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.

Typical Examples
  • 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.

Supporting Materials

Literature and Evidence

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, and you could evidence this activity by an example of such feedback.

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).

Here evidence might consist of a description of how you go about nominating examiners including, where appropriate, consulting with candidates.

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). Evidence you could site here could include familiarity to the relevant institutional source that informs your practice e.g. an examinations handbook, or examining itself, either as an internal or an external.

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).

As evidence, you could provide a case study of preparing a candidate for the viva.

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. Again, you could provide evidence by a case study.


Expand the section below to view references the academic literature supporting this criterion:

8. Supporting Candidates Through Completion and Final Examination

Carter, S. (2008)

Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(4): 365-74.

Carter, S. (2011)

English as an additional language (EAL) viva voce. The EAL doctoral oral examination experience.

Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 37(3): 273-84.

Chown, M, Bearson, L., Martin, N. and Ellis, S. (2015)

Examining intellectual ability not social prowess: removing barriers from the doctoral viva for autistic candidates.

Autism Policy and Practice, 2: 1-14.

Harrison, N., Trudgett, M. and Page, S. (2011)

The dissertation examination: identifying critical factors in the success of indifenous Australian doctoral students.

Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(1): 115-127.

Joyner, R. (2003)

The selection of external examiners for research degrees.

Quality in Higher Education, 11(2): 123-27.

Kiley, M. and Mullins, G. (2004)

Examining the examiners: how inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses.

International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2): 121-35.

Kiley, M. (2009)

‘You don’t want a smart Alec’: selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations.

Studies in Higher Education, 34(8): 889-903.

Neville, B. (2008)

Creating a research community

Qualitative Research Journal, 8(1): 37-46.

Pearce, L. (2005)

How to Examine a Thesis.

Buckingham: Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Taylor, S., Kiley M. and Humphrey, R. (2018)

A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors. 2nd Ed.

London, Routledge.

Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004)

The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors.

Buckingham, Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Watts, J. (2011)

Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: issues for students and supervisors.

Journal of Further and Higher Education, 36(3): 371-81.

Wellington, J. (2010b)

Supporting students’ preparation for their viva: their pre-conceptions and implications for practice.

Teaching in Higher Education, 15(1): 71-84.

Download the Research Supervisors Bibliography PDF 1.15Mb

Example Application Content

Below is an example of how evidence could be provided for this criterion when applying to the Research Supervision Recognition Programme:

8. Supporting Candidates Through Completion and Final Examination

Like many other doctoral candidates, I found producing the thesis one of the most difficult things that I have ever done, in large part because I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be doing and my supervisor failed to enlighten me. So it was a case of trial and error and it took twice as long to complete my thesis as I had planned.

For my own candidates who are starting this process, I devote an entire supervision to going through what Taylor et al (2018) have identified as the key questions, namely: What is your case or argument? (thesis); What do you need to write to make that case or argument? (content); How can you organize your material to express this coherently? (structure); How much should you write in each part? (weighting); what style of writing should you use? (presentation); and ‘Who are you writing for? (the examiners). For the last, to make them aware I give them a synthesis of the criteria used by examiners in judging theses derived from Golding et al (2013)

Once a full draft of the submission has been produced, candidates want to know whether, in your view, it will pass. When I became a principal supervisor and my student presented a final draft, I was concerned about advising her whether to submit. But I asked a colleague who was a very experienced examiner and he helped me to evaluate the draft. I thought that he would have been much tougher than me, but in fact he was less critical. Now that I have supervised candidates to completion and examined myself, I know that this was because my expectations were sky-high while his were more realistic.

Once approved, the next step is the viva voce. While my candidates have had experience of being questioned by progress panels, many of them still see the viva as a huge hurdle, which has been confirmed by the literature (see for example Watts 2011). In order to prepare my candidates, I ask them if they would like to have a mock viva and if so then arrange for colleagues to read parts of the thesis, question them, and then give them feedback on how well or otherwise they responded. This has proved very valuable for candidates, particularly for international candidates in terms of reassuring them that they are being examined primarily on the content of their thesis, and not their command of the English language.

Of my five completions, four gained their doctorates with minor corrections (typos) but one had major corrections. He was the first student to whom I had acted as principal supervisor. Against my advice and that of my co-supervisor, he had declined to write a separate methodology chapter in favour of dealing with relevant matters and issues at what he saw as the appropriate points in the thesis. Unfortunately for him, his examiners felt that for the sake of coherence he needed to pull the methodological material into a single chapter and re-write and re-submit. With the benefit of hindsight, I could have advised him better. So now, while I do not wholly discourage candidates from making unorthodox submissions, I do spell out the risks more clearly.