An investigation of inconsistencies in PhD examination decisions

Year: 2004

Author: Holbrook, Allyson, Bourke, Sid, Lovat, Terry, Dally, Kerry

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The process of PhD examination in Australia across academic disciplines requires that the PhD thesis be assessed by two or three external examiners who make a recommendation on the thesis and write detailed supporting comments. The recommendation at one end of the spectrum is to pass the thesis outright, the other end is a terminating fail. However most examiner recommendations fall in the middle (71%) and range from inviting minor corrections through to requiring revision and resubmission. These recommendations are then usually adjudicated by a committee, which can in some cases differ substantially from one or more of the examiner recommendations. The disparities in adjudication prompt concerns about the visibility of the examination process. This paper draws on a sub-sample of reports on 400 candidates where such disparities between examiner recommendation and institution decision are evident and then explores the texts of the reports to attempt to identify what may have triggered the discrepancy. Situations where the examiners gave a lower recommendation than the committee were compared to those where the committee recommendation was lower than that of the examiners. From this analysis it could be determined that specific instructional emphases and qualities in the examiner comments appeared to influence the outcome.