How to examine a dissertation without reading!


I was siting in the room of one of my senior colleagues at the University chatting in general. He suddenly looked into his wristwatch and exclaimed “Oh, time to go for the exam – I have to go upstairs to examine a Masters dissertation”.

The Masters dissertation that my friend was to examine was in a sealed envelope on his desk. So clearly, he had not read the dissertation. But still just to be sure, I asked “but have you read the dissertation at all?”. My friend just smiled and said “No, I haven’t. And you don’t need to read the dissertation for the examination”. After seeing my bewildered face he said “You are too raw in this game Prasad, come along and I will show you how”. I joined him right away as I was eager to learn the art of thesis examination.

“Hold on” he said. He opened the drawers of his table and pulled out a pad of colourful stickers that we use as page markers.   He then put a number of these stickers across the pages of the dissertation randomly so that it really looked like a “well read” and a “well-marked” work! This looked both colourful and  impressive. He then got up from his chair and took me along to the examination room upstairs.

The examination room was packed. The guide (another professor) and Chair were sitting in the front row.   The student (poor guy) was on the stage with a nervous face waiting for the examiner. Other students in the hall were sitting – with an atmosphere of silence punctuated with whispers. My friend was a well-known Professor in his field so when we walked in – the students stood up with respect and even the Guide Professor and the Chair acknowledged his coming in. We took the front row to sit.

But my friend did a strange thing as he was sitting down. He banged on the desk copy of “the dissertation” like a thud– so loudly and hard that not only it made an impactful noise but raised a small cloud of dust! All looked at the desk and noticed the copy of dissertation with a number of colourful page markers stuffed in. That was scary – especially to the student who was to be examined. It was clear that Professor had read the dissertation in great details, made page specific observations and was “ready to kill”. Even the Professor Guide had a worried face.

The student was asked to start the presentation. I could see however sweat on his forehead and his eyeballs at the copy of his dissertation in front of my friend. The dissertation looked like a pigeon wounded with colourful arrows.  I don’t think the student spoke at his best.

Once the presentation was over, the Chair Professor turned to my friend and asked if there were any questions. And this was the real turning point for me.

My friend took some pause and said “Good attempt. I have many questions to ask but let me not get into details here” and while saying so, he kept turning pages of the marked up dissertation.

He then looked up to the student and said

Are you happy with your work?    

He said this so casually but with a cunningness of a land mine. And there was a silence.

The student did not know what to say. If he said, he is happy then what about those numerous questions the Prof already has (in the form of stickers stuffed in) and if he said not happy then the next question will be obviously why? He was in a real fix.

So he chose to be “safe” and said that he was not really happy. This led to the first crack on the door. As he “confessed” telling why he was not so happy, my learned friend dug in and came up with a volley of questions that the student found hard to answer.

After this bit was done, there came the next question

If you had more time, what else you could have done?

This was another tough one. The student realized that if he had said that there was nothing more to be done – then he was clearly in trouble. So he preferred to tell how he missed doing X and would have liked to do Y etc. This led to another volley of questions from my friend.

Then came the last ball of googly

My friend asked

All this is good in theory, but can your work be applied in practice?  

While asking this question, he made a face of a CEO of a private sector company or of a picky investor – indicating that there were two worlds – one of the University and  other the Real World. And that he came from both these worlds.

The student was apologetic when it came to answering this question – oh we did not look at the economics, we need more pilot runs, we assumed support of following policies etc.   This questioned the immediate usefulness of the work done.

Finally the examination round ended with my friend advising the student what should have been done and what was not needed … This part was both hard hitting as well as educative and I liked the latter part how my friend did – so cleverly.  The Guide was grateful. The Chair Professor was impressed. Students in the examination hall were really floored to see the conduct of the examination.

When we got back to his office, my friend looked at me, smiled and said “ Hope you got it!”. And indeed, I had understood the “game” (as he had earlier said) and I had nothing much to add seeing that impressive performance. He then stood up and said “have to go home now” and then while putting on his coat  exclaimed “ now let me rearrange the stickers in the car on the right pages on my way home based on the students answers in the examination. I will then pass the copy to him tomorrow for fixing!”. I simply gaped!

I was really awed and amazed with this style of examination.

Next time, when you examine a student, don’t read the dissertation, follow my friends style of conduct and ask the three key questions that matter!!

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  1. Dear Professor Prasad,
    This is what had happend to me when I finished my PhD on Markov Models and Pumping System Reliability which is highly mathematical with differential equations. There were two outcomes: 1. Was awarded a PhD degree.and not so good outcome- It has very little practical relevance. This was the reason why I got into fuzzy set theory in early 80’s which models the perception of experts and the numeric data..Some how, this is not realised in India and therefore I travel in other countries. Also, it is improper to start application of any mathematical theory without going to depth is suicidal. If any one of your colleague / research scholar is interested, he/ she may attend my workshop in Liver Pool University , UK on Nov 18-20, 2014. Please read our paper on Ranking of Status for Power Plant Installation using Soft Computing Techniques-A Thought Beyond EIA.
    You might not be aware that NEERI’s auditorium and water supply scheme was designed by me where well make presentations and drik water. I am very practical and then became a fuzzy mathematician.In summary, theory and practice are complementary and not competitive. These are my views at 74. I am just back from NIT Silchar and will go to IITM beofe leaving for UK on Nov 13th.
    with warm regards,
    Ashok Deshpande ;Founding Chair: Berkeley Initiaitve in Soft Computing ( BISC)-SIG-EMS;Guest Faculty:UC Berkeley and so on..

  2. This style of evaluation will also help those students who worked hard in honest way… stand with full confidence and fight with every question like a knight… :))

  3. Humorous way of looking at our profession. To the best of my knowledge, many of us are guilty of this practise to varying degrees for varying (some times indefinable) reasons. But probably the position of the professor also matters. It takes a long enduring experience to develop the technique to confidently (smartly!!!) ask the key questions without reading the thesis and get away with it!!! You can reach this position only in stages starting from reading the whole thesis seriously and slowly the main points to finally only the title. We still have the courtesy to our examiners that we just give respectful answers even if the questions are hollow and silly.
    Well. every professor was once a student and hopefully remembers it too.

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