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Oral Examination Procedure for the PhD degree

Category Research
Type Procedure
Approved by Council, 26 February 2014
Date Procedure Took Effect 26 February 2014
Last Approved Revision 29 March 2017
Sponsor Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise)
Responsible Officer Dean, Graduate Research School
Review Date 29 March 2022


This procedure provides detail on the purpose, format and conduct of the oral examination as part of the PhD examination process.

Organisational Scope

This procedure applies to all PhD thesis candidates, and staff and external parties involved in the examination of PhD thesis candidates.


Convener – an academic staff member of the University who oversees and coordinates the examination process, and who is selected from an approved list of conveners.  The Convener must not have been involved in supervision or as a member of Departmental Advisory Committee for the candidate during his or her PhD study.

Examiner’s Written Reports – the individual reports of the examiners of the PhD thesis, which each examiner formulates independently based on their reading of the candidate’s thesis.  Each report will be accompanied by an initial recommendation for the examination result.

Exceptional Thesis – a PhD thesis judged by the examiners to be in the top ten percent of theses examined.   Final decisions on the granting of ‘Exceptional Thesis’ status are made by the relevant Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Oral Examination Briefing Report – a form, generated in eVision, detailing the arrangements for an oral examination, including the date and time, location, attendees and proposed format.

Supervising Department – the department with which a PhD candidate is administratively associated, usually the department in which the candidate’s primary supervisor is based and/or the department in which the candidate is physically located.

Referee – an adjudicator from outside the University, not previously involved in the thesis examination, who makes an assessment and recommendation for a final examination result in a case where the examiners cannot reach agreement on a result.


1.    Objectives and Assessment

(a)     The main objectives of the oral examination are to:

i    provide the candidate with a special opportunity to discuss their work in depth and defend their thesis;
ii   establish that the candidate fully understands the work and its wider implications;
iii   provide the candidate with an opportunity to reply to criticism or challenge;
iv   enable the examiners to clarify issues in the thesis which may be unclear;
v    allow for discussion of publication opportunities arising from the research;
vi   help the examiners to decide on the nature and extent of any corrections or revisions which may be required;
vii   provide the examiners with an opportunity to clearly communicate required corrections or revisions to the candidate;
viii  allow the examiners to reach agreement on an examination result, including confirming whether the thesis should be recommended as an ‘exceptional thesis’.

(b) The oral examination should normally include assessment of the candidate’s ability to:

i    display detailed knowledge of the thesis;
ii    locate their research in the broader context of their discipline;
iii   demonstrate the originality of the thesis and the contribution it makes to knowledge;
iv   defend the methodology and conclusions of the thesis;
v    display awareness of the limitations of the thesis;
vi    authenticate the work (i.e. prove that it is their own work).

(c) It is not the purpose of an oral examination to test the candidate’s command of spoken English or Te Reo; this is particularly important for candidates whose first language is not English or Te Reo and for some candidates with disabilities.

(d) A successful oral examination will demonstrate that the candidate is worthy of being awarded a PhD; this assessment shall be based on the academic judgement of the examiners, and requires that the candidate demonstrates mastery of their thesis in the oral examination in order to be eligible for the award of the PhD.

2.    Timing

(a) The timing of the oral examination, where practicable, should be established once the examiners are approved and the thesis is submitted for examination.

(b) The oral examination should usually be scheduled for a date approximately three months after the thesis is submitted. If the examiners’ reports are not received in a timely manner the oral will have to be rescheduled.

(c) The oral examination must not be held until all the examiners’ written reports on the thesis have been submitted.

3.    Arrangements and Format

(a) The Convener, with the administrative support of the candidate’s supervising department, should make arrangements for the oral examination in accordance with the Convening of Doctoral Examinations Procedure.

(b) The oral examination is attended by

i    the Convener (in the Chair);
ii   the candidate;
iii   at least two of the examiners (typically the Internal Examiner and the New Zealand External Examiner); at the discretion of the Convener, the third examiner may also attend. If the examiners are in disagreement as to whether the candidate should pass, all three examiners must be invited to attend the oral examination.

(c) Following consultation with the candidate, the Convener may also elect to invite to the oral examination:

i    the candidate’s supervisors (to whom the Convener may address questions during the oral examination);
ii    the candidate’s Head of Department (to whom the Convener may address questions during the oral examination);
iii   other parties as deemed appropriate, for example a support person for the candidate (such parties will not usually contribute to any discussions).

(d) If prior to the oral examination the examiners disagree as to whether the thesis is of PhD standard, the Convener should invite all three examiners to attend the oral examination. Regardless of whether all examiners attend, the Convener should ensure the range of views on the adequacy of the thesis are represented at the oral examination.

(e) Prior to the oral examination the Convener should liaise with the examiners to determine a preliminary consensus view and agreement over the main issues to be discussed in the oral examination.

(f) Where arrangements are practical and achievable the oral examination will be held on a University of Otago campus with all participants attending in person. Where this arrangement proves impractical or impossible, the Convener may allow the oral examination to be conducted at an alternative location, or by audio or video conference.

(g) The format of the oral examination will vary from case to case, and should be decided upon with reference to the considerations outlined in ‘Objectives and Assessment’ above. A standard format might include:

i    a brief overview of the thesis by the candidate;
ii    questions from the examiners on substantive issues communicated to the candidate in advance;
iii    other questions;
iv   free discussion.

(h) Once arrangements are finalised, the Convener should complete the Oral Examination Briefing Report. The Convener should then email:

i    the Oral Examination Briefing Report, to, Graduate Research School;
ii    the Oral Examination Briefing Report and anonymised copies of the examiners’ reports, to the candidate, the supervisors, and the examiners, at least two weeks prior to the oral examination.

4.  Result

(a) Once the oral examination has concluded, the Convener and the examiners confer in private and the examiners decide on a recommendation for a final result. While any absent examiner need not be consulted, the Convener must ensure the recommendation takes into account any prior views they may have raised (see 3(d) above).

(b) Possible outcomes from the examination are that the thesis:

i    be accepted, or be accepted with minor editorial corrections, and the degree be awarded;
ii    be accepted and the degree be awarded, but only after amendments have been made to the satisfaction of the Convener of examiners in consultation with the internal examiner;
iii   be revised and resubmitted for examination (note that this outcome is not available if the thesis has previously been resubmitted);
iv   be rejected and referred to the appropriate authority within the University for consideration of the award of another degree;
v   be rejected with no right of resubmission.

(c) Following the deliberations of the Convener and examiners, the Convener may verbally communicate their recommended result and any required corrections or revisions to the candidate at the end of the oral. This is not an opportunity for the candidate to challenge the result, although they may seek clarification on the nature of required amendments to the thesis. After the oral, the Convener must provide any required corrections or revisions to the candidate and supervisors in writing.

(d) The Convener, on the appropriate form, should forward the recommendation and covering letter for the final result to the Dean, Graduate Research School at, who will determine an appropriate course of action.

(e) If the examiners disagree about the result and a consensus cannot be reached, the Dean of the Graduate Research School must be advised, and may determine that a referee is required.

(f) The examiners present may also recommend that the thesis be granted ‘exceptional thesis’ status, if this has been previously advocated in at least one of the examiners’ written reports. Note that a consensus amongst the examiners is required for exceptional status and if a consensus agreement is reached, the Convener will relay this to the Doctoral Office, Graduate Research School on the recommendation sheets with additional documentation if needed. The Convener must not disclose the recommendation to the candidate or supervisors, as the final decision to grant exceptional status resides with the relevant Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Related Policies, Procedures and Forms

Contact for Further Information

If you have any queries regarding the content of this policy or need further clarification, please contact the Dean of the Graduate Research School