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Know Your Enemy—Understanding Thesis Examiners

Abraham Lincoln said, ‘the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend’. With respect to thesis examiners, the opposite is closer to the mark—the best way to destroy a friend is to make them an enemy. ‘Friend’ and ‘enemy’ are hardly accurate descriptions of the relationship between a candidate and an examiner, but it is fair to say that the majority of thesis examiners want to receive a thesis they can confidently pass, and they are disappointed if it is not up to standard rather than being on the ‘attack’ from the outset. For instance, did you know that examiners tend to judge a thesis by the time they reach the end of its first or second chapter, or that they favour a thesis that is ‘coherent’ (Golding et al., 2013)? Understanding what is expected of examiners and how they approach examination can help you make the process easier for them, and the passage of your thesis to final acceptance smoother, by attending to structural and presentation issues that disappoint and irritate them.

A poorly presented and written thesis annoys examiners and erodes their confidence in all aspects of your work. The perils of ‘sloppy’ presentation are usually made very clear in information provided by universities and postgraduate associations and is a point hammered home by supervisors (who are also examiners, and vice versa). There is also literature to support the importance of looking after the ‘little’ things (Kiley & Mullins, 2004; Mullins & Kiley, 2002). When interviewed by these authors, examiners commented on how easily they could be irritated by lack of attention to detail, as neatly summed up in the following quotation:

I give my students strong advice on how not to ‘flip’ an examiner from ‘reasonable’ to ‘unreasonable’ by having irritating things in the thesis such as typos and other careless textual mistakes that indicate lack of attention to detail. Once flipped (and I am aware of this happening), I am irritated and I have to work very hard at overcoming this irritation and not letting it influence my view of the thesis, although this is not easy (Mullins & Kiley, 2002, p. 378).

It is probably clear how ‘sloppiness’ could erode the intellectual confidence of an examiner; less obvious might be its personal ‘cost’ to them. Mullins and Kiley (2002) found that even experienced examiners expect examining a thesis to take the equivalent of three to four days full-time, often spread over a few weeks (i.e. this is a time-consuming process), and that it is commonly done at night and/or on weekends (i.e. examining a thesis is often done in what would otherwise be family or recreation time).

The more issues the thesis has, the longer it will take to examine, not only because it is harder to read, but also because it requires a longer report. Did you know that examiners are usually requested to provide a separate list of typographical, spelling and minor grammatical and referencing errors? A 300-page thesis that has an average of ‘only’ one error per page means the examiner would need to write 300 separate entries to detail these. Faced with this, there is a fair chance the examiner will not just be irritated; they might also assess the thesis as needing to be revised and re-submitted—certainly not the outcome you want! Looking after your examiners by giving them a thesis with high-quality presentation and tight structure is definitely in your own best interests.

For great advice on how not to ‘flip’ your examiners, read the free article ‘10 Do or Dies Before You Submit Your Thesis’. A few minutes spent reading this might save you a lot of pain later.


Golding, G., Sharmini, S., & Lazarovitch, A. (2013). What examiners do: What students should know. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563–576.

Kiley, M. & Mullins, G. (2004). Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2), 121–135.

Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2002). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369–386.

Updated 3 October 2023

Ms Rachel Wheeler,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.