Choosing an External Examiner for Your Thesis or Dissertation
Doctoral theses and many other long research-based documents that are written to earn credit towards academic and scientific degrees require formal examination by a committee. In most cases, this committee consists of faculty members of the student’s own university, often from the same department, who are chosen for their expertise in relation to the nature of the student’s research and the content of the planned thesis or dissertation. They are usually the scholars who have guided the student’s research and writing, but the examination committee generally also includes at least one examiner from a different educational institution. This specialist is referred to as the external examiner, though the term is occasionally used of an examiner from a different department within the same institution when research papers for lesser degrees are examined.
Choosing the external examiner for a postgraduate thesis or dissertation requires serious thought and considerable weighing out of the options. If you are working on a thesis or dissertation, you and your supervisor should therefore discuss the matter of your external examiner long before you submit the finished version of the document for examination. The external examiner should be an expert in your field and familiar with the scholarship you have used. He or she will ideally know a great deal about the specific topic, problem or phenomenon you have investigated – more in many cases than committee members other than your supervisor know. Both you and your supervisor will have ideas about who might be appropriate and perhaps for different reasons. You will definitely want an examiner who will understand and respect your work and therefore be more likely to see its value and approve your thesis or dissertation, but the choice should not depend primarily on the likelihood of an examiner’s favourable assessment. Better to undergo rigorous questioning and be asked to improve your research and writing than to have an uninformed and unenthusiastic examiner who approves a thesis or dissertation that may become something of an albatross around your neck as you begin your career.
As you get close to finishing your thesis or dissertation, your supervisor may decide to contact informally the scholar the two of you decide upon. This can be immensely helpful preparation because you will then have a good idea of whether he or she will be able to fill the role before your department makes the formal request. It may turn out disappointing if you learn that you are not able to recruit the academic or scientist who would be your first choice, but it is better to know sooner rather than later. You should also be familiar with the work and publications of your external examiner in order to understand the perspective from which he or she will be approaching your thesis or dissertation. Early arrangements will leave you enough time to fill any gaps in your knowledge of the external examiner’s scholarship in your field, refreshing your memory on publications you know, reading any new or less familiar work and incorporating anything relevant into your writing and list of references.
Formal arrangements for an external examiner are usually carried out by your department or university, but do be sure to fulfill any responsibilities you may have, such as providing your external examiner with a copy of your thesis or dissertation and perhaps other documents. Although some universities still pay for external examiners to attend thesis and dissertation examinations in person, in the twenty-first century an external examiner often ‘attends’ an examination via a video link, so do be prepared for that possibility and the technical issues it may present.
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