Macau Matters | Doctoral examinations

Richard Whitfield

My nomination as an external examiner for a Doctoral dissertation was recently rejected because I had previously worked at the university involved. This annoyed me quite a bit because I enjoy examining Doctoral research and the rationale behind the rejection is vaguely insulting, and so this article is a bit of a rant on the topic.

A Doctorate is the highest level of formal university education and to achieve it a candidate must rigorously complete a substantial research project that yields “new knowledge”. In this work, which typically takes 4-6 years, the candidate is mentored by a university supervisor. At the end of the project the candidate must defend the project work to an examination panel, which includes the supervisor, some internal examiners from within the university and at least one external examiner from outside the university. Typically, a candidate’s written research report (which is usually 250+ pages) is given to the examiners to read and then (s)he orally presents the work and answers probing questions from the examiners who are looking for flaws and problems with the study.

I have successfully supervised 3 Doctoral projects and have been a university examiner for 4 others and an external examiner for a further 6 others. I have also supervised and examined hundreds of Master dissertations, which are usually “mini” Doctoral projects that only take 6 months and do not have to yield “new knowledge”. Based on well known academic regulations and standards, their own past experiences and through examination panel discussions, supervisors and examiners maintain the academic quality of Doctoral research projects. External examiners are essential in this by ensuring that academic standards are maintained between universities.

Examination panel selection is very important for all Doctoral projects. You need examiners who are technically familiar with the research field and with the required academic standards and who will give the candidate a “fair go”. Generally, supervisors will not submit a Doctoral project for assessment unless they feel it meets the standards. This is often tested by publishing parts of the work in peer reviewed research journals before the examination. And normally, examination panels will not let an oral defense go ahead unless the project has a strong chance of passing, and may require extra work to be done in preparation. And, when a project is deemed to not reach the required standards in an oral defense, the examination panel usually instructs the candidate on what must be done to improve the work and will only then allow it to be resubmitted for assessment.

As a supervisor I have required candidates to do more work before submitting their research for assessment, co-authored research publications based in the work done by Doctoral (and Master) candidates, and helped candidates with research dissertation editing and oral presentation preparation. As an examiner I have also counseled supervisors and candidates to do more work before resubmitting.

Most Doctoral candidates need to make minor corrections to their work, and some may need major revisions but outright failures are very rare – examination systems are designed to avoid them because they reflect very badly on the university, the supervisor, the examination panel and the candidate. In this system totally unknown participants can be very risky and so virtually all Doctoral examiners have some prior relationship with the field of research, the university and/or the supervisor. An examiner that does not like the work, is out of sync with the rest of the examination panel, does not understand the regional quality standards and will not listen to reason can do a lot of damage to the career of a candidate, the supervisor and the university. In my recent case the university concerned has “shot itself in the foot” and, for the candidate’s sake, I hope they do not live to regret their decision to exclude me.

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