What Examiners Look for: Seven Things to Remember

From the outset of your candidacy it’s important to be developing your writing and presentation skills, because eventually you will be submitting a written thesis for examination—and it needs to be well written and presented if the examiners are to grasp what it is you are describing and analysing. Remember that examiners will be assessing both your thesis-as-argument and your thesis-as-artefact.

Individual differences

What examiners look for varies tremendously between individual examiners, so it’s impossible to give a simple categorical answer to the question, “what do examiners look for?”

  • There are ‘good’ examiners, whose reports are critical, insightful and— because they give credit where credit is due—empathetic and generous.
  • There are also ‘not-so-good examiners’, whose reports are unhelpful and even antagonistic.

There are also good and not-so-good theses; but if you manage the supervisor-student relationship well, your supervisor can help maximize the strengths of your thesis and the likelihood of success.

Throughout your entire candidature, keep in mind that examiners will be responding to the thesis in both senses of the word:

  • Thesis-as-argumentwhat is argued; a position established and developed.
    Remember that, in this respect, your thesis is the clearly-explicated guiding principle in terms of which all material/ examples/ evidence/ illustrations/ analysis/ hypotheses are coherent and relevant.
  • Thesis-as-artefactthe document; the written-up product submitted at the end of the research project.

Seven things things to remember

A. Remember that what is written and how it is written are interrelated, and come together in the document that the examiner reads.

Ultimately, examiners will assess both aspects of the thesis, and you must ensure that you address both aspects.

B. Remember that your examiners will be looking for evidence that you:

  1. are familiar with the major debates in the area
  2. have indicated the ‘gaps’ in the debates/or, to put it more actively, have created those gaps
  3. have demonstrated how your thesis is contributing to the debates and filling a ‘gap’ in an  original and significant way, in terms of new ideas and/or new methods and/or new data.

C. Remember when your supervisor signs off that the thesis is ready for examination.

it is meant to be an informed assessment that the thesis makes a significant contribution to original thought/ research/ knowledge, in terms of ideas/ methods/ data. There must, in fact, be such a contribution, and it must be clearly signalled so that it’s not missed by the reader (examiner).

D. Remember that examiners will assess the success of your thesis in bringing together a number of components into an integrated whole:

  1. the central Research Question
  2. an explanation of the importance or significance—intellectual as well as practical—of the  Research Question
  3. the relationship of your thesis to previous work in the area
  4. how your thesis will builds on or adds to existing knowledge in the area
  5. use of appropriate methods and theory, and justification for the choice(s) made
  6. conclusion/answer to the Research Question
  7.  where your thesis takes the field of knowledge—and what still needs answering/doing.

E. Remember to use your supervisor as a sounding-board in all of the above areas.

Think of your supervisor as the conduit between you and the examiner—between what you say and what examiners look for.

F. Remember that examiners will assess your thesis in terms of its credibility. Be clear on the major criteria for credibility. General credibility criteria include:

  1. That the thesis demonstrates significant or (in the case of a PhD) effectively complete (PhD) command of the subject material, both at the general theoretical level and the specific empirical level.
  2. That the thesis covers all relevant research/theoretical literature. (Remember that an examiner may check the Bibliography to establish that all major writers are included. If they’re not, you fail to meet a major credibility criterion.)
  3. That the thesis makes a major or highly significant contribution to original thought or  knowledge and/or a major or highly significant modification of method.
  4. That you have demonstrated the capacity to have and to develop a thesis systematically over the length of the dissertation.
  5. That you have demonstrated control and coherence in all the elements of research, writing and presentation.

G. Remember that examiners will respond more favourably to a well-structured thesis. Based on your University thesis structure:

  1.  the thesis-as-argument can be introduced in the Introduction
  2.  subsequent chapters can elaborate and develop the thesis
  3.  each chapter can deal with a specific aspect of the thesis.

 That’s seven things to remember.

Recall how you can use each chapter’s introductory and concluding paragraph to:

  •  relate the chapter to the thesis
  •  introduce/reiterate what is covered in the chapter
  •  provide a link with the preceding or following chapter (to give a sense of continuity and development).


Adams., R. (2013). DEMYSTIFY YOUR THESIS (p132) . Victoria University

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