For many scholars this is important recognition and a key step on the path of career development. You won’t get paid much (expenses and a few hundred pounds at the most) but it is indicative of your good standing within the profession. There are two types of examination role: internal, examining a PhD within your department, and external where you examine at a different university.
How to get a job examining a PhD
Networking is crucial to your success. If you know that a PhD student is working in a field very close to your own, contact his or her supervisor to express an interest in examining the thesis. The supervisor will formulate the examining team and if this is an aspect of your career that you would like to develop, there is no harm in selling yourself. Your chances of getting an external examining job are increased if you have supervised or examined a PhD at your own institution and if you have been on your university’s training course.
Key things to remember: preparing for the viva
Each institution has slightly different rules and regulations for examining theses so make yourself familiar with those of the university for which you are examining. Make contact with the internal examiner in order to get advice on the customs of the university (for example, how long vivas usually take there). You will usually have the opportunity on the day of the viva to discuss procedures with the internal examiner. You may also discuss your impressions of the thesis, and your preliminary recommendation (pass, minor corrections or major modifications, in line with the university’s regulations). In fact in many universities, the custom is that the internal examiner takes the external out for lunch prior to the viva!
Reading the thesis
While you are reading the thesis, remember how you felt when you submitted yours. While you must be rigorous in your examination of the work, it is also crucial to bear in mind that this is not ‘the last word’ on the topic. It is the fruits of only three years’ labour and is not expected to be perfect. It is helpful to the candidate if you note down any typos or grammar errors for him or her to revise later, although these should not be brought up during the viva.
The viva itself
Although this is a formal and important occasion, remember that you are in a position of power and, if you choose, can put the candidate at their ease. You will have prepared a list of questions that you would like to ask. It is usual to start off with warm-up questions to allow the candidate to find their feet. Asking him or her to summarise their thesis or to state what is original about their work is a typical way of opening. More probing questions follow later.
The questions will be a mixture of points of information, challenges to arguments, or requests for clarification. At times a candidate might be asked to justify his or her position, but this works best when done sensitively and delicately. Remember that this is not an opportunity to show off how much you know, or what an expert you are, or that you would have written the thesis differently. The idea is to allow the candidate to perform to his or her best ability.
The viva is not the end of your role! Remember to complete the paperwork efficiently and thoroughly. You will usually have to write a short report summarising your decision and this will often be fed back to the candidate. If you require changes to the thesis, these must be clearly outlined. In some cases you will be required to read the amended thesis again before it is finally passed.