Saturday, 29 May 2010

Examining a PhD thesis in Kazakhstan

A couple of years ago I was asked to examine a PhD at a university out in Kazakhstan, and since I really love the place, having done some research out there a while ago (see one of my April posts), I could hardly pass up the chance to visit again. The thesis was on energy policy in Kazakhstan and was written in Russian. Luckily, I can read Russian quite well but I asked that my report be written in English as my written and spoken Russian are fairly basic. This was agreed.

Hence on a very hot morning in early June, I arrived in Almaty (the old, Soviet-era capital), a lovely town with lots of trees, surrounded by snowy mountains, and full of brand new buildings, reflecting the country's booming economy. Since then it has not been booming quite so strongly, as the banking sector was hit hard by the world financial crisis. But it's already recovering, I gather. The university was very welcoming, and there were a couple of free days before the formal business, during which I met several PhD students besides the one I was to examine and gave advice on their research when I could. The British consulate in Almaty (the embassy now being in the new capital, Astana) also held a reception one evening to mark the Queen's official birthday, so I was invited to that, having met the Ambassador on a previous visit to the country.

The formal business turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. A bit naively, I had tended to assume that everyone examined a PhD in pretty much the same way as we do in the UK, an unduly Anglo-centric view of the world I must admit. But not at all! For a start, the examination was quite public in the sense that the candidate, his family, various other students and diverse academics were present. The candidate gave a 15 minute presentation on his thesis, I then presented my own report (which had been translated into Russian), and this was followed by an hour or so of general discussion. It was hard for me to follow everything, but I managed well enough. Then the chairman asked everyone to leave except the four members of the examinations board, of which I was the external member. We discussed the thesis a little and agreed that it was a good piece of work, a clear pass.

Out of the blue, the chairman suddenly asked me what mark I wanted to give the thesis. I explained that in the UK we don't give marks for a PhD thesis. But that wasn't acceptable, so I proposed a mark in the low 70s per cent. This caused immediate consternation - the chairman informed me that such a mark was virtually a fail in their system. Eventually, I gathered that what the board was looking for was a mark in the range 95-100 per cent - no one had thought to explain their system to me, and I had just assumed it would be like ours. Now that I understood their system, however, I gave a mark of 96 per cent, and was amused to find that my mark was the lowest. One member of the board said very positively, "I give the maximum, 100 per cent." Amazing.

After the formal business a nice lunch was laid on for everyone, including the students and their families. Lots of soft drinks were on offer, but I was a bit surprised that there was no vodka. I mentioned this to the exam board chairman, and he explained that it wasn't like the old days when vodka was brought out on every occasion. Apparently there were new regulations about such matters. However, as I, the foreign guest, had mentioned this lacuna in the arrangements, the new rules could be suspended, and within a few seconds several bottles of vodka appeared. We then drank several toasts to " the success of the new PhDs", "the Kazakh economy" and "success for Kazakhstan in the 2010 football World Cup." You get the idea. That rounded off a very pleasant and interesting visit to Kazakhstan.

1 comment:

  1. I think being a part of a thesis committee, or in your part, as an examiner can really be tough. There would be a chance that they would be some thesis topics ideas that you’re not source of because it is the first time you encounter it. Nonetheless, I bet that it just great to know that you have the chance to examine one and be at Kazakhstan at the same time.