Being an External Examiner for a doctorate

Sometimes it is a privilege to be a doctoral External Examiner, and sometimes it has a nightmarish quality. Today, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in a viva where years of hard work come together in a intense, illuminating discussion about research where everyone came away learning something. Your doctoral viva is a real opportunity to share your ideas with two people who have engaged with it. A good viva should allow both challenge and exploration of where do we go from here? Today, the student passed with just a few minor corrections, and I came away with a nagging feeling that there is a part of the leadership development literature that needs re-shaping away from a research base dominated by ( mostly male, white) academics from countries such as the UK and USA. Of course,O knew this before, but the student’s thesis made me re-thinking several aspects of the literature. He goes away with a doctorate, and I go away with two key thoughts. The first is that this viva was actually how it should be after x years of hard work, part or full time. It should be a powerful experience for the good. Often, however, the viva can be underwhelming or fraught. Underwhelming if the student, and the thesis, are either very poorly put together or extremely dull. Fraught if the other examiner and you have radically different opinions, or, as in one case, I was involved with, the student had an unrealistic opinion of the strengths of the work. I guess that’s why both students and examiners need to be clear about what each brings to the viva, and in experienced examiners do need mentoring.

I have another viva in the next few months. I have seen the abstract, but haven’t read the thesis yet. It looks like it could be another joy to examine. Let’s hope so, for my sake as well as the students.

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