Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thesis Examination at ANU

Greetings from the Australian National University where Margaret Kiley iS speaking on "Everything you ever wanted to know about thesis examination, but were too afraid to ask". She explained that the thesis is just the end of a process which starts with the entry process. Previously at least a first class honors, or equivalent, was required for a PHD. There are now students who are ready to learn, but may not have this background.

ANU has "Research Theses Submission and Examination: Information for Higher Degree Research Students". The engineering college of ANU is an example of a detailed step by step process for a PHD, with Progress Milestones.ANU also allows a "Thesis by Compilation".

Dr. Kiley described a European approach where the candidate has to publicly defend their work, with anyone able to ask a question. Under the UK system students are asked questions in a "viva", with external experts asking questions in a closed group. Canada has an external expert assessing the thesis, followed by a small group asking questions  (I am a Canadian distance education student, where the questions are asked on-line). In Australia only the written thesis is examined by two or three anonymous examiners. I asked Margaret f there were any universities which conduct a double blind process (the examiners do not know who the candidate is, as well as students not knowing the candidate), she didn't and argued that the examiners knowing who the candidate is a good thing.

One aspect which worries me is that the examiner is paid only a token few hundred dollars to examine a thesis, when the work required would cost thousands of dollars. Margaret explained that the examiner does the job not for the money, but as a reciprocal arrangement and because they then have access to detailed new research. It would seem to me the result will be that only salaried academics (and full time researchers) will therefore be able to be examiners. It would be prohibitively expensive for someone who is paid by the hour to spend a week examining a thesis for a few hundred dollars. Also this process of favors may not meet the requirements of ethical standards. Universities in several Australian states are subject investigation against commissions against corruption. The situation where academics trade flavors with supposedly independent examiners may be seen as corrupt.

ANU currently has no set period for examiners to return their comments (four to six weeks looks reasonable).  One enhancement which could be made to the ANU system would be for the degree to be conferred electronically as soon as the student has met all requirements. This would allow the student to receive their degree weeks, or months, earlier. The award ceremony with gowns and pieces of paper could still be held, but this should not hoold up awarding of the degree.

Event Details

The examination process is one of the least discussed aspects of research candidature. Candidates and supervisors are often so busy getting research done they spare little time for thinking about the examination process until the very end. There is a surprising amount of literature on how examiners approach and respond to thesis text which can be a rich source of information about how to write one in the first place. In this session Margaret Kiley, author of the seminal paper It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize discusses her research on the issue and the subsequent research that has been conducted.
How does the Australian examination process work and how does the examination of ANU PhDs stand up to international best practice?
Why do people fail or asked to do major corrections?
How can supervisors better prepare candidates for thesis submission and the examination process and what can ANU do to help?

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