Top 5 tips on what examiners look for in a PhD or Masters

By: Dr Marcia Lebambo

One sentence at a time maketh a PhD. Learn-by-doing.

This year, I examined my 5th thesis/dissertation.  I must say it is a privilege to review the work of other students. What I look forward to the most is finding out what riddle their research was able to solve and consequent contribution to the body of knowledge.

Having said that, I am well aware of the fact that submitting a research project to examiners is daunting and often viewed as punitive by students. But to put you at ease, the examination of dissertations is not a punishment, it is rather an evaluative feedback process that authenticate students’ research work. This process introduces your work to the world.

 A disclaimer – this is not a research class. We are having a light conversation on how to move from seeing academic research as a nightmare and start seeing it as a journey that requires one sentence at a time.

I hope after this, you will have a different view and finally complete your PhD or Masters.

One thing students should always remember is that academic research is a different form of research. It requires a Systematic, Controlled, Empirical and Critical approach to investigate a phenomena.

As a result, all activities involved should follow that systematic process. This is done to ensure that the work produced is of quality; this includes ethical considerations among other key considerations – hence the use of external qualified examiners.

So here we go:

  1. First impressions last, remember that. I printed my PhD thesis book using gloss paper and instead of the common spiral binding I chose perfect binding to ensure that the edges of the pages are flattened to guarantee a tight bind.You don’t want your thesis arriving with loose pages to the examiner. I may have been a little extra with gloss print and perfect binding which came at an extra cost, but the question is ‘how bad do you want it?’

    I am not saying use expensive printing options; it does not have to be gloss. The point I am making is that the document is your advocate. It is the only thing that can communicate your message to the reader – your examiner. Make sure it represent you well.

  2. Do not submit unedited work. Take care of technical issues such as formatting and language editing. Simple things such as grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, can ruin a good study. This can be avoided by making use of qualified language editors.
  3. The flow of sections is the crux of your thesis. This is extremely important. Your storyline should be in sync. Incoherence and inconsistency between the chapters deforms the purpose of the study.Think about how we often discredit some of the TV dramas we watch on TV simply because the storyline does not add up. It could either be too far-fetched, new characters introduced haphazardly, characters not staying true to their storylines, etc.

    That turns you off right? Similarly, as students, we tend to make such costly mistakes. Stay within the storyline. Remember you are telling a story.

You may be asking yourself “where do I start?” The simple answer, through conversations with people around you. For example, your supervisor. Talk to your supervisor as often as possible. Extend the conversation to others such as friends, colleagues or even mentors. This strategy works magic.

I learnt it from my supervisor who would often say to me, “forget about sounding too academic. Let’s have a conversation”. Prof Shambare would encourage me to talk to him like I was talking to my niece, Keabetswe, who was 5 years old at the time of my studies. The aim of this exercise is to make sense of the focus of your research and to stay within the storyline – the problem you are investigating.

  1. Use a simple, clear and precise writing style. Organise your ideas and present your arguments in a complete and coherent manner.Pay attention to the tone and clarity in your writing. This helps to create meaning for the reader, in this case your examiner. Your writing should ensure that sections form a meaningful and integrated unit.
  2. Less is more. Break your sections into subsections. Nothing is more painful than reading a four-page clean text with no pictures, tables, figures, subsection, just clean words.Packaging is as important as the product or service. So, go ahead and use tables, pictures and figures where you can. It is possible to move an 4 page text into one simple table.

Bonus tips (how to formulate a tittle and abstract)

  • The title: Students often have a tough time coming up with a title but the best place to start is your research problem. It is advisable to clearly articulate your problem before attempting to write a tittle. A research problem is simply a statement about an area of concern. A topic is derived from the problem.
  • The abstract: I call it the research trailer. How many of us have watched a movie at the cinema without seeing the trailer? If you have, you are very brave. The abstract is the summation of the work. As such, it should entice the reader.My advice; write the abstract after you have completed all your chapters – ALL. Because if you don’t, then the question is ‘what are you summarising if you have not completed the work?’ It is important to cover all important aspects without giving away too much. Notes to take when drafting your abstract:
  • Briefly explain the problem you are attempting to solve and clearly convey the intention of the study.
  • What methodology have you followed to navigate your study?
  • What are the key findings/ contribution of your study to the body of knowledge? In no particular order. This will depend on your writing style.

Remember one sentence a time maketh a PhD. Learn by doing!

Love and Light to you and your studies

Dr Mash

Dr Marcia Lebambo graduated her doctorate in Business Administration from Tshwane University of Technology, Business School. She currently works as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg. She writes this piece in her personal capacity. Her thesis investigated entrepreneurial policies and their influence in developing micro tourism entrepreneurs in rural areas.

All articles written by this CONTRIBUTOR are solely their opinion and do not represent the views of After12 Magazine. Should you have any queries or concerns, please don't hesitate to email them to

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