Me in robes

Yesterday I got a chance to wear my doctoral robes (Faculty of Letters, University of Reading). It was a strange and fun day and here’s why.

Dr Rachel Swallow

I was in work early yesterday since one of my PhD students was being examined that morning. After 1 hour and 25 minutes of viva voce examination, she passed. Congratulations Dr Rachel Swallow.

Indeed, after 16 years of holding an academic position, and 15 years after I passed my own doctoral exam, I have finally had a student pass at PhD level for whom I served as principal supervisor from start to finish! It’s taken so long because I’ve moved jobs!

In fact, there were two Rachels – one in history, one in archaeology – being examined in my department yesterday, and both passed. I have taught both Rachels in different capacities, so congratulations to both Dr Rachel Swallow and Dr Rachel Abbiss. I celebrated with a George & Dragon couple of pints and a burger before scooting off to change into my robe, hood and hat.


That’s right, for in the afternoon I got to stride in and out of Chester Cathedral for our Faculty of Humanities graduation ceremony. I enjoyed joining dozens of my colleagues in celebrating the graduation of undergraduate and Masters students from my department and from other departments in the Faculty, as well as an impressive parade of postgraduate research students. Congratulations to them one and all. My hands still hurt from all the clapping.

Reflecting on Examining

The combination of Rachel’s doctoral examination and seeing students graduate – including a fair number of new doctors, has made me reflect on the complex process of examining postgraduate research students.

Looking back, I’ve now had the privilege of serving as an examiner for 13 PhD students: 4 as an internal examiner (2 at Exeter, 2 at Chester), and 9 at other universities, all since coming to Chester. My external examining has taken me far and wide from Cambridge, Aarhus, Helsinki and Southampton, to Reading, Manchester, Bangor, Durham and Southampton again). This means I have now, in addition to other theses I have read and used in my research and teaching, read in detail 13 studies over c. 9 years that have all been awarded a PhD qualification.

Interestingly, of these theses, 10 have been theses in archaeology. In addition, 1 thesis was in museum studies and 2 were in history.

Where are they now? I know that some are still in academia (heritage, archaeology or elsewhere): indeed I know for sure that 4 are lecturers, two in the UK, one in Denmark, one in Finland. I won’t embarrass them by naming them here, but they know who they are, don’t you Anna, Tim, Ben and Darrell?

Examining a thesis is really hard and detailed work, and a lot is at stake so there is no way to take it less than completely seriously. I find it very stressful and I get very nervous, if not as nervous as the students themselves! Still, I have enjoyed the experience of reading and examining these theses. I have learned a lot. I have enjoyed the dialogue of the examination process. I am learning how to be critical but also fair in evaluating these works. I feel that by undertaking this work, I have a richer sense of the varied, complex and exhausting task of researching, writing and defending a thesis, although I always have my own personal experience of the gruelling process.

Incidentally, I’m doing my 10th external examination, my 14th examination in total, at York later this month!

Reflecting on Past Supervising

I’ve also been very busy over the last 9 years supervising my own postgraduate research students, either in supporting roles or as principal supervisor. It takes up a lot of work time and seldom goes smoothly and stress-free for me or the student. Still, the examining and supervising have informed each other and helped me learn more about doctoral theses and how they might be composed and the varied character of what constitutes their ‘research’.

Those that I supported and supervised at Exeter from 2006 were allocated alternative supervisors when I left for Chester in 2008. I continued to support them, organising a conference session with one, and seeing articles through to publication with two of them (Simpson and Williams 2008 in the journal Public Archaeology; Walls and Williams 2010 in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal) as well as doing my best to promote and facilitate their other publications.  I am extremely proud to learn that these two have gone on to bigger and better things using their PhDs as a spring board. One is now a Senior Lecturer and one directs an archaeology company! Incidentally, I was flattered to recently notice that both had the courtesy to recognise my input as original supervisor of their theses in their thesis Acknowledgements: I really appreciate that, most sincerely since you didn’t have to do it and others have decided not to! Still, I regret not being able to see them through to completion.

Moving to Chester, one of my Exeter students came with me. Sadly she decided to withdraw from postgraduate study in 2011, although we did co-author a book chapter together which I am proud of as it appeared in the book Signals of Belief (Content and Williams 2010).

Recent Supervising

So I made strong moves to being a supervisor of completed doctoral students at Exeter but moved on to pastures new before I could guide those students to completion. My supervision began afresh with new bright students at Chester, and the students’ hard work soon began to bear fruit  not only in submissions and passes, but also in publications.

Classic University of Chester promo shot – Ruth with Chester Cathedral, me (right) and then Head of Department of History and Archaeology Dr Keith McLay (left)

Having previous penned an award-winning undergraduate dissertation, Ruth Nugent passed her MPhil in 2011 on early Anglo-Saxon mortuary practice. Following on from that, she joined me on the Speaking with the Dead project for which she has just completed her doctoral thesis with me as principal supervisor, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. We have published one article together (Nugent and Williams 2012) and we plan further collaborations.

I also served as co-supervisor for Jo Kirton who passed her examination in May of this year focusing on Cheshire’s early medieval stone sculpture: Jo is therefore Chester’s first-ever archaeology PhD! We have also collaborated on a co-edited book project together, just published.  You can check out this book here, in which Jo has a chapter interpreting the landscape context of the Cleulow Cross.

Jo holding our co-edited book, with her co-editors Meggen and me, Head of Department Ian Shaw (left) and Dean of Faculty Rob Warner (right)

Now, finally, with Rachel’s success, I have my first principal supervised PhD through the examination process. Rachel already has a string of publications to her name in local, regional and national archaeology journals. She also has co-organised a national conference and has great plans for the future.

Rachel’s pass is obviously her success and her moment, but in writing this blog, I celebrate in my own sense and mark a moment for me too. For me, with this combined experience of supervising and examining under my belt, I feel I’ve finally come-of-age as an academic in an important sense. 

Future Doctoral Supervision and Examining

I will continue to learn from and help shape research by supervising and examining. I am very excited about my ongoing MPhil and MPhil/PhD student’s work – Carly McEvoy, Alison Smithson and Anna Davenport – who are pursuing research into medieval, post-medieval and contemporary death, burial and commemoration respectively. I have another new MPhil/PhD starting in January – Brian Costello – so the supervising never ends! Who knows also when and where I will next be asked to examine a doctoral thesis, helping to support the next generation of budding academics and researchers?