Your experiences of being an external PhD examiner?

I had lunch with my brother today and he was telling me of his experience as a first-time external examiner of a PhD candidate. It was fascinating. The thesis was on using the error rate in previous analyses of oil wells to improve future analyses. The candidate passed, BTW, with a little rewriting required.

Anyway, I’m sure there are Dopers who’ve done this, so tell us your experiences.

I’ve done it, but not often. I’m not sure how many schools/departments still do this. One difficultly is in knowing exactly the standards they want supplied. Very early in my career, a inside friend nudged me while I was questioning and whispered “This guy is in his 8th? year, we want him out of here.” (This was in a field which at the time probably averaged 4-5 years.)

I remember doing this once. Might have actually done it more times.

The advisor was sort of a friend, the student was bright, there was a couple pages of stupid stuff in it that didn’t really matter (it was more or less an analogy), I let it slide. Did make a few markups on the draft here and there. Did the usual during the exam: Maybe asked a question or two. Voted to okay it. Shook hands. Said nice things and that was it. As the outside person I was just there to make sure it was all being run legit. It was.

Sometime later I recycled the paper, kept the folder. Might still have that.

Ran into the advisor some years later at a conference. He was making a name for himself so that was nice. But that was so long ago I no longer remember his name. So much for making a name! Don’t remember what happened to the student or anything.

My brother’s job was far more onerous. He was expected to check and understand the thesis and ask pointed questions. The candidate wasn’t used to being questioned at length for so long (most of the day) and by outsiders - particularly one of the calibre of my brother - and got flustered, but after a break composed himself and demonstrated the validity and worth of the thesis.

I’ve done it recently. It was fun. Now I’m fighting with them to be paid.

Paid? Isn’t it considered a professional courtesy? To be repaid when a student of your own may need an external examiner…

I’ve done plenty - chemistry PhDs in the UK primarily with a few in Europe. Our system is a closed viva with one internal and one external and is meant to be a good test of the candidate - it’s considered a poor show by all involved if they’re not put through their paces, although in truth it would take something really untoward to fail at that point [it would need a combination of a very weak thesis plus a bad, CBA, attitude in the viva, I’ve never encountered this myself].
If I’m external I’ll read the thesis properly, as I will be leading the viva - internal I’ll start with the candidate’s papers and just speed read the thesis as that role is more supportive and less interrogative of the candidate.

I like the viva-as-celebration approach. Give the candidate a few digs by all means but basically give them a chance to shine and show off their research. For this reason I dislike externals who try and trip up candidates to try and show who the smartest person in the room is, and likewise extended questioning of strong candidates on background theory I find to be aggravatingly pointless.

The worst experience I had was when I was quite new, and a colleague asked me to be internal for one of her students who (she felt) had let her down. He’d worked his way through a long synthesis but had failed to complete the molecule in the last steps, and was a bit dissembling as to the real reasons behind this. He was a very solid scientist, though, and the PhD was basically fine. Out of spite, she brought in the meanest most pedantic old-school external she could find. Student went to pieces under the sustained bollocking, and the external wanted to fail him. There was no way this was right so I had to argue to pass him by fudging a regulation that meant me re-examining the student on my own [the thesis was fine but had not been defended properly], which we agreed to and I subsequently did. An unpleasant experience, although a useful insight into the character of my colleague at the time.

Viva systems and protocols vary widely - I’m doing one in Sweden in the New Year where I have to give a presentation on the candidate’s work to an audience. This seems pretty funny, given the attention some externals typically give to a thesis, so should be an interesting process.

It’s international, and this is their enticement, I suppose.