Say goodbye to your Nobel Prize, and get a doctorate instead (or: frame your doctoral study around doctoralness)

This post highlights a few key points from a great paper (freely available) by Mullins and Kiley. The title sets the tone: ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. (Studies in Higher Education 27(4), 369-386, doi 10.1080/0307507022000011507)

I’m putting this post up now because it confirms some elements of what I’ve already written about parsimony, keeping your reader/examiner on track, structuring a thesis etc. And it will lay out some terms and foundations for posts that are coming soon – about literature reviewing, and qualitative research design.

Tip for readers of this post: try putting the text into a wordcloud and see what comes up!

First up: avoid irritating your reader

Sounds obvious, but examiners report experiencing this – eg. through typos, poor layout, unclear structure, lack of signposting, indulgence / overly verbose text. Johnston (1997) in Mullins and Kiley, writes:

Examiners require all of the normal forms of assistance which should be provided to any reader. They appreciate work which is logically presented, focused, succinct, summarised and in which signposts are used to help readers to understand the path they are taking through the work … One of the problems with work that is poorly presented is that the examiner tends to lose confidence in the candidate and can become suspicious that there are deeper problems of inadequate and rushed conceptualisation. (p. 345) 

‘Only’ a doctorate

A prior study by Winter et al found that doctorates were viewed by examiners as needing to:

· be a report of work which others would want to read;
· tell a compelling story articulately whilst pre-empting inevitable critiques;
· carry the reader into complex realms, and inform and educate him/her;
· be sufficiently speculative or original to command respectful peer attention (p. 36).

Note there is nothing here about telling the examiners all the ups and downs, emotional traumas etc that you went through. By being report of work which others want to read I would argue what is needed is an account of a successful piece of research. Issues of anticipating critique, being clear in complexity, and adopting a sufficient voice are important too, but wasted if they’re not part of telling a story about, and selling, something that gives us something new.

Put yourself in your examiners’ shoes

Your examiners are already very busy people, likely with family, personal and other things they might rather be doing of an evening than reading your thesis. But, like with peer review, they do this because they know it’s important (and examiners did it for them, right?). Mullins and Kiley list these as questions that examiners have in mind, and considering these yourself, regularly, throughout your candidature might not be a bad idea:

· How would they have tackled the problem set out in the abstract and the title?

· What questions would they like answers to?

· Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction?

· How well does the candidate explain what he/she is doing

· Is the bibliography up to date and substantial enough? · Are the results worthwhile?

· How much work has actually been done?

· What is the intellectual depth and rigour of the thesis?

· Is this actually ‘research’—is there an argument?

The ‘how much work has actually been done’ is an important one (as they all are). I myself was (rightly) pulled up in an assessment 3/4 of the way through my doctorate: I had utterly undersold my efforts in the field and analysis. Don’t be shy to leave your examiners in no doubt whatsoever how much time you spent generating data, how much data was generated, and how meticulous, iterative and thorough your analysis was. Don’t forget this concrete stuff because you’re living in the clouds of high-brow intellectual argument. They aren’t separate. But don’t forget Mullins & Kiley’s title either: it’s not a Nobel Prize here, only a doctorate.

Key tips:

Manage first impressions – don’t annoy your examiner, or set low expectations. What do you want your examiner to think after reading the abstract, first chapter, lit review:

“Ooh this one doesn’t look great, she’s going to have to pull something incredible out of the bag to get over the line”


“Wow. This is clear, crisp, easy to understand, clearly offering something new. This is a strong student, and unless there are some serious mishaps, this seems like it will sail through”.

Bear in mind, if you’re going for the latter, set up reasonable expectations – don’t promise Nobel-winning scope and then fail to deliver. As was noted above, make sure you live up to  your promises, and that the intro and conclusions line up.


Poor thesis characteristics:

Again, taking the list from Mullins & Kiley:

· lack of coherence;

· lack of understanding of the theory;

· lack of confidence;

· researching the wrong problem;

· mixed or confused theoretical and methodological perspectives;

· work that is not original;

· not being able to explain at the end of the thesis what had actually been argued in the thesis.

Think about what is not listed here. No thesis was failed for being too clear, for making the ultimate arguments really crisp and easy to understand, for adopting clean methodological and theoretical approaches, for being built around a consistent thread / argument across the thesis…

Brilliance in theses:

Mullins and Kiley list what participants in their study said made for an outstanding PhD:

·  an artistic endeavour where the student is designing the work and there is elegance of design, of the synthesis, and executions;

·  creativity;

·  design—where it all fits together;

·  elegant;

·  a well-sculpted piece of work.

I love the craft and artistry in these dimensions. I argue they all support my own view of “parsimony rules!”. But I love how this says brilliance comes not from pure technical rigour, nor from massive complexity, huge scale / volume of work. But from things like sparkle, excitement etc.


Dr… or not?

Mullins and Kiley offer a summary of what the final judgements depend on:

· the student’s confidence and independence;

· a creative view of the topic;

· the structure of the argument;

· the coherence of theoretical and methodological perspectives; and

· evidence of critical self-assessment by the student.

What’s going on here? All the stuff we’ve seen before, about coherence, structure, critique etc. What I’d like to point out here is the reference, again, to confidence. As a doctoral candidate you have to write/speak with confidence and authority. Being timid, underselling yourself, ducking your own view and resting exclusively on the writing of others – all potentially catastrophic in terms of nicely convincing your examiners that you don’t deserve the title ‘Dr’. You may just have to trust yourself, and accept that you are in a position to argue something, to tell the world something new and important. If you’re plagued by anxiety that your’e not good enough and the intellectual fraud syndrome, you’re not alone, but you’re not setting yourself up for a positive reading of your thesis either.

Not a Nobel prize, just a doctoral thesis

Did we mention that it’s not a Nobel Prize? Just a thesis! Only a thesis! This is not to trivialise what is a significant piece of work and time in someone’s life. But it is to say “be realistic!”, let parsimony rule. Instrumentalism or being just good enough need not follow from an approach that frames doctoral work around doctoralness.

Finally, I’d like to share a phrase offered by David Boud to a doctoral student. We were working on a one-page summary of the thesis, as a prelude to writing full chapters. “Getting this right is really tough, but important,” Dave said, “the rest… is mere detail”.



1 thought on “Say goodbye to your Nobel Prize, and get a doctorate instead (or: frame your doctoral study around doctoralness)

  1. rusty (@mativity)

    “A creative view of the topic”: what is actually meant by this, and how creative you can be, is a whole question in itself. If you mean new, original and of value, then surely that is what any thesis is aiming towards. Research is assumed to be addressing a gap, and creative thinking deals with addressing gaps, so creativity in this sense is part of the process. But if you mean truly creative, if you mean unpredictable, changing the rules, finding new interpretations of the rules, qualities which good creative thinking should demonstrate, then you start to run up against the wall of the established norms of academia, what my supervisor likes to call the marks of “good scholarship”.


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