How to Effectively Referee a Ph.D. Thesis

A referee is someone who has been given the responsibility of evaluating the suitability of a doctoral thesis and the candidate for the award of a Ph.D. degree. This degree is the highest degree that an individual can attain academically. Therefore, it consists of a good amount of original research presented in the form of a thesis or dissertation. The university granting the degree uses the evaluation of the referee as a quality check to assess the suitability of the candidate for the award of a Ph.D. Thus, it is the responsibility of the referee to evaluate the thesis and the candidate well.

Why a Good Evaluation by Referees Matters

Ph.D. degree requirements may vary across universities. However, most require Ph.D. students to defend a thesis before referees. The thesis is first evaluated by the referee, followed by a defense that may be open or closed to the general audience. The purpose of this evaluation is to evaluate the student’s subject knowledge and also their research capabilities. Ph.D. holders pursue careers in academia, government, and industry. All such jobs require a great amount of skill and responsibility. The importance and sensitivity of research conducted in fields such as medical and biomedical sciences also require the expertise of highly skilled researchers. In addition to teaching, university professors also have to mentor the next generation of researchers. Therefore, to ensure that candidates taking up these positions are competent enough for the job, it is essential for a referee to evaluate responsibly.

Helpful Tips and Questions for Referees

Your job as a referee is very important. You should follow guidelines for examining Ph.D. theses if the university has any. You should aim to return the review as soon as possible. This is important because there may be more than one person involved in evaluating the thesis and delays would make scheduling difficult. The student would also want to move ahead and pursue a job quickly.

To help you with a good and fair review, you can try to answer questions about review criteria, like:

  • Is the work original?
  • Does it also build on previous work?
  • Are all the references complete, current, and accurate?
  • Does it add to the existing knowledge in that field?
  • Were the experiments done using proper controls?
  • Were the data analyzed using widely accepted statistical techniques?
  • Does the student admit any study weaknesses?
  • Are the results given with enough detail?
  • Are the conclusions justified?
  • Is the work presented clearly and without errors?
  • Does the student have a good understanding of the work done?
  • Has the student evaluated his/her work critically?

You should recommend the Ph.D. degree only if you can answer “yes” to nearly all of these questions. The award may also depend on minor corrections to the thesis. It is also absolutely fair to ask the student to revise the thesis and retake the exam if the answer to several of these questions is “no.” It may also be fair to reject the thesis if you answer “no” to most of the questions. Your decision has the ability to make a big impact on the student, university, and also the research community in general.

Things to Keep in Mind

Make sure that you give the student critical and specific feedback. Do not just say that the thesis was good or bad. You should mention the good things about the thesis and specify things that the student could revise (e.g., use of better controls for a particular experiment). Good feedback can also help the student improve their capabilities as a researcher.

Learn more about referee instructions, and find out about examiner reports used by leading universities.

Do you think referees review a Ph.D. thesis fairly? Does a Ph.D. degree help to ensure your research capabilities? Do universities give referees sufficient guidelines to evaluate theses? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

REFERENCES: 

[1] https://www.topuniversities.com/blog/what-phd 

[2] https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/the-university/how-university-works/policy-and-administration/teaching-and-learning/postgraduate-research/examinations/guidelines-template.html

[3] https://www.i-med.ac.at/studium/formulare/phd/Instructions-for-PhD-thesis-reviewers.pdf

[4] https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/the-university/how-university-works/policy-and-administration/teaching-and-learning/postgraduate-research/examinations/examinersoftheses.html

[5] https://www.cs.ut.ee/sites/default/files/cs/instructions_0.pdf

[6] https://www.ucd.ie/registry/assessment/staff_info/guidelines_for_PhD_examiners.pdf

[7] https://www.mcgill.ca/gps/files/gps/phd_examiner_report_gps.pdf


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