Thursday, 14 May 2009

PhD Assessment Criteria

One of the most difficult things to comprehend about a PhD is how can you tell if you're going to pass ? Unlike every other kind of taught course, the PhD has no past-papers or worked examples. Sure, you can read ones that have already passed and that is an eminently sensible thing to do. But it does leave the nagging doubt that yours might still not be ready. The issue usually rests on establishing a contribution. Did we learn something we don't already know ? By implication, PhD candidates are required to establish that they've already become familiar with "what we already know" in the form of an extensive review of relevant literature and past studies. Most candidates set off with the hope of curing cancer, alleviating world hunger or discovering free, renewable energy. Most people who have passed their PhD look back and laugh when they realise how "itsy bitsy teeny weeny" the contribution actually needs to be. So long as its there, the Nobel prize is intended as a bonus. Aim high, but accept that it might be just a PhD.

PhDs are usually examined by some combination of an internal examiner and an external examiner. The Viva or oral examination represents their opportunity to grill you on your work. Most institutions provide their examiners with some assessment criteria. There are broad similarities from one university to the next. What follows is a list of criteria that are used by an unnamed but highly reputable UK university. They give you some idea what the examiners are looking for in your PhD.

A PhD must show the following …

1. A distinct contribution to knowledge

2. Evidence of the discovery of new facts or the exercise of independent judgement

3. The author’s ability to present well written and suitably documented research

4. That the original work presented in the thesis merits publication, if publication has not been achieved

5. That the author has become competent in independent work or research, and that s/he could repeat the process in a fresh project

6. An understanding of appropriate techniques

7. Critical appraisal and use of related work in the field, from published work and source material


  1. Hello Robert, my first experience when I began my PhD as a mature student with many years of commercial science experience was reading a thesis by a mature African student (a senior civil servant in his home country) which was absolutely atrocious. In my view it actually proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was incapable of abstract conceptual thought. This experience devalued the PhD qualification from the start for me.

    Eventually I have come to the conclusion that given the financial and social pressures on examiners and lack of repurcussions it is inevitable that standards will slip under the current system. The only way I can see of solving this problem is by introducing the principles of blind assessment which are already accepted in other forms of examination. The viva seems to belong to a bygone era of gentlemanly agreements and supposed fair play which under modern pressures simply isn't working.

  2. The issue of standards is an emotive one. I can only comment on the cases that I have experience of ... which occured in reputable and ranked universities in the UK. Whilst not wishing to glorify "failure" I have been involved in examinations where the PhD was not awarded and a lower qualification of a Masters by Research was awarded subject to revisions being made. These decisions were not taken lightly but fudging the issue or just saying yes because its the path of least resistance never came up in the examiners' conversation. I have also been sent a thesis to examine which I returned with the suggestion that the candidate should be encouraged to make significant adjustments before submitting for assessment ... a form of "pre-viva, think again." Blind review is commonplace in journal publication but the viva format is helpful when looking to explore issues, improve the work and assess whether the candidate actually knows the material. With good examiners it isn't a formality and my own take on the issue is that the decision reached (i.e. pass / fail) reflects on both the individuals concerned (i.e. the examiners and the candidate) and the awarding institution for all time since it is possible for someone to pick it up and pass their own judgement many years later in much the same way that you have done.

  3. Dear Robert

    In this post, you mention that PhD candidates have to exhibit familiarity with "What we already know". My Q is whether this level of knowledge has to be cleared before joining the course or at some time during the course.

  4. Vedant ... I think you need to make a first attempt at this in developing a research proposal which is usually the first step in being accepted onto a PhD programme ... however, the final version needs to flow from the 3 or so years that you spend doing the research. Hence, the answer is both that you estimate current knowledge and a gap at the outset but that you refine this to a final view in the preparation of your eventual thesis. I hope that this clarifies what I meant. Good luck with your studies