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I'll base the scenario of this question on the PhD thesis defence committee recommendations in place in my university in Ireland. Similar may apply to other countries.

A PhD Defence/Viva committee in made up of a Chairperson, internal examiner and external examiner. The internal comes from within the university and the external from another institution (with some restrictions on affiliated universities).

Assuming for this question cost of travel is not an issue as it would be covered by your university and you/your supervisor agrees with choice of potential external examiner; is there any rule of thumb on how far you could reasonably expect a external examiner to travel to be on the committee?

One downside I can think of asking someone to travel a large distance is the possible time they have to take away from their work. Again taking Ireland as an example, an external examiner from Ireland/UK/EU could probably travel on the day or 2 max. If it was someone travelling from the US they may have to take a few days off. Areas with poor air connections may mean longer trips.

So the question is largely two fold. Should how far away a potential external examiner factor into the decision to ask them to be on the committee and how far you could reasonably expect a external examiner to travel to be on the committee?

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    In some universities, the external examiners are allowed to participate through a teleconference tool (e.g. Skype). Is there such a possibility in your university? – Alexandros Feb 5 '15 at 12:24
  • One of my committee members moved to a different university, and city, between formation of the committee and final defense. As @Alexandros suggested, she participate remotely. We used a combination of a phone conference call and software that let her see what was on my laptop screen, which was driving the overhead projector in the conference room – Patricia Shanahan Feb 5 '15 at 12:31
  • @Alexandros Not sure if they are allowed to participate via teleconference tool. A practical solution if possible. – gman Feb 5 '15 at 12:35
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    Here in Sweden external examiners often come from the US, and the distance doesn't seem to be a deterrent for them. And this week there is another one coming from Japan. – Davidmh Feb 5 '15 at 13:02
  • How flexible is the scheduling? If your university is buying the air ticket, and you can accommodate the external examiner's schedule, I think your request will prove popular. Conversely, if you must insist that someone be there on a particular Wednesday during the middle of their term, I think they would be reluctant to agree. – Anonymous Feb 5 '15 at 13:06
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I would just ask the potential examiner in an open manner, giving them the opportunity to decline without feeling bad. There are many reasons why a long trip may not be a burden: One of my external examiner came from Hong Kong to the Netherlands, but he used that trip to also collaborate with my supervisor. Another came from the USA, but use the trip to also visit family. You cannot know this without asking them.

  • Similar thing here: one of my (total of 5) examiners came from California to The Netherlands. Our department covered his travel and hotel costs for a few days; he came with his wife and planned another week of holidays afterwards. I think was a great arrangement for all, but I should mention that this professor was already retired so he probably didn't have any commitments. – Jaap Eldering Sep 11 '15 at 14:09
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If your university is paying the expenses, then it's quite plausible for an examiner to come from arbitrarily far away. I myself have gone from the US to Europe to serve as an external examiner, and it was no more a burden than traveling to a foreign conference. You can also combine other things into the trip: for example, when I served, my colleague also asked me to give an invited seminar, and we took the opportunity to work on some collaborations as well.

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    Pro tip some supervisors do: schedule the seminar the day before the defence, to make sure the opponent is in the country on time. – Davidmh Feb 5 '15 at 13:45
  • @Davidmh Excellent suggestion --- and also exactly what happened with me. I also had to turn up early enough to obtain the appropriate (unusual) formal academic garb for the defense. – jakebeal Feb 5 '15 at 13:47
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In my department, we chose examiners based on their expertise. It will be up to the proposed examiner to decide whether the journey is worth it or not and decline the task if so desired. Being in Europe, we have had examiners from Australia, China, South Africa and Brazil as well as from north America and closer. Distance has not been an issue when selecting candidates for the job, we have simply looked for persons who can have good insight and reputation.

One aspect, which is always present but not the primary reason for choices is also if they can be future connections for the faculty. Any examiner has to be free from conflicts of interest so for the most part they are new to the collaborative sphere of the faculty members but if they are of interest to widen the sphere, this is seen as a positive.

There have been a few issues that have emerged and that concerns long-distance travel problems. If we chose someone from Europe (being in Europe) a cancelled or missed flight constitutes a small problem since there most often are numerous other flights to destinations within a day. This is usually not the case with very long distance travel and any problem can cause irreparable delays and possibly a cancelled defence. So if a long distance candidate is chosen, we make sure the person arrives at least a day early to the defence. Extra costs will also have to be carried by the research group within which the defending PhD student belongs. The latter is a local solution that probably cannot be translated to all other academic cultures. The bottom line is that there are "dangers" with long-distance visitors.

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As @Alexandros mentioned in his comment, in this day and age, teleconferencing is a very viable option.

To give a personal example: During the course of my PhD studies, two of the members of my PhD committee had moved away from the city where my university was located.

  • One of my committee members took a relatively short 4 hour train ride to be physically present for my PhD defense.
  • The other committee member was at least a 7 hour plane ride away. This member decided not to travel, but joined my PhD defense via Skype (for video) and a conference call (for audio).

Based on my experience observing my PhD classmates, it was not uncommon for external committee members to join via teleconference.

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