I appreciate that the systems that exist for examining PhD theses differ from place to place. In the US, candidates go through (what seems to me, at least) a very strange system of ‘quals’, research, defense, and thesis submission, and that’s only what I’ve learnt implicitly from reading PhD Comics. Then in Australia the examination is by reading only, meaning candidates never have a face-to-face oral examination (what you’d call a ‘viva’) and their thesis is read and graded on its own merits. This has both pros and cons, because although you never have the stress (and terror and anxiety and nervous breakdowns and jelly-like knees) that comes with experiencing an oral examination, you might have an equally uncomfortable time trying to perfect your thesis to the finest detail because you won’t get a chance to clarify or discuss anything in a meeting.

In the UK, PhD theses are examined by both reading and questioning. After thesis submission, usually in about 4 to 6 weeks, the examiners read and write independent preliminary reports on the thesis, and a date for a viva is then arranged. On the day of the viva, the candidate, the internal examiner and external examiner, and, depending on the regulations of the university, sometimes also the supervisor(s) and the Chair of examiners attend the meeting and both of the examiners question the candidate about different aspects of the thesis. Depending on how the examiners jointly evaluate both the thesis and the candidate’s performance at the viva, they then make a recommendation for the outcome of the examination (for example, for the candidate to pass, to pass with corrections, to be awarded an MPhil, or to fail). The university then approves the recommendation.

Because the examination panel most usually consists of one internal and one external examiner, this sets the candidate and supervisors the delightful task of locating, researching and successfully engaging an appropriate external examiner, given that the external examiner traditionally takes the ‘lead’ in the viva and has a bit more leverage in the final recommendation.

Establishing an external examiner isn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. Thinking in a straightforward way, you would simply find the person whose qualifications and theoretical expertise mostly closely matched your thesis and have them examine you, and the viva would be a straightforward, standardised procedure of observing whether you can explain and justify the points made in the thesis.

But of course, in the real world, it just doesn’t work like that. Finding examiners in the real world is an absurd, bordering-on-clinically-insane process involving intense background research, personality checks, cyberstalking, gossiping with former students, and attempting to approach them anonymously at conferences and other professional meetings to get an idea of their character. Yes, apparently many academics who are perfectly sane and normal in everyday life become savage, rabid thesis-gobbling monsters when put into a room opposite a cowering PhD candidate.


So now that I’ve got a few names on my list of externals, I’m in the process of doing intense background research for each of them, which is a professional way of saying I am cyberstalking them in every conceivable corner of the Internet to gain some picture of their likes and dislikes, and what strikes their fancy.

I am not insane. Postgraduate forums across the web report countless horror stories of candidates being eaten alive by overly harsh examiners, often because they and their supervisors just chose the wrong person.

Really, I am not mad.

So far, I have found out that my first choice for external likes Bob Dylan, cosmology, and intelligent science fiction. I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do with this information, since my thesis has nothing to do with Bob Dylan, cosmology, or intelligent science fiction (unless the research itself could be classed as intelligent science fiction, though personally I don’t think it’s that intelligent). So, I’m just going to note it all down and tell my supervisors about it and see what we come up with.

And I won’t even get started on the absurdity of the internal examiner. They sound like someone you’d expect to see in a gynaecologist’s office.