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Examples of examiners' reports

  • Come along an view some Real, Live Examiner's Reports -- in toto!

Otherwise, here's a bit from Craswell, G. and Poore, M. (2012) Writing for Academic Success, 2nd edition. SAGE: London.

The information in this section is taken from examiners’ reports, to which one of the authors of this book had access, and which were used in an in-depth pilot study done by Brigid Ballard (1995). The study analysed examiners’ reports for 62 PhD theses. Each thesis had three external examiners, who were both national and international. The study covered reports from six disciplines – English and History in the humanities; Anthropology and Political Science in the social sciences; and Botany and Zoology in the life sciences.

This was a small, localized study (see also, the expanded study by Holbrook et al., 2004). It nevertheless has broader value in terms of generic quality indicators, to be augmented by disciplinary indicators, as advised by your supervisor; and some value too for theses other than PhDs. Examiners’ commentary may also prove insightful if your thesis is to be examined by way of a viva or oral, a subject explored fully by Murray (2003). Engaging generic practices noted and valued by examiners will surely aid you in communication of your research.

Overall quality and contribution to scholarship
Among thesis qualities most commonly valued was the capacity to contribute innovatively. In the life sciences this was often communicated along the lines of an incremental advance on a commonly recognized problem, with summary comments like the following:
  • ‘Pioneering work’ – ‘stimulating’ – ‘breaks new ground’ – ‘important and valuable contribution to knowledge’ – ‘major piece of original research’ – ‘offers significant and useful insights’ – ‘advances scientific knowledge’ – ‘tackled problems difficult though intriguing to scientists’

Similar comments appear for theses in the humanities and social sciences:
  • ‘… develops diverse and original methods which should exert an influence on other scholarship in the field.’ ‘This is a major piece of original research.’
  • ‘… a major contribution both to ethnography and to social theory.’
  • ‘This thesis is an important contribution to the history of the domestic economy in X [country named], to women’s history and to the agricultural history of X.’
  • ‘This thesis breaks new ground that will, I think, prove to be significant to the scholarship in the area.’
  • ‘As an original contribution to knowledge ... this thesis qualifies twice over.’

In assessing the nature of the contribution, examiners also considered ‘justification’ for the research undertaken, the importance of the ‘questions’ being addressed and ‘issues’ canvassed; the capacity to relate research concerns to those of the broader discipline; and the grounding of the research in the relevant scholarship.

Whether there was a formal, separate review of the literature or not, thorough knowledge and critical understanding of the relevant literature was extremely important to examiners, engendering such comments as:
  • ‘Takes account of all relevant literature’ – ‘close critical review of others’ investigations’ – ‘relates findings fully and forcefully to extant literature’ – ‘judicious use of a wide range of sources’
  • But, more critically:
  • ‘failure to review and take up relevant literature across disciplines’ – ‘appears not to be fully conversant with the literature’

Evidence of publication in quality journals was highly regarded by examiners in the life sciences in assessing the overall quality of a thesis. Examiners in the humanities and social sciences also considered, and provided advice on, publication, either as journal articles or as monographs, but did not attribute the same importance to there being existing publications from the thesis in assessing overall quality, though this may have changed in subsequent years.

Scope, viability of topic, breadth and depth of study
Examiners were also concerned about the appropriateness of the chosen topic for the level of a PhD and the time frame:
  • ‘To tackle such a topic is clearly to undertake a task “involving a comprehensive study of a scope and size that could normally be expected to be completed in the equivalent of 3 years full-time study”.’ [This latter quote is taken directly from the university instructions sent to examiners.]
  • ‘The candidate has identified a viable topic, researched it with appropriate techniques and methodology, and reached results with care and clarity rarely accomplished by a doctoral candidate.’
  • ‘… although “viable”, the topic is also extremely difficult to address.’

Some topics were clearly thought beyond the scope of a PhD, and others not viable:
  • ‘Neither the supervisor nor the student seem to recognize that they were tackling a major problem that was probably too difficult.’
  • ‘This is a monumental thesis involving, in my view, too much effort for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.’
  • ‘Undoubtedly, the thesis adds an appreciable amount of detail to what is already known ...Yet it is doubtful whether the material is significant enough to warrant a reference to the thesis in any future publication ... It may be that this is not the candidate’s fault. Assiduous though the research has been, it is possible that material of the desired significance is simply not there to be found.’

Examiners further took account of the breadth and depth appropriate for a PhD, sometimes commenting on the scope and quality of the bibliography or list of references in the process of determination.

Research techniques and methodologies, results, discussions, analyses and arguments
The importance attributed by examiners in the life sciences to competence in research techniques and procedures is evident in the following summary remarks:
  • ‘Has mastered a diversity of procedures’ – ‘high technical expertise’ – ‘displays competence in the variety of techniques’ – ‘demonstrates acquisition of the art and techniques of research science’ – ‘maturity of scientific approach’ – ‘employed intelligently a wide range of current techniques’ – ‘used a range of experimental techniques with great effectiveness’ – ‘data analysed by appropriate statistical methods’ – ‘well designed piece of research’
  • But also this:
  • ‘Each of the other topics investigated in the thesis are at a low level of technical expertise and not carried through to conclusions.’

Many examiners from the life sciences complimented students on the quality of their data and the logical rigour of their discussions. For example:
  • ‘Good solid empirical data’ – ‘data suggests careful observation’ – ‘careful selection of data for presentation’ – ‘the logical rigour of the discussions is extremely impressive’ – ‘logical and systematic throughout’
  • The more negative comments tended to be of this type:
  • ‘... too often prepared to reach firm conclusions in the light of insufficient data.’ ‘... there are observations in the Discussion that were not mentioned in the Results.’
  • ‘... gets caught up in the minutiae of the results and has failed to highlight the significance of many of his findings.’

These reports suggest you need to be realistic about the importance of your results – grand speculations are not appreciated. You will also need to draw out the significance of the results in the discussion section, and their implications, as doing this was thought essential by examiners.

Examiners of theses in the humanities and social sciences were no less careful in their scrutiny of analyses and arguments, with many praising and detailing evidence of ‘critical thought’ (or remarking on the lack thereof). One noted ‘the subtlety and brilliance of analysis’ in a thesis; others commented as follows:
  • ‘The whole thesis is vigorously argued. It is one of the strengths of this work that it repeatedly provokes argument and, indeed, invites debate throughout the text.’
  • ‘The structuring of the argument is, indeed, one of the most reassuring and impressive aspects of the thesis.’
  • ‘The quality of the analysis is excellent throughout – the present work represents a well researched, well argued study.’
  • ‘The author almost always appears aware of alternative explanations and [the] reasoning is frequently ingenious.’
But also:
  • ‘The first two models are in danger of functioning as straw men in the argument …’

There was also this type of comment, which highlights the value examiners attributed to overall coherence:
  • ‘The connecting discussion throughout the thesis is almost always clear and intelligent.’
  • ‘The weakness of the thesis lies in its inability to maintain a common thread of argument throughout what is a very long and detailed piece of work.’

Where theory was an important consideration, this too was carefully assessed. One examiner praised the candidate’s awareness of ‘alternative theories and explanations’; another, the ‘theoretical sophistication’ of the study; and yet another, the ‘creative’ and ‘rigorous’ use of theory in the thesis under examination.

The importance of ‘sound’ methodology and its careful application in context was another vital consideration for many theses, as was ‘clear definition of concepts’ – one examiner displaying considerable annoyance because of a student’s failure to define seminal concepts.