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I am a MS (research) student and recently finished writing my thesis. I have put a lot of time into it and tried to make it explanatory. At my institute, the advisor names five external tutors to review the thesis, among which one is chosen by the dean. My advisor asked me if I had suggestions and I suggested a few names. The people that I suggested are researchers working in the field on which most of my thesis work is based, and with whom I have previous interactions on account of my graduate position.

However, my advisor suggested that I avoid some of these people and instead made some suggestions of his own. Now, the names he suggested are people that are hardly related to my field; one of them, for instance, is an experimentalist working far from my field. I have a little doubt on their credibility as well.

When I told him this, and pointed out the effort that I have put in writing the thesis (and therefore, I would prefer if someone really went through the content, not just superficially write the report), he said it doesn't matter who the external reviewer is and that it is better if one sends the thesis to someone who can write the report quickly and doesn't delay the process. My advisor pointed out that the fact that one has put effort into writing one's thesis doesn't necessarily mean that reviewer will also put in much effort. They have their own affairs and the more famous they are, the more time it would take to get a report. He added that if someone does find the work interesting, they will read it, anyway.

I do agree with some of his points; nevertheless, I would still prefer not to send the thesis to a reviewer who will possibly not read it and would only write a superficial report.

Does it matter who your external reviewer is for you MS or PhD thesis?

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    I think the answer to this will very much depend on what system the student is working in. Commented Apr 3 at 10:02
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    In which country? PhD systems are wildly different in how assessment is done. Commented Apr 3 at 18:17
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    @JackAidley I am talking about in India, but the question I'm posing is generic. Commented Apr 4 at 8:08
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    @YoungKindaichi - I basically meant which which country. It does matter - the role of the external examiner is very important in, say, the UK and similar systems. Other countries, the external examienr is basically a rubber stamp, and the defense more of a ritual and a celebration than something it is exepected some people will fail, which yet other countries, such as the US, don't have external examiners. Commented Apr 4 at 8:58
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    Examining MS theses is all work and no play for the examiners. The only reason to agree to be an external examiner is because you are going to need external examiners for your own students, and are trading favours. The only person this thesis is important to is you, I'm afraid. Commented Apr 4 at 9:06

6 Answers 6

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Finding good examiners is certainly important, but there are a number of aspects to this:

  • Does the person have the right expertise? You want someone who is well-placed to understand what you've done.
  • Are they reliable? If they don't complete the task properly and on time, your graduation and future plans may be impacted.
  • Will they have realistic expectations? You need someone who has a sensible perspective on the standard of work that is normal for your career stage, and who is not going to focus unduly on minor details.1
  • Do they understand the local context? Systems differ from country to country and from institution to institution. You don't want someone who misunderstands their role, or who does not appreciate the parameters under which you are working (e.g. the resources that have been available to you).
  • Do they have influence? Examiners are well-placed to write references for you in the future, and if they are impressed by your work they may even be proactive in sending opportunities your way. This may be an opportunity to build a connection to someone who you think might help you in your future career.
  • Are they likely to say yes? Sure, it would be cool to have a Nobel laureate as your examiner, but they probably have better things to do than read random MS theses. There is usually an implied quid pro quo in selecting examiners, i.e. the people who examine your supervisor's students are the people who might plausibly ask your supervisor to examine theirs. This may imply both geographic and 'institutional quality' constraints.

The relative importance of these factors may vary from case to case. A good examiner for a strong student may not be the right choice for a weak student; similarly, a student destined for a career in industry may have distinct considerations from a student hoping to stay in academia.


1 We've all heard stories about that examiner, who feels that your thesis cannot be passed until it contains no instances of an Oxford comma, or any data points plotted in the colour red.

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    Worse when they're from Oxford and they don't want the Oxford comma.
    – D Duck
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:25
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    Does that imply that examiners from Cambridge can be assumed a priori to hate Oxford commas?
    – avid
    Commented Apr 4 at 21:04
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I think the answer to this is that it depends on the system/country you are working in.

In the UK, generally, PhD theses, but not masters theses are examined by external examiners.

Does it make a difference who they are? Yes and No.

Going forward, no one will know who your examiners were, and you won't get extra kudos for being examined by well known practitioners. Once you have graduated, the only people who will remember who your examiners were will be you, your supervisor, and perhaps the examiner.

Things to consider:

  • People will have different reputations for how they approach exams. Some people might have a reputation for being unfair or unduly critical in an exam or flat out refuse to believe something that contradicts their prior beliefs.
  • People who are deeply into a field might be more likely to get hung up on small technical details, and miss the big picture.
  • People within the field are likely to know where you might have buried the skeletons (so to speak).
  • People less into a field may not appreciate the importance of the work.
  • People from outside the field may spend their whole exam questioning you on things that turn out to be basic assumptions within the field. This can be both refreshing (if you like reexamining unspoken assumptions), or annoying (if you feel it gets in the way of talking about what is important).
  • The exam is a time to show off your work to a senior colleague. If your work is particularly good (or bad), you might make an impression on the examiner that might come in useful (or the opposite) in your career.

In general, I would suggest that you pay serious attention to who your advisor selects, as they are likely to have knowledge of the reputation for how one examiner or another approaches an exam. It may also be that they have a good knowledge of who is likely to agree to do the exam. Perhaps he has no personal relationship with the people you have suggested, but the people he suggested owe him a favour.

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  • People from outside the field may spend their time "questioning you on basic assumptions" -- or, worse, misunderstand the basic assumptions and spend the whole exam arguing at cross-purposes with the candidate. Yes, I've seen it happen.
    – avid
    Commented Apr 3 at 16:54
  • I agree with this answer. In math, in the USA, it doesn't matter. We do have committees for both PhD and MS, and sometimes committee members are natural choices for letters of recommendation, but the key to choosing a committee is someone who won't flake out, who understands the point of being on the committee, and who has enough knowledge to assess the work. Some advisors want to pass through students who haven't really done enough work, so the committee can be a check against that (or, in the other direction, against an advisor who wants to keep a student forever, who has done enough). Commented Apr 5 at 12:58
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I don't know what school or even what country you are in, and these things vary (even by department). But I've been a statistical consultant to grad students getting PhDs in various fields at various schools in the US.

Based on my experience, your advisor is right. Further, he knows his school and department very well. Not only much better than anyone answering the question possibly could, but, almost certainly, better than you do.

If "advisor" in your system is like "mentor" here, then he needs to understand your thesis very well. But other examiners do not. Your thesis should be reasonably comprehensible to anyone in your department.

What you want to avoid is precisely the sort of thing that your advisor notes. You don't want someone who will just sit on your work and not read it and need constant nagging. You also really want to avoid a clash of personalities. I went to one progress meeting (an intermediate stage in a dissertation) where one professor told the student to shorten their work a lot and another told them to add a lot! It turns out those two professors really didn't like each other and often clashed. Your advisor will know about these things. You don't want your thesis to be the tennis ball that gets batted back and forth!

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TLDR : Yes, it does.

You should keep in mind that you are examined by the committee in different ways. During examination, the questions would be asked both for the sake of examining you and also for the sake of the examiners' own understanding. Every examiner is different and you cannot and should not attribute one statement for all the examiners. And it is possible and common as well that one or more examiners in the committee are not directly related to your field. In that case, the higher chances are that they would pass you and ask questions just for your understanding. Some general questions pertain to your field might be asked to check your general knowledge about the topic. So, don't be afraid to face the examiners because you are there to defend everything in your thesis not anything outside that.

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I don't know the system that you are working in, but I am answering on the assumption that it is similar to choosing the external examiner for a PhD or MRes in the UK.

Yes, the choice of examiner is important. Their knowledge of the field (and hence interest in your work) is an important point - but it is not the only important point. You also need somebody who is not so busy that it takes you months to find a spot in their diary to arrange the exam. You want somebody who is going to be prompt with feedback and not give you more months of delay while they write up their report. You also want somebody who is rigorous but kind; not somebody who will let you off with shoddy work, but also not somebody who has unrealistic expectations at the level you are at or somebody who enjoys the power trip of being an examiner.

It is possible that your supervisor is taking some of these other considerations into account. And in the latter case, if one of your suggested examiners is known in the community to be a jerk who will give you an unnecessarily hard time, your supervisor may not feel able to share this with you.

Of course, the actual reasons might be different again!

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It is important and be grateful that your advisor takes care of this aspect!

Usually, people try to avoid conflicts to make the exam not more difficult as it already is. Rivalries or past disputes between your advisor and potential examiners must be avoided. Your advisor might know people how ask unfair questions or will highlight their own research by asking related question, which you might have a hard time answering.

To be clear: This is not about letting students of befriended advisors pass and give the favor back later. It is minimizing the negative impact of department politics you should not be affected in the first place.

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