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The examination process

Outline of the Examination Process

The PhD examination process includes the following main stages:

Step 1: The candidate advises their department of his or her intention to submit

Step 2: Three examiners and a Convener are nominated by the department and then formally approved by the Graduate Research Committee.

Step 3: The candidate submits their thesis. A date for the oral examination is set (if applicable).

Step 4: Copies of the thesis are sent to the examiners and the Convener (assuming examiners have been approved)

Step 5: The examiners:
- read the thesis
- write their reports (independently)
- submit their reports and recommendation sheets to the Doctoral Office via email

Step 6: Once all three examiners’ reports are in, the Convener considers the reports

Step 7: The Convener arranges and chairs an oral examination, where applicable

Step 8: The Convener facilitates a consensus decision amongst the examiners

Step 9: The Convener advises the Doctoral Office of the initial outcome

Step 10: The Doctoral Office advises the candidate of that initial outcome

Step 11: If applicable, the candidate makes the required amendments/revisions

Step 12: In the case of amendments, the Convener and internal examiner (where applicable) check the amended thesis

In the case of a “revise and resubmit” decision, the examination process begins again (the same examination panel is normally used)

Step 13: The Convener advises the Doctoral Office of the final outcome

Step 14: The Doctoral Office advises the candidate of that final outcome

Step 15: The candidate submits the final two hard-bound copies of the thesis and e-thesis to OUR Archive

Step 16: The candidate graduates with a PhD degree!

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Introduction

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Otago is acquired solely by the submission of a thesis prepared under supervision. There is no course work, although candidates may be required to take certain papers in order to acquire specific knowledge or expertise to complete their research satisfactorily. The thesis may be submitted after at least 2.5 full-time years of study and no more than eight calendar years of study. The University expects, as a norm, that a PhD will take three years of full-time study to complete.

A successful PhD thesis will demonstrate the candidate's ability to conduct original research and to present the findings of that research to a professional standard. The thesis should give evidence that the candidate has made a significant contribution to knowledge in the particular field. On the award of the degree, the graduate should be a person capable of conceiving, designing and carrying out high-quality research in the area of their expertise without supervision.

As the highest degree awarded by the University of Otago for research supervised by members of the academic staff, the PhD requires a high degree of scholarly acumen, independence and perseverance.

The purpose of this document is to describe the policy and procedure for the examination of PhD theses as required by the regulations for the PhD degree. The accompanying flowchart provides a diagrammatical representation of the examination process.

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Advice of Intention to Submit

Candidates are requested to advise their supervisors of the intention to submit the thesis at least two months prior to submission. This will prompt the supervisors to nominate examiners and to submit an application for a Postgraduate Publishing Bursary if applicable.

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Nomination of Examiners and Convener of Examiners

PhD theses are normally examined by three examiners:

  • one from outside New Zealand ("Overseas External");
  • one from within New Zealand but external to the University ("New Zealand External"); and
  • one internal to the University ("Internal").

Normal patterns for examiners may be varied in exceptional circumstances. For instance, where no suitably qualified examiner is available to fulfil the role of “New Zealand External”, a further “Overseas External” will be appointed. Where no suitably qualified examiner can be found to fulfil the role of “Internal”, a further “New Zealand External” (or, in exceptional circumstances, an “Overseas External”) will be appointed. A supervisor, ex-supervisor or member of the Departmental Advisory Committee will not be appointed as an examiner.

Examiners should be suitably qualified to undertake the task. Suitably qualified examiners:

  • preferably have a PhD (or if not, some other higher degree but with appropriate research experience at a high level. It is unusual, however, for someone without a PhD to be nominated to examine a PhD thesis);
  • should be knowledgeable in the area/field/discipline of the topic of the thesis to be examined (i.e. the examiner should have the necessary background to be able to make an informed judgement about the thesis); and
  • should be research active.

When nominating examiners, consideration should also be given to the examining experience of the examiners. It is recommended that a mix of both experienced and inexperienced examiners should be nominated where a panel of three experienced examiners is not feasible. If more than one examiner is inexperienced (i.e. has not examined more than three doctoral theses), a strong justification will need to be made.

An independent Convener of Examiners convenes the examination. The Convener is not an examiner of the thesis but is a person who coordinates the examiners’ reports and submits a report on the recommendation of the examiners. If an oral examination is held, the Convener prepares for, and chairs, the oral examination (see below). Conveners are drawn from Heads of Department and other senior academic staff – a list of official Conveners is available on the PhD website. A Convener is not necessarily a member of the same department as the PhD candidate. A supervisor, ex-supervisor, or member of the Departmental Advisory Committee will not be appointed as Convener.

It is essential that departments begin the process of selecting potential examiners before the thesis is submitted so that the examination process is not unnecessarily protracted. The nominations for examiners are made by the Head of Department after consultation with the supervisors on the appropriate form which is available from the PhD website. The nomination of a Convener is made at the same time. It is the Head of Department’s responsibility to ensure that the nominated examiners and Convener are agreeable to performing their respective roles before the Nomination of Examiners form is submitted to the Doctoral Office.

The Graduate Research Committee, under the delegated authority of the Senate, approves examiners and the Convener.

The identities of the examiners are not divulged to one another until after their reports have been submitted, nor are their identities released to the candidate until after the examination result is made known by the Doctoral Office. If an oral examination is held, however, their identities will be divulged at that time.

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Submission of the Thesis

Before submitting the thesis, the candidate should discuss the thesis with the supervisor(s). If the thesis has been completed before the minimum enrolment time of 2.5 EFTS, approval is required from the supervisor(s), Head of Department and Dean (where applicable) that the thesis is ready to be submitted for examination. For theses completed beyond 2.5 EFTS, specific approval for submission is not required but it is advisable for agreement to be reached between the candidate and the supervisor(s) that the thesis is ready for submission. The candidate should then inform the Head of Department accordingly.

Candidates are advised to submit the thesis in a soft-bound format because this is relatively inexpensive and means that any required corrections or amendments can be made before the hard binding of the final copies. Candidates must submit four softbound copies of the thesis, accompanied by one signed softbound declaration form, which is available on the PhD website. The form should not be bound into the thesis, but submitted loosely. Otago Uniprint deals with enquires regarding the soft binding of theses (uniprint@otago.ac.nz).

Theses should NOT be submitted direct to academic departments but to the following staff:

  • for candidates in Dunedin – to the Doctoral Office in the Clocktower Building
  • for candidates in the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences – to the Manager, Academic Programmes, in the Dean’s Department
  • for candidates in the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences – to the Postgraduate Liaison Officer in the Postgraduate Office.

Candidates should also ensure that they have further copies of the thesis available for use by themselves and their supervisors should an oral examination be held. As the clock stops when a thesis is submitted, it is important that it be submitted to the appropriate University staff member.

Submission of the thesis is acknowledged by the Doctoral Office by a letter to the candidate. PhD enrolment formally ceases on submission, but candidates retain access to resources until submission of their hard bound theses prior to graduation. Theses are sent by courier to the “Overseas External” and “New Zealand External” examiners.

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Report by the Supervisors

When the thesis is submitted for examination, the supervisors shall provide a brief report on the work of the candidate. The report should:

(a) confirm that the work has been done under their immediate supervision and outline the part played by all involved in the supervision;
(b) attest that the supervisors have read the thesis in its entirety in a final draft and state whether the supervisors agree that the thesis is suitable for submission;
(c) provide a statement about the extent to which this is the candidate’s own work if parts of the thesis are based on published work under joint authorship; and
(d) provide any other relevant information on the candidate’s work.

The report should be signed by the primary supervisor and sent to the Doctoral Office, who will release a copy to the Convener of Examiners. At the discretion of the Convener, the report may be released to the examiners and then only after the examiners’ reports have been submitted.

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Written Reports from Examiners

Each of the examiners is requested to furnish a written report on the thesis together with an assessment of its acceptability in line with the University’s five-point scale:

(a) Accept, or accept with minor editorial corrections
(The corrections required are minor and can be completed in a short period of time, normally not longer than a few weeks. The Convener of Examiners will check that the corrections have been made satisfactorily.)

(b) Accept after amendments have been made to the satisfaction of the Convener of Examiners in consultation with the internal examiner
(The amendments required can be completed within a few months, normally not longer than two or three months. The amendments will be made to the satisfaction of the Convener of Examiners in consultation with the internal examiner.)

(c) Revise and resubmit for examination
(The thesis is not of the required PhD standard and requires substantial revision involving up to six months of work or possibly a little longer. The revised thesis will be resubmitted formally to all three examiners for a repeat examination.)

(d) Reject and refer to the appropriate authority within the University for consideration of the award of another degree
(The thesis is not of the required PhD standard and there is no likelihood that revisions will bring it up to that standard. However, the thesis may meet the standards required of an alternative degree, possibly a Master’s.)

(e) Reject with no right of resubmission
(The thesis is not of the required PhD standard and there is no likelihood that revisions will bring it up to that standard, nor does the thesis meet the standards required of an alternative degree.)

The examiners are asked to comment on the thesis with reference to the description of the degree (see “Introduction” above).

Examiners’ are requested to respond to the following questions:

  • Does the thesis comprise a coherent investigation of the chosen topic?
  • Does the thesis deal with a topic of sufficient range and depth to meet the requirements of the degree?
  • Does the thesis make an original contribution to knowledge in its field and contain material suitable for publication in an appropriate academic journal?
  • Does the thesis meet internationally recognised standards for the conduct and presentation of research in the field?
  • Does the thesis demonstrate both a thorough knowledge of the literature relevant to its subject and general field and the candidate’s ability to exercise critical and analytical judgement of that literature?
  • Does the thesis display mastery of appropriate methodology and/or theoretical material?

The reports should also contain specific comments on those parts of the thesis that the examiners believe to require correction or amendment.

The examiners form their own independent assessments of the thesis without discussion amongst themselves or with the candidate. Should discussion be necessary amongst the examiners, it will be co-ordinated by the Convener.

The examiners send the reports directly to the Doctoral Office. From there, they are forwarded to the Convener of Examiners. The examiners normally retain their copies of the thesis, unless they have marked comments on it that the candidate will need to see. In this case the thesis should be returned to the Doctoral Office.

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Oral Examination

An oral examination may be held on the recommendation of the examiners or the Convener or at the request of the candidate. Please note that it is customary in certain departments for oral examinations to be held for all PhD candidates. Compulsory oral examinations have been mandated for PhD candidates who first enrol from January 2014 onwards.

The Convener of Examiners will ascertain whether any of the examiners, or the candidate, requests an oral examination. The Convener will inform all parties involved, inlcuding the Doctoral Office, of an oral examination, using the Oral Examination Briefing Report.

If an oral examination is held, it is chaired by the Convener and is held after the examiners’ reports have been submitted. If the examination is held at the University, it will be attended by the Internal Examiner and the New Zealand External Examiner. In cases when this arrangement proves impractical or impossible, at the discretion of the Convener the oral examination will be conducted by audio or video conference. Under these circumstances, the Internal Examiner and at least one of the other examiners will be involved in the examination.

At the discretion and invitation of the Convener, the supervisor(s) and Head of Department may contribute to the oral examination. After consultation with the examiners, the Convener may approve the attendance of others at the oral examination (e.g. the candidate may wish to have a support person).

The main objectives of the oral examination are to:

  • provide the candidate with an opportunity to defend the thesis;
  • establish that the candidate fully understands the work and its wider implications;
  • provide the candidate with an opportunity to reply to criticism or challenge;
  • enable the examiners to clarify issues in the thesis which may be unclear;
  • help the examiners to decide on the nature and extent of any corrections or revisions which may be required;
  • allow the examiners to confirm whether the thesis should be recommended as ‘exceptional’.

Until oral examinations are the norm (i.e. from 2016 onwards), the Convener is responsible for the final decision as to whether an oral examination is to be held. An oral examination will be held if:

  • the candidate wishes to have an oral examination. To assist the candidate to make an informed decision, the Convener should supply the candidate with copies of the examiners’ reports (without their names or any confidential sections);
  • the customary practice of the Department of the candidate is to hold an oral examination, as confirmed by the Head of Department;
  • the examiners agree that an oral examination is necessary, in which case the Convener should inform the candidate that an oral is to be held and supply the candidate with an Oral Examination Briefing Report including copies of the examiners’ reports (without their names or any confidential sections and NOT the results sheets);
  • the Convener sees differences in views in the examiners’ reports that could be addressed by the candidate in order to clarify acceptance of the thesis or the nature of revisions to be made.

The format of the oral examination will vary from case to case, and will be made clear in the Oral Examination Briefing Report. Normally, it will include the following: a brief overview of the thesis by the candidate; questions from the examiners on the substantive issues communicated to the candidate beforehand; other questions and “free” discussion. Questions may also be addressed to the supervisors.

Correspondence between the examiners should take place only via the Convener.

The Convener should make arrangements for the oral examination in accordance with The Role of the Convener Guidelines. The Oral Examination Briefing Report details the logistics of the examination: when, where and the format. The Convener should send The Oral Examination Briefing Report to the Doctoral Office. Then the Convener should send this Briefing Report, together with anonymised copies of the examiner’s reports (but NOT the recommended results sheets) to the candidate, supervisors and examiners at least two weeks prior to the oral examination.

Once the oral examination has concluded, the Convener and the examiners will confer in private.

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Result

The result of the examination is decided by the University’s Graduate Research Committee under delegated authority of the Senate after receipt of the examiners’ recommendation from the Convener.

In cases where the examiners are unable to reach a unanimous recommendation on a thesis, the Convener should report this to the Dean of the Graduate Research School, who will initiate arrangements to appoint a referee to make a final recommendation. The referee will normally be a person of international academic standing.

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Communication of the Result to the Candidate

Once the result is decided, the Doctoral Office will officially communicate this to the candidate. This will include a covering letter written by the Convener which outlines the next steps the candidate needs to follow. The candidate, primary supervisor, and the Head of Department will also receive copies of the examiners’ report at this time.

In the case of an ‘a – accept’ or ‘b - amend’ result, these reports will reveal the identity of their writers (provided the examiners have included their names on their written reports). In the case of a ‘c – revise and resubmit’ result, the identity of the examiners will remain anonymous, as a second examination will take place.

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After the Result is Received

After the candidate has been informed of the result, he/she will follow the instructions set out in the letter from the Convener of the examination.

If the result is

(i) "Accept, or accept with minor editorial corrections",
the corrected thesis should be submitted to the Convener, who will check that the corrections have been done satisfactorily.

If the result is

(ii) "Accept after amendments have been made to the satisfaction of the Convener of Examiners in consultation with the Internal Examiner",
the amended thesis should be submitted to the Convener, who will check that the amendments have been done satisfactorily in consultation with the Internal Examiner

If the result is

(iii) "Revise and resubmit for examination",

the candidate should revise the thesis substantially in line with the recommendations of the examiners under the guidance of his/her supervisors. Once the revised thesis is complete, it should be resubmitted for examination as described above. The revised thesis will normally be examined by the same examiners as the original thesis. The process will be the same as for the original examination except that a revised thesis shall not be recommended for further revision and resubmission. In other words, after the candidate has resubmitted a revised thesis, the examiners have four, and not five, possible examination results to select from. In the case of a revise and resubmit result after an oral examination has been held, a further oral examination is permissible after the candidate has revised and resubmitted the thesis.

If the revised thesis is recommended for acceptance – (i) “Accept, or accept with minor editorial corrections”, or (ii) “Accept after amendments have been made to the satisfaction of the Convener of Examiners in consultation with the Internal Examiner” - minor corrections or amendments should be made in accordance with the process outlined above. If the thesis is not recommended for acceptance, the result (iv) “Reject and refer to the appropriate authority with the University for consideration of the award of another degree”, or (v) “Reject with no right of resubmission”, will be recommended.

If the result is

(iv) "Recommend for another degree and refer to the appropriate authority within the University",
the examiners may recommend that amendments be made to the thesis before it is submitted for the award of another degree (typically, a Masters degree). The thesis, together with the examiners’ reports and recommendations, will then be forwarded to the appropriate authority for action and the candidate notified accordingly.

If the result is

(v) "Reject with no right of resubmission",
no further action is required.

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Contact with Examiners

Under no circumstances should a candidate enter into direct contact with the examiners during the examination process (including the amending and revising process), apart from during the oral examination.

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Timing of Amendments and Revisions

If a thesis requires minor editorial corrections (i) or amendments (ii), the candidate is expected to complete this work within three months of notification of the result of the examination. If a thesis requires revision (iii), the candidate is expected to complete this work within six months of notification of the result of the examination. Note that extensions can be requested if the candidate is having difficulty meeting these timeframes, but the University reserves the right to require the candidate to re-enrol with payment of tuition fees.

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Leave to Appeal

A PhD candidate may seek leave to appeal the decision of the examiners under the University’s “Regulations Relating to Student Appeals to the University Council” as described in the University of Otago Calendar.

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Final Arrangements

Once the examination process is complete, the candidate will be notified of the final result. Should the result be to award the PhD degree, the candidate will be required to:

  • forward two permanently bound copies of the final version of the thesis:
  • to the Doctoral Office in the Clocktower Building on the Dunedin Campus
  • for candidates in the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences to the Manager, Academic Programmes, in the Dean’s Department
  • for candidates in the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences to the Postgraduate Liaison Officer in the Postgraduate Office.

Note that the cost of the two hard-bound copies will be met by the University provided that the thesis is submitted within four years of full-time PhD study. If eligible, the candidate should obtain an order form from the Doctoral Office (phd@otago.ac.nz) to cover the printing and binding costs of the two hardbound copies of the thesis.

  • complete a standard Author Declaration Form to be bound into the front of one of the submitted hard bound theses. A copy of this form is available on the PhD website. Any variations to this standard form require special approval; and
  • deposit an electronic copy of the final thesis to the Libary (see http://otago.libguides.com/c.php?g=171526&p=1130951). The candidate must ensure the level of access they assign during their e-thesis submission matches that indicated on the completed Author Declaration Form.

Embargo of Thesis

In situations where the thesis contains sensitive material or has been funded or helped by external research grants, or has publications pending, it may be necessary for the completed thesis to be placed under an embargo, with access restricted for a period of time. This may also be necessary for intellectual property reasons. Restricted access will be permitted only in the most exceptional circumstances and requires the permission of the Dean of the Graduate Research School. In the first instance the candidate, with the support of their primary supervisor and Head of Department, or the primary supervisor with the support of the Head of Department, should apply for an embargo in writing explaining in detail the reason for the embargo and indicating the time frame of the embargo. A thesis is normally embargoed for a period of one year but this can be extended or reduced as required. Applications should be forwarded to the Dean, Graduate Research School (phd@otago.ac.nz) for processing, whereby a special Library Declaration Form is produced and signed off by the Dean, the divisional Pro-Vice-Chancellor and the candidate.

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