8.12 Final Doctoral Examination
Preliminary Acceptance of the Thesis
Before the thesis is forwarded to the external examiner, PhD supervisory committee members shall declare in writing to the supervisor either that the thesis is of adequate substance (and quality) to warrant that the student proceed to the final examination or that the thesis is unsatisfactory and the student should not be allowed to proceed to the final oral examination. (FGSR Council, 1989/06/19)
The purpose of this process is to ensure the thesis is vetted by the supervisor and all supervisory committee members and to verify that it is of sufficient substance and quality to proceed to the defence. This process is critical to protect and uphold the reputation of the department and the University of Alberta for excellence in graduate programs. It is also critical to ensure that External Examiners and other additional members of the examining committee are not asked to invest time reading a thesis that is substandard.
Departments may choose to prepare a "Preliminary Acceptance of Thesis" signature sheet for their own records.
Inviting the External Examiner or Reader
It is the responsibility of the department chair to nominate an external examiner or reader and to submit the name to the FGSR for approval. This should be done on a Request to Invite External Reader or Examiner for the Final Doctoral Oral Examination form prepared by the department normally at least two months in advance of the examination date (FGSR Council, 1989/06/19). The form is available on the FGSR website at www.gradstudies.ualberta.ca (Exams & Convocation).
The submission must include a brief CV of the external examiner and a short statement regarding the external's qualifications. The FGSR is particularly interested in the external examiner's current scholarly publications and research activities and experience with graduate student education.
The external shall be a recognized authority in the special field of research of the candidate's thesis, and will be an experienced supervisor of doctoral students. The proposed external examiner must be in a position to review the thesis objectively and to provide a critical analysis of the work and the presentation. It is therefore essential that the external examiner not have a current or previous association with the student, the supervisor, or the department that would hinder this type of objective analysis. For example, a proposed examiner who has recently been associated with the student as a research collaborator or co-author would not be eligible. Also, a proposed external examiner must not have had recent association with the doctoral candidate's supervisor (as a former student, supervisor, or close collaborator, for instance). Supervisors who are in doubt about the eligibility of a potential external examiner should call the Vice-Dean, FGSR to review the case before approaching the external.
Under normal circumstances the same person will not be used as an external examiner at the University of Alberta if that examiner has served in the same capacity at this University within the preceding two years. (FGSR Council, 1989/06/19). The FGSR interprets this to mean the same external examiner cannot be used in the same department within two years; this does not preclude an examiner serving in another department (2004/11/01).
Once the external has been approved by the FGSR, the Vice-Dean, FGSR, will officially invite the external, with a copy of the letter of invitation to the department.
The external shall receive the thesis at least four weeks before the final oral examination. (FGSR Council, 1989/06/19)
The external should not be contacting the supervisor directly regarding the thesis or making arrangements related to the examination.
FGSR Travel Funds for External Examiners
The Dean, FGSR, has limited funding available for external examiners if graduate coordinators provide a compelling rationale why it would be particularly important to have an external examiner in attendance. Departments should complete and submit a Request for Funds for External Examiner Travel form. See Doctoral Candidacy & Final Oral Exams. In certain special circumstances where the Vice-Dean, FGSR determines that the external examiner must be present at the examination, the FGSR will fund external examiner travel.
Final Doctoral Examining Committee Composition
Before nominating the final doctoral examining committee, ensure that eligibility criteria, conflict of interest, and teleconferencing guidelines have been met.
Minimum five faculty member examiners:
- The supervisory committee and (normally) the addition of at least two other faculty members
- At least one University of Alberta member must be from outside the department (see “Internal/External Examiners”).
- One member must be an external examiner/reader from outside the University
- In addition to the external, the committee must have a minimum of one additional arm's length member who comes new to the examination (but may have served on the candidacy examining committee). The FGSR encourages departments to nominate for this function a University staff member who comes to the finished thesis having read none of its earlier drafts. In this way the student benefits from an outside perspective without any of the possible biases of the supervisor and supervisory committee members.
- Must be chaired by a faculty member who is not the supervisor (or co-supervisor) but is a member of the student's home department. If this chair is not a member of the examining committee (FGSR encourages this arrangement), the chair does not vote.
- Must have a minimum of five members in attendance at the examination, which includes members participating through teleconferencing (see “Attendance at Examinations”). If an external reader is used, there still needs to be five members in attendance at the examination.
- Roles of members (except the chair) can be in almost any combination. Examples: co-supervisors; a co-supervisor from outside the department; supervisor from outside the department; arm's length member from inside or outside the department, etc.
Approval of the Final Doctoral Examining Committee
The department will recommend names of all members of the final oral examining committee and forward them to the FGSR for approval on a Notice and Approval of Doctoral Final Oral Examining Committee form. The form is available at www.gradstudies.ualberta.ca (Exams & Convocation). This form must be submitted to the FGSR at least three weeks before the date of the final oral examination.
Changing a Doctoral Final Oral Examining Committee
The department recommends revisions to the final examining committee by completing a Notice and Approval of Doctoral Final Oral Examining Committee form and submitting it to the FGSR.
Report of the External Reader
In the letter of invitation sent to the external reader by the FGSR, the external reader is requested to provide to the graduate coordinator in the department and the FGSR, at least one week in advance of the examination, a written evaluation of the thesis, including the following items:
- a statement that the thesis is acceptable for the doctoral degree,
- either a brief, written commentary on the scope, structure, methodology, and findings of the thesis, which can be read to the candidate for response, or
- a list of clear, direct, contextualized questions (preferably no more than five) for the candidate to address during the examination,
- a list of minor corrections (if any).
The chair of the examining committee will present the external's report and questions to the student for the first time during the examination and the committee will evaluate the student's answers as part of the examination.
(FGSR Council, 1990/02/16)
When an External Examiner Attends the Oral
If the department and supervisor have the resources to bring an external to the campus for the examination, the FGSR encourages them to do so. In these cases, departments should indicate on the Request to Invite External Reader or Examiner for the Final Doctoral Oral Examination form that the external will be in attendance. Once the external examiner is approved by the Vice-Dean, FGSR, a letter of invitation will be mailed to the external asking that the thesis be temporarily placed in one of the following categories:
- the thesis is acceptable with minor or no revisions;
- the external wishes to reserve judgment until after the examination; or
- the thesis is unacceptable without major revisions. If the thesis is judged by the external to fall into the last category, the external is asked to contact the Vice-Dean, FGSR immediately, since the final examination may have to be postponed.
The external examiner will also be asked to make travel arrangements in consultation with the department. All travel expenses involved are the responsibility of the department.
Report of the External Examiner
In the letter of invitation sent to the attending external examiner by the FGSR, the external is requested to prepare and send to the graduate coordinator, at least one week in advance of the examination, a brief written commentary (approximately two to three pages) on the structure, methodology, quality, significance and findings of the thesis for the reference of both the candidate and supervisor. The commentary should not be given to the student prior to the examination. (FGSR Council, 2004/06/04)
Establishing Doctoral Examination Procedures
Each department offering a doctoral degree is required to establish detailed examination procedures for final oral examinations. These procedures should be made available to faculty members and students in the department and to the Dean, FGSR.
(FGSR Council, 1985/03/15)
The examining committee shall conduct a final oral examination, based largely on the thesis.
It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that:
- proper arrangements are made for the candidate's examination
- the examination is scheduled and held in accordance with FGSR regulations
- the candidate is not required to make these arrangements
In the absence of the supervisor, these responsibilities shall be borne by the departmental graduate coordinator or designate.
The department must notify the examining committee members of the examination date and should supply them with a copy of the thesis at least three weeks in advance (four weeks for the external), so that they may have adequate time to appraise the thesis.
The language used to conduct the examination shall be English. However, the committee may petition the Dean, FGSR, and on receiving written approval, may conduct the examination in a language other than English.
The following recommendations/guidelines may be useful for departments in establishing such procedures.
- Ensure that the examination is held in an appropriate venue. Several times observers have remarked that an examination room was too small or uncomfortable.
- It is customary for the candidate to leave the room while procedures are determined and explained (ie, the order of questioning, the length of time allocated per question, the number of rounds, etc). It has been found that a CV provided by the candidate is often helpful (for example, to help an external examiner write a subsequent letter of reference); a quick review of the student's progress through the program is also useful.
- Ensure that the chair, student and all examiners have a final draft of the thesis at the examination.
- The candidate should make a brief presentation about the thesis, usually from five to 20 minutes long. This functions to calm the candidate's nerves and to remind the examiners about important aspects of the thesis. Candidates should never play host or hostess, serving tea, etc.
- It is generally agreed that the most time should be allotted to the internal/external member and the external examiner (if present) and the least to the supervisor. In this way new and challenging questions are asked in place of reiteration of questioning already utilized to develop the candidate and enhance the research. Examiners should avoid arguing among themselves and excluding the candidate. They should not lecture but should ask detailed questions about the thesis and occasional broad, disciplinary questions, testing for evidence of education, not just training. Typographical and stylistic errors should not take up examination time.
- At the close of the examination, before the student is asked to withdraw, it is often beneficial to ask the candidate if there are any final comments. When a positive conclusion is obvious, some time should be spent on discussing the future of the thesis and the research area.
- For the adjudication, no final verdict should be rendered without each examiner having given an opinion. It is customary for two opinions to be sought: (1) on the acceptability of the thesis; and (2) on the acceptability of the defence.
- In announcing the decision, some observers feel that the best result is achieved if the announcement is made in front of all the examiners, not outside the room by the chair.
Responsibilities of the Chair
The final oral examination shall be chaired by a faculty member who is not the supervisor but is a member of the student's home department. Each department shall establish a mechanism by which individuals are assigned this responsibility. The chair is responsible for moderating the discussion and directing questions and may participate in the questioning. If the chair is not a member of the committee, the chair does not vote or sign the thesis. It is the chair's responsibility to ensure that departmental and FGSR regulations relating to the final oral examination are followed.
(FGSR Council, 1989/06/19)
Attendance at Doctoral Examinations
Faculty members of the student's major department as well as members of FGSR Council (or their alternates) have the right to attend doctoral examinations but should notify the chair of the examining committee. Other persons may attend the defence only with special permission of the Dean, FGSR, or the chair of the examining committee. Except for the Dean, FGSR, (or Vice-Dean or Associate Dean or pro dean) who may participate fully in the examination, persons who are not members of the examining committee: (a) may participate in the questioning only by permission of the chair of the committee; (b) are not permitted to participate in the discussion of the student's performance and must withdraw before such discussion commences (see “Attendance at Examinations” and “Attendance of Pro Dean at Examinations”).
Decision of the Final Doctoral Examining Committee
The decision of the examining committee will be based both on the content of the thesis and on the candidate's ability to defend it. Normally, if all but one member of the committee agrees on a decision, the decision shall be that of the majority, except when the one dissenting vote is that of the external examiner. If this happens, it must be reported to the Vice-Dean, FGSR, who will determine an appropriate course of action. If two or more dissenting votes are recorded, the department will refer the matter to the Vice-Dean, FGSR, who will determine an appropriate course of action.
One of the following outcomes of the final oral examination is appropriate:
- Pass subject to revisions
There is no provision for a final oral examination to be “passed subject to major revisions”.
Pass: If the student passes the examination, the department shall complete a Thesis Approval/Program Completion form and submit it to the FGSR. The form is available on the FGSR website at www.gradstudies.ualberta.ca (Exams & Convocation).
Pass subject to revisions: The student has satisfactorily defended the thesis but the revisions to the thesis are sufficiently minor that it will not require a reconvening of the examining committee. The department shall complete a Thesis Approval/Program Completion form and submit it to the FGSR indicating “pass subject to revisions”. It is expected that the student will make the changes in time to submit the thesis to the FGSR on or before the deadline for the next convocation. These changes should be checked and approved by the committee chair or supervisor, who does not sign until the required changes are satisfactorily completed. Other committee members may also wish to withhold their signature until they can verify that their required revisions have been made to their satisfaction.
Adjourned: The final oral examination should be adjourned in the following situations:
- The revisions to the thesis are sufficiently substantial (if further research or experimentation or major reworking of sections are required, or if the committee is not satisfied with the general presentation of the thesis) that it will require a reconvening of the examining committee. The committee should not propose that the candidate has passed, rather the committee shall adjourn the examination.
- The committee is dissatisfied with the candidate’s oral presentation and defence of the thesis, even if the thesis itself is acceptable with or without minor revisions.
- Compelling, extraordinary circumstances such as a sudden medical emergency during the examination.
If the examination is adjourned, the committee should
- Specify in writing to the student, with as much precision as possible, the nature of the deficiencies and, in the case of revisions to the thesis, the extent of the revisions required. Where the oral defence is unsatisfactory, it may be necessary to arrange some discussion periods with the candidate prior to reconvening the examination.
- Decide upon a date to reconvene. If the date of the reconvened oral examination depends upon the completion of a research task or a series of discussions, it should be made clear which committee members will decide on the appropriate date to reconvene. The final date set for reconvening shall be no later than six months from the date of the examination. A final decision of the examining committee must be made within six months of the initial examination.
(FGSR Council, 1988/04/15)
- Make it clear to the student what will be required by way of approval before the examination is reconvened (eg, approval of the committee chair or supervisor, approval of the entire committee, or of select members of the committee).
- Specify the supervision and assistance the student may expect from the committee members in meeting the necessary revisions.
- Advise the Vice-Dean, FGSR in writing of the adjournment and the conditions (in the points above).
- When the date is set for the adjourned final oral examination, the department will notify the FGSR. Normally the Dean, Vice-Dean, Associate Dean or Pro Dean attends the examination.
Fail: If the final examination committee agrees that the student has failed, the committee chair shall provide the reasons for this recommendation and the department’s decision for the student’s program in writing to the Vice-Dean, FGSR and to the student. For failed examinations, the Vice-Dean, FGSR, will arrange to meet with the candidate and with department representatives before acting upon any department recommendation. A decision of the FGSR which affects the student's academic standing (ie, required to withdraw or transfer to a master's program) is appealable.
Signatures on the Doctoral Thesis
Note: In March 2009, the FGSR implemented a new Thesis Approval/Program Completion form, replacing signature pages in the thesis. The same guidelines below apply.
Many departments adhere to the following guidelines in having members of the examining committee sign the thesis signature page.
Pass: Thesis is approved as is. Examining committee members sign the signature page immediately. (If one of the examiners fails the student but the student passes, that examiner does not have to sign the thesis.)
The following guidelines may be followed for external readers, under the assumption that the external reader has indicated general acceptance of the thesis:
- When the external does not attend the final oral examination, and the student has passed the final oral examination (with the assent of the external), the external examiner's name and institution will be typed on the signature page, and the chair of the examining committee will initial the external's signature line. All other examining committee members will sign the signature page.
- When the external examiner attends the final oral examination, the external shall sign the thesis along with the other committee members.
Pass subject to revisions: Members who wish to do so sign immediately. The committee chair or supervisor withholds the signature until the thesis is amended satisfactorily and all other committee members have signed. If problems arise in the amendment process, the chair or supervisor may wish to solicit opinions from the other committee members.
Adjourned: No member of the committee signs the signature page.
Fail: No member of the committee signs the signature page.
Time Limit for Submission of Doctoral Theses to FGSR
Following completion of the final oral examination at which the thesis is passed or passed subject to revisions, the candidate shall make the appropriate revisions where necessary and submit the approved thesis to the FGSR within six months of the date of the final oral examination. Departments may impose earlier deadlines for submitting revisions.
If the thesis is not submitted to the FGSR within the six-month time limit, the candidate will be considered to have withdrawn from the program. After this time, the candidate must apply and be re-admitted to the FGSR and register again before the thesis can be accepted.
If the final oral examination is adjourned, the six-month time limit will take effect from the date of completion of the examination where the thesis was passed with or without revisions.
(FGSR Council, 1988/04/15)
In order to convocate, all doctoral students must submit their thesis to the FGSR for approval before the deadline dates set out in the Academic Schedule of the Calendar. Students must also ensure that they are registered in Thesis in their last registration prior to convocation (see "Thesis Requirements").