In order to be awarded a PhD degree, doctoral candidates undergo a rigorous examination process. While the University of Malta has clear guidelines and criteria regarding the standards expected from doctoral research, there is minimal information available about the way in which examiners in different disciplines interpret these criteria.
A case study, using data from 157 examiner reports, submitted to the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Education, and the Faculty of Medicine & Surgery during the academic years 2017-2018 was carried out to gain more information about the doctoral examination process. The study was led by Prof. Deborah Chetcuti from the Department of Mathematics and Science Education, in collaboration with Pro-Rector, Prof. Joseph Cacciottolo and Prof. Nicholas Vella, Director of the Doctoral School.
The analysis of the examiner reports suggests that the majority of examiners (71%) across Faculties mainly made use of the assessment criteria outlined in the PhD regulations of the University of Malta (2008). However, some examiners (29%), also made use of criteria that were not included in the regulations but were based on their implicit knowledge of what doctoral research in their area should look like. There were also some disciplinary differences in the way in which examiners interpreted criteria.
The findings suggest that examiners looked for:
- evidence that the doctoral candidate had an in-depth understanding of the research field and had made a contribution to knowledge which in the humanities involved contributing to new theory and in the sciences a practical contribution to society as well as the academic community;
- evidence of the development of research skills and a critical, reflective approach to research that was valuable not only for achieving a PhD but also for future careers;
- a coherent presentation of the work with a focus on language presentation in the humanities and the presentation of results in the sciences; and
- the ability to communicate research findings to academic peers and the non-academic community, with examiners in the sciences being impressed by published work.
Examiner reports also included extensive feedback addressed to the doctoral candidate. This feedback was mainly editorial where examiners made corrections regarding editing of the work; instructional that included clear directions and fix-it comments; or dialogic where examiners made suggestions such as asking questions and provided new possibilities for reflection. In providing feedback, examiners took on a mentoring role, in order to help the doctoral candidates to improve the quality of their work, prior to the final submission of their work.
The results of the study suggest a shift in the doctoral examination process from the traditional role of summative gate-keeping to a more formative learning experience. Within such a context, the study highlights the need for more professional development for examiners to help them better understand their role and the impact of their comments on the development of doctoral candidates as independent researchers.
Aspects of the study based on the data from examiner reports presented to the Faculty of Arts, were presented virtually at the 3rd World Conference on Teaching and Education, held between 3 and 5 September, in Prague, Czech Republic. This conference provided the opportunity to present research findings to scholars, academics and researchers from around the world.
The paper presented at the conference can be accessed online.