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8. Supporting candidates through completion and final examination
Once candidates have substantially finished their research projects, they have to produce a submission, usually but not always a thesis. This is likely to be the longest and most difficult piece of work that a candidate has ever undertaken, and supervisors have a key role in supporting them to complete their submissions.
Once candidates have a complete draft, the next issue is whether they should submit it for the degree. While of course there are no guarantees, supervisors need to be able to advise candidates as to the likelihood of the thesis passing, for which they need a clear understanding of the criteria for the award.
In order to support the examination process, it is important that supervisors have a knowledge and understanding of how research degrees are examined, including criteria for the appointment of examiners, examination policies and processes, and outcomes.
In most but not all higher education systems, the examination will involve an assessment of the written submission plus an oral examination. Candidates may be unfamiliar with oral examinations and one role of supervisors can be to help prepare them for their viva.
In many countries, supervisors are debarred from examining their own protégés, and while they may sit in they play no role in the examination itself. Where examiners refer submissions, supervisors may have a role afterward in terms of supporting candidates to revise their work.
- Working with candidates to finalise their submissions.
- Advising them on whether the thesis is likely to pass on the basis of your experience as an examiner.
- Roles in appointing examiners.
- Understanding of relevant policies and procedures and outcomes.
- Supporting candidates to prepare for the viva.
- Supporting candidates after the viva.
In the final stages, candidates may need support to produce the end product, namely a thesis or argument which is substantiated by evidence (see Taylor et al 2018), appropriately structured (see Neville 2008), written in an appropriate and error-free style (see Carter 2008). Normally this involves supervisors in giving feedback on drafts.
Also, in the UK it is normally the student who decides whether to submit the thesis, but most will ask their supervisors whether it will pass. Supervisors then need to understand the standards for the award, which may be evidenced by reference to institutional criteria and previous experience as an examiner.
Supervisors are normally asked to nominate appropriate examiners for the submission. In order to do this, as Pearce (2008) has pointed out, they have to be aware of the institution’s criteria for the appointment of examiners (which may include requirements such as expertise in the field of study, recent publications, and supervisory and examining experience). They may also have to consider the appropriateness of particular examiners (see Joyner 2003, Kiley and Mullins 2004, Kiley 2009).
Supervisors need to understand relevant institutional policies, i.e. who arranges the viva, who chairs it, what (if any) their own role is and the criteria for success and the range of recommendations that can be made (see for example Tinkler and Jackson (2004).
Candidates may have gained some experience of oral examination through presentations and feedback from progression panels, but the viva itself may still be seen as a huge hurdle (see Wellington 2010b, Watts 2011). Supervisors may have a role to play in explaining what to expect and, where appropriate, arranging mock vivas to accustom candidates to the format. This can be particularly important for candidates for whom English is not their first language (see Carter 2011) or who have disabilities (see Chown et al 2015) or who are from non-traditional backgrounds (Harrison et al 2011).
In most cases, supervisors have only one role following the viva – to help the candidate to celebrate. However, where submissions are referred for further work, supervisors may have a role to play in clarifying the examiners’ expectations to the candidate and supporting the latter in revising and/or re-writing their thesis.
- What has been your experience of giving feedback on thesis drafts in the final stages? How does this differ from feedback at other times in the doctoral process?
- How do you go about nominating examiners? Has it been appropriate, in your experience, to consult with candidates?
- How do you keep up-to-date with the relevant institutional policies which inform your practice in preparing candidates for examination?
- What is your approach to preparing a candidate for the viva? Could you give a case-study of what has worked, in your experience?
- Have you been involved in supporting candidates’ through the process of dealing with corrections? What challenges have you encountered at that stage, and how have you overcome them?