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In my opinion

How external is your external examiner?

It was easier to draw the line between “internal” and “external” examiners before the 1980s, when collaboration between faculties at different uni­versities was less common.

BY YVES LABERGE | OCT 12 2010

Imagine a PhD candidate at a Quebec uni­versity who is about to submit her thesis, already approved by her supervisor, for eval­uation by a committee. As usual, neither she nor her supervisor may select the examiners for the committee, though they may both suggest potential committee members to the dean who ultimately selects the thesis examiners. In my experience, suggestions are always welcomed by the dean.

In this hypothetical case, the dean agrees to all four suggestions for jury members made by the thesis supervisor – not in itself an unusual out­come. They include three internal colleagues from the candidate’s department and a professor work­ing at nearby University of Ottawa to act as the external examiner. The professor is familiar with the topic and knows the candidate and the super­visor well. Why wouldn’t he? For years they’ve been working on the same research team and they share funding from the same research project.

The dean has no problem accepting this pro­fessor as an external examiner. After all, he’s not only from another university, but he’s even from another province. Despite the links between the parties, this Ontario colleague would be seen as a true external examiner by any dean in any uni­versity in Quebec.

That is where the problem begins.

A generation ago, an external examiner was appointed because a dean wanted a neutral opin­ion from somebody totally unknown to the proj­ect yet familiar enough with the field to be able to appreciate and assess the whole thesis. It was easier to draw the line between “internal” and “external” examiners before the 1980s, when collaboration between faculties at different uni­versities was less common.

Nowadays, interdisciplinarity, networking and globalization are encouraged; geographi­cally distant universities and departments are often linked. A professor from another university may be more familiar with the thesis candidate, not to mention with her supervisor, than most professors from her own department, who would be considered “insiders.” A professor from another university may be affiliated with a research project that the candidate and her supervisor are taking part in.

There are other questionable situations. There are cases where a professor from another university is a former student or research assis­tant of the thesis supervisor. Or, a professor emer­itus is asked to serve as an external examiner because he has the required knowledge, experi­ence, respect, inclination and time. In some ways, retired professors can be considered “perfect examiners,” because they know the field so well. But can people like these really be considered “external”?

Deans, of course, are not forced to accept the potential referees suggested by the supervisor or candidate. Yet, in today’s academy – with its allies, clans and competitors – neutral scholars are dif­ficult to find. And, overburdened professors often decline when they’re asked to serve as a thesis jury member. Moreover, everybody wants the thesis to be approved as quickly as possible. So, it can be difficult for a dean to find a competent exter­nal examiner who is available and willing to serve.

A related concern is that many departments look for external jury members at nearby uni­versities because it is too expensive to invite scholars from other countries. It’s true that new technologies such as closed-circuit television and Skype allow people to take part in a thesis defence without being there in person, but some departments are reluctant to try remote systems for this purpose, and other departments can’t afford them.

One thing is certain: it is easier to point out emerging problems than to suggest efficient solutions.

In my opinion, universities need to redefine the status of the “insider” and the status of the “external examiner,” to acknowledge the new kinds of networking relationships that have developed in the last three decades. These issues need to be addressed and debated, and not only by deans.

The bottom line is that a colleague who works on the same research project as the can­didate and thesis supervisor but comes from another university should not in any instance be considered an “external examiner.” To maintain the validity of their thesis and the value of their degree, future PhD candidates should face a real jury that is not too familiar with their work nor onside in advance.

Yves Laberge has a doctorate in sociology and has been part of numerous scholarly committees, commissions and boards for 25 years.

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  1. Christopher Brazier / November 16, 2010 at 12:14

    In our recent experiences – as a consulting management company used as External Examiners – our robust and structured approach to improving results and systems is not always what Institutions want.

    Some are quite horrified when we offer structured criticism of their results, and sometimes of their staff – the role of the External has become, in our opinion, all too often a cosy and non-threatening relationship between the Examiner and the Institution. A perception of ‘rocking the boat’ – however much it might be needed! – is frowned upon!