

Examiners want to know:

  • Has the student clearly stated their intentions and justifications for the study?
  • How is this research grounded in existing literature? What are its foundations?
  • What are the research questions?
  • Has this research been conducted in a sound and diligent way? Have the methods been well-explained?
  • Is the methodology appropriate and does it allow for the research question(s) to be addressed?
  • Why is this research important? What contribution does it make to the field of study or discipline?

The examiners I spoke wanted these points to be addressed clearly. These are crucial questions, and examiners don’t want to have to hunt for the answers.

4. Examiners want to have an easy time reading (and following) the thesis.

Many examiners spoke of the way the student guides them through the thesis via their writing. They used different terms – some spoke of ‘signposting’; others of ‘traffic lights’; some talked of having the student ‘hold their hand’ or provide a ‘hook’ early in the thesis to help them understand what they’re reading from the outset. Whatever they call it, examiners typically love it when you make it easy for them to follow your thinking.

They spoke of their deep appreciation for theses that are written with the reader’s comprehension and convenience in mind. For example, if you are transitioning from one point to another, you might explicitly state something like: “I’ve discussed A, now I’ll address B.” If you’re referring to another part of your thesis, you might note: “see the graph on p.94.” One examiner spoke of their delight at finding a comprehensive and well-organised table of contents to guide their journey through the thesis. These are simple things, but they make it easy for examiners to navigate your work.

Many examiners develop their own tactics for how they approach a thesis. One popular strategy is to read the first and final chapter together, to gain an overall impression of the thesis; and only then to read the whole thing. But regardless of their approach, examiners don’t want to struggle to understand your points. Those I spoke with agreed that clarity is key. If they don’t understand your writing after a third read, there’s a serious problem.

5. Examiners grade a thesis according to its level.

The examiners I spoke to talked at length about the differences in their expectations of a doctoral thesis versus a master’s thesis. Of course, the difference in levels is formalised in the different marking criteria for each type of thesis. But examiners often use their own experience and judgement to assess the appropriate standard for each type of thesis.

In a doctoral thesis, examiners need to see an original contribution to knowledge – this is, after all, the defining characteristic of doctoral research. The examiners I spoke with talked of appreciating ‘intellectual guts’ in the work, and wanting to see evidence that the candidate has read everything in their immediate niche area. The doctorate is the highest form of research degree, and the last hurdle before becoming a professional researcher (if that is the candidate’s path); so a doctoral thesis needs to be of a high (but not Nobel-worthy) standard.

By contrast, examiners seem to accept that a master’s thesis is a research output with the training wheels on. Those I listened to expressed that they don’t expect to see professional-level competence in a master’s thesis. They also didn’t expect master’s students to have read everything – to have read widely, sure, but not exhaustively. They recognised that in the shorter word count of a master’s thesis, there simply isn’t room to cover everything relevant to a topic.

6. Examiners don’t care about your word count (unless it’s bloated).

There are formal university rules for thesis word counts, and obviously you need to follow those. But do examiners care about word count? Those I talked with said: no. They want to see quality content, written in a clear and balanced way. However, if your word count is huge because you haven’t written concisely, that is a problem. Wordy waffle is unpleasant to examine.

7. Examiners can appreciate research that doesn’t go as planned.

Your research doesn’t have to go exactly as planned in order for you to write a good thesis. Sometimes data throws up something unexpected, or a method doesn’t work as you anticipated. Sometimes your research may show that your hypotheses aren’t supported – what scientists term ‘null results.’ Null results can often be disappointing, but they are still worthwhile. The examiners I spoke with agreed that research which hasn’t gone as planned can still be written up into an excellent thesis. What examiners did want to see in these circumstances was an element of critical self-reflection. They wanted to see that the student was thinking about why the process or results were not as expected, and how they could learn or grow from the experience.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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