When Examiners Disagree

Your examiners have to reach a decision, but it may be that they don’t agree on everything. It could be that one likes a particular idea or experiment or conclusion in your thesis and the other doesn’t. It may be that they can just work it out before they meet with you, but it could be the case that you have examiners who disagree with each other about something in the viva.

What do you do?

  • First: listen and let them lay out their positions. You may have strong feelings for a topic, but let them talk first and see whether this is something you actually need to respond to. They may just be expressing different opinions, it may not be disagreement.
  • Second: be sure of what you are responding to before you respond. If someone doesn’t like something, ask why. If they are vague, ask for details. Be clear and then respond as best you can. You don’t have to take sides, you just have to explain what you think.
  • Third: if discussion results in corrections, get as much clarity as possible to see what’s involved. If there is disagreement about corrections between examiners, ask again for clarity.

Remember: it is not your job to resolve disagreements between your examiners. They’re professionals: expect them to be professional.

Wait for them to clearly state their points, then do what you can to engage with them and find out what (if anything) you have to do as a result.

Why Not?

Make a quick list, five things you wanted to do during your PhD, but didn’t. Perhaps you had wanted to explore a certain topic, but didn’t, or maybe you wanted to attend a conference but couldn’t.

Why not?

Examine your list and ask yourself why you didn’t get to them. What stopped you?

  • Did you try but ultimately not succeed?
  • Were you busy and so had to pass on the opportunity?
  • Did you realise, upon exploring something, that there was more involved than you could realistically manage?
  • Were you given advice that perhaps it was not a good use of your time and efforts?

If your answer is yes for any of these then there’s no real issue, is there? Your examiners might be interested in knowing why you didn’t do something. It’s useful to unpick and have clear reasons.

Remember your examiners are more likely to be interested in what you did rather than what you didn’t do. You could spend a little time asking yourself “Why not?” but it’s more useful to spend time exploring what you did.

Why Examiners Ask

No questions, no viva, no PhD. That’s fundamental, but there are many reasons for particular questions in the viva.

Your examiners might ask you that question because they need you to make something clearer. Maybe there is a typo and they want to check what you meant. A question may be exploratory, there’s something interesting to discuss. They might want to check a detail is correct or that you understand something.

A question might be asked because they think something is wrong; they’re asking to give you a chance to explain it more. A question could be an invitation, a way to start a conversation. A question could be used to change topic or pause. A question could be an opportunity for you to get excited and talk about something you love.

Particular questions have reasons. You might not be able to see those reasons in the moment, of course, but they are there. Your examiners use them to drive the discussion, to help you speak, to address their concerns and demonstrate that you did the work.

Questions give you the chance to show your talent.

Niches

It’s only recently, when reflecting on my PhD, that I realised my research niche wasn’t my topic.

It wasn’t skein invariants of knots, or two-variable polynomial properties of three-dimensional links; that was my topic, but my niche was edge cases and little results. During my PhD I looked for small problems; I searched for opportunities to apply methods to specific restricted cases. I proved a couple of open theorems, but I really loved finding processes for calculating things. My niche was algorithms, not knot theory. My niche was the questions I was asking, not the part of my field that I was exploring.

So what is your niche? How would you describe it? What does it mean to you? Do you have a neat way of telling others about it?

And do you have a useful way of describing it in the viva, if your examiners should ask?

Being SMART About Examiners

Your examiners are an important part of your viva. Spend some of your viva preparation time exploring who they are and what they do. Check their recent publications to get a sense of their research but you don’t need to know everything. Setting a SMART objective to have a clear goal for your efforts is helpful so you don’t stress about needing to do more and more.

  • Specific: What are you trying to learn? What sources will you consider?
  • Measurable: How much work are you going to do? How will you know when you’re done?
  • Advantages: What will you gain by doing this? How are you hoping to feel?
  • Realistic: How many papers are you aiming to read? What makes you think that is enough?
  • Time-bound: What is your deadline? How far in advance of your viva would it be useful to have this task completed?

Just a little planning can make a tricky task manageable. Decide in advance how much prep is enough.

This Is More Of A Comment

Listen to any comments, especially in the viva.

There might be a question underneath.

The question might be in the comment. It could be a challenge, but that challenge might be a small thing that only needs a small response.

It could be the question comes from you. It could be you listen to your examiner’s comment, and you ask a question to bring that thought into the discussion more. You can find out more, get a sense of why this comment is important to your examiner. Then you’ll see what you need to do to say more.

Or you might listen and realise it’s just a comment.

An idea, nothing big, serious or scary. Just a thought, an “I wonder…”

Something to acknowledge, but nothing to do.

Interesting Reasons

There are plenty of interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might be good examiners:

  • They’re experts in your general area;
  • You’ve cited them a lot;
  • You’re hoping to build your network a little.

You don’t get to choose directly. Most candidates can at least have a conversation with their supervisors about who they think would be a good choice. Think through what you might look for, and see how that conversation goes.

There are also interesting reasons why Dr X or Professor Y might not be acceptable as examiners:

  • Maybe you’ve had lots of conversations with them about your PhD work;
  • Maybe you’ve had correspondence about working with them on a future project;
  • Maybe they’re part of a collaboration with your supervisor.

Depending on the rules of your institution, these possible conflicts of interest might disqualify them from even being considered. If you’re concerned at all then it is worth checking.

The first list comes down to preference: the kind of examiners you want depends greatly on what qualities you see as being valuable.

The second list comes down to policy: some people won’t be acceptable because of how you’re connected to them.

You should definitely think about the first list in advance of your viva; in some cases the second list will be just as valuable to narrow down options.

Convinced

You might be.

Certain, no doubts, no wavering.

Or your examiner might be.

100%, thought about it, no alternatives.

When someone is convinced, the best thing you can do is ask why. Once you know the why, you know what you need to think about.

If you’re convinced of something, ask yourself why. Arrange your reasons, be sure they are correct and your thinking is sound.

If your examiner is convinced of their opinion, and thinks differently to you, ask them why. Listen to them generously, be sure you understand what they’re saying, then explore how your differing convictions meet.

One of you might be wrong.

Maybe both of you are wrong.

You won’t know until you ask.

What If They Don’t Get It?

A question born of worry: the fear not that your examiners won’t like something or agree with something, but simply that they won’t understand your research.

It’s unlikely your examiners would not understand your whole thesis, but possible that a detail or idea isn’t as clear as you think it is.

As with liking and agreeing, if there’s a problem of getting it then a good approach is to ask your examiners why. Ask why they don’t understand. Ask what the gap is. Ask where you lost them. The root “why?” invites more from your examiners. When you know what didn’t get across you’ll have an idea for what you might need to say.

Then speak. Engage, share, and help your examiners to see what you see in your research.