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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 digital thesis. A date for the oral examination is set.

Step 4: The digital thesis is 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 normal timeframe expected of examiners for this work is seven weeks.

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

Step 7: The Convener arranges and chairs an oral examination.

Step 8: The Convener facilitates a consensus decision among the examiners and, assuming consensus is reached, conveys this result to the candidate at the end of the oral examination.

Step 9: The Convener advises of the initial outcome.

Step 10: Student Administrators – doctoral, formally advise the candidate of the 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 Student Administrators – doctoral – of the final outcome.

Step 14: The Student Administrators – doctoral – advise the candidate of that final outcome.

Step 15: The candidate submits the final e-thesis to OUR Archive.

Step 16: The candidate graduates with a PhD degree!


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 3 full-time years of study and no more than six years of equivalent full-time 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 section 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.

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.

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, member of the Departmental Advisory Committee, or any staff member who has participated in the candidate's progress report meetings will not be appointed as an examiner or convener of the examination.

Examiners should be suitably qualified and able to commit the time 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. The Convener also prepares for, and chairs, the oral examination (see below). Conveners are drawn from Heads of Department and other senior academic staff. 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.

List of Convenors of Doctoral Examiners

Procedure for convening doctoral examinations with an oral examination

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 in eVision. 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 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. Their identities are divulged to the candidate in preparation for the oral examination.

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, 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.

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 From there, they are uploaded to eVision, and become available 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 Student Administrators - doctoral.

Oral Examination

Oral examinations are a compulsory part of the examination process for Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidates whose thesis start date is January 2014 or later.
(For PhD candidates whose thesis start date is prior to January 2014, and Masters upgrades: see further below)

Reasons for an Oral Examination

For the candidate, an oral provides the opportunity to:

  • defend the thesis (respond to criticism);
  • meet the examiners;
  • assist in understanding of the examiners' comments;
  • clarify amendments
  • provide closure.

For the examiners, an oral provides the opportunity to:

  • establish that the candidate fully understands the work and its wider implications;
  • clarify issues in the thesis which may be unclear;
  • decide on the nature and extent of any corrections or revisions which may be required;
  • assist in reaching a consensus;
  • confirm whether the thesis should be recommended as 'exceptional'.

The Format and Nature of the Oral Examination

The oral examination is chaired by the Convener who will make the arrangements for the oral examination.

The Convener will detail the logistics of the examination – when, where, who (including releasing the identity of the examiners) and the format – in the Oral Examination Briefing Report. The Convener will send this, in the first instance, to, before then sending a copy (together with 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.

The oral examination will initially be scheduled for a date approximately three months after the thesis submission date; however, if the examiners' reports are not received in a timely manner, the oral may need to be rescheduled as it cannot be held until all the examiners' written reports have been submitted.

The format of the oral examination will vary from case to case, but normally will include the following elements:

  • 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).

The nature of the oral will depend on the quality of the written thesis:

  • If the examiners' recommendation is to accept or accept with minor corrections, then the discussion tends to be a collegial conversation focused on mastery of topic, contribution of research, publishing and career.
  • If the examiners are suggesting some amendments, then the oral enables the student to respond to criticism and assists them to understand the examiners' concerns (helping to clarify the nature of amendments required).
  • If the examiners differ in their opinion as to whether the thesis should pass or fail, the oral is critical in reaching a consensus.

The oral examination is normally be attended by two examiners – usually the Internal Examiner and the New Zealand External Examiner (either in person or by web-conference), but the Overseas External Examiner may also be involved (usually by web conference).

After consultation with the examiners, the Convener may approve the attendance of others at the oral examination. For example, the candidate may wish to have a support person or people present or, at the discretion of the Convener, the supervisor(s) and Head of Department may attend the oral examination.

Once the oral examination has concluded, the Convener and the examiners will confer in private in order to reach a consensus regarding the result and the nature of any required amendments to the thesis. The Convener then invites the candidate back into the room and delivers the result. If no consensus has been reached, this will be conveyed to the candidate, together with a likely timeframe for a decision.

For PhD candidates whose thesis start date is prior to 1 January 2014:

An oral examination may still be required for students who first enrolled prior to January 2014. There are several reasons for why this might occur:

  • If the customary practice of the Department of the candidate is to hold an oral examination, as confirmed by the Head of Department;
  • 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);
  • If the examiners agree that an oral examination is necessary;
  • If the Convener sees differences between the examiners' reports that could be addressed by the candidate during the oral (either clarifying acceptance of the thesis or the nature of revisions to be made).

The Convener will ascertain whether any of the examiners, or the candidate, requests an oral examination and the responsibility for the final decision rests with them. If an oral is to occur, the Convener will inform all parties involved following the process described above.

For PhD candidates who were admitted via a Master's upgrade:

In instances of a Master's upgrade, the start of the PhD is backdated to the start of the Master's degree (see Upgrading to a PhD).

The same criteria as outlined above (i.e. enrolment post/pre- 1 January 2014) then applies.

Example: A candidate began their Master's thesis on 1 March 2015 but upgraded to a PhD on 1 July 2016. The PhD start date is considered to be 1 March 2015. As this is after 1 January 2014, the candidate must participate in the compulsory oral examination.


Once a consensus result is reached, the Convener emails with this result, together with a letter for the candidate that relays the result and outlines any amendments that need to be made (if applicable). The Student Administrators – doctoral – upload the result and Convener letter into eVision, and email the Convener letter and examiner reports to the candidate and primary supervisor. The eVision system will also send an out an alert to the candidate with the examination result.

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.

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. Candidates should provide a cover letter explaining how the corrections have been done and/or use track changes or highlighting in the revised thesis to assist the Convener in checking the corrections have been made.

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. Candidates should provide a cover letter explaining how the corrections have been done and/or use track changes or highlighting in the revised thesis to assist the Convener and Internal Examiner in checking the amendments have been made

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 candidate should also submit a cover letter explaining how examiners' comments have been addressed. 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.

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. All queries should be made via the Convener.

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 (full-time) 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.

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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