6. The Dissertation

6.1 Preliminary Acceptance of the Dissertation

Before the dissertation is forwarded to the external examiner, the doctoral supervisory committee members shall declare in writing to the supervisor either:

  • that the dissertation is of adequate substance and quality to warrant that the dissertation is ready to be reviewed by the external examiner, and that the student is ready to proceed to the final oral examination; or
  • that the dissertation is unsatisfactory (that further work is needed), and the student should not be allowed to proceed to the final oral examination.

It is important that this preliminary acceptance of the dissertation is conducted in order to protect and uphold the reputation of the program and the University, for excellence in graduate programs. It is also critical to ensure that the external examiner and other additional members of the committee are not asked to invest time reading a substandard document.

If the supervisor considers the dissertation ready for the examination committee, the “Preliminary Acceptance of Dissertation by Supervisory Committeeform must be completed by the supervisory committee indicating their opinion of the readiness of the thesis and the student to proceed to the final Oral Examination. This form must be completed and submitted eight (8) weeks prior to the anticipated date of the oral examination. At this time, the supervisor may also submit their recommendation for the examination committee to FGS using the form “Nominees for Dissertation External Examiner”.

6.2 Dissertation Examination Committee Composition and Approval

The doctoral dissertation examination committee shall be composed of a maximum of five (5) examiners and will include:

  • The existing supervisory committee, with (normally) the addition of one or two new members;
  • One of the new members must be from outside Athabasca University. This committee member shall be called the external examiner; and
  • If there is to be a fifth member, this individual may be from within or outside the student’s academic unit, but is someone who comes to the finished dissertation having read none of its earlier drafts.

The supervisor will recommend names of all members of the dissertation examination committee, and forward them to the FGS for approval, at least eight weeks before the proposed date of the oral examination, using the “Nominees for Dissertation External Examiner form. Before proposing the dissertation examination committee, it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that eligibility criteria are met and that the members are not in a position of conflict of interest.

6.3 Appointment of the External Examiner

At least eight weeks before the proposed date of the oral examination, the student’s supervisor, shall submit the names of two potential individuals for the role of external examiner to the FGS. The names, contact information and qualifications of the nominees are included on the form “Nominees for Dissertation External Examiner”.

A brief rationale in terms of the special field(s) of expertise and achievements of each individual must be provided. This may include a list of publications by the individual that have been of central importance or are closely related to the doctoral candidate’s research. The individuals whose names are submitted to the FGS should be individuals who are recognized authorities in the special field of research of the candidate’s dissertation, and who have had experience in supervising doctoral candidates.

The proposed external examiner must be in a position to review the dissertation objectively and to analyse critically 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 academic unit, that would impair the objectivity of this analysis. For example, a proposed examiner who has recently been associated with the candidate 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 (e.g., as a former student, supervisor, or close collaborator). Supervisors who have questions about the eligibility of a potential external examiner should contact the FGS to review the case before providing the FGS with names.

The FGS will select and invite the external examiner, after preliminary discussion with the individuals regarding their research area, availability, and interest in participating as an external examiner. When the FGS approves the external examiner, the FGS will issue a formal letter of confirmation to the external examiner specifying the responsibilities of the role.

6.4 Responsibilities of the External Examiner

The FGS will request that the external examiner provide a detailed report on the merits and deficiencies of the dissertation overall, and more specifically:

  • Rate the dissertation using the two categories to indicate whether the dissertation is acceptable and the student can proceed to the examination;
  • A brief, written commentary on the scope, structure, methodology, and findings of the thesis;
  • A list of corrections (if any); and
  • A list of clear, direct, contextualized questions (preferably no more than five) for the candidate to address during the examination, if the external examiner is unable to attend the oral examination.

The external examiner will be asked to provide the report to the FGS within four to six weeks of receipt of the dissertation. There should be no contact between the External examiner and the supervisor, committee, or student regarding the dissertation, nor should arrangements be made related to the examination during this period.

It is expected that the external examiner will participate in-person or by teleconference in the dissertation oral examination, but, in exceptional circumstances, this may not be possible. In such cases, the neutral chair will present the external examiner’s report and questions to the candidate during the examination, and the committee will evaluate the candidate’s answers as part of the examination.

6.5 Changes in the Examination Committee

The FGS must approve any changes to the examination committee. A memo informing the FGS of the reasons for the changes and the details about the new examination committee member must be provided in writing. No changes shall be made in the examination committee after the dissertation is distributed by the FGS to the committee. In certain circumstances, if a committee member becomes unavailable to review the dissertation or attend the oral examination, discussions must occur between the FGS, the supervisor, and the candidate to arrive at the most suitable solution for both the candidate and the committee.

6.6 Distribution of the Dissertation for Examination

The candidate must submit to the FGS the dissertation in pdf format or provide sufficient paper copies, depending upon the preference of the examination committee members. The FGS will distribute the copies to each of the members of the examination committee excluding the supervisor, with instructions on the criteria for final review. The distribution must occur at least 6 to 8 weeks prior to the anticipated oral examination date. This means that the candidate must supply the FGS with the copies 5 working days prior to the distribution date. The examiners will be given four to six weeks to review the dissertation and provide their comments and adjudication decision. Both electronic and paper files must conform to the dissertation guidelines as set out in the Format for Theses and Dissertations”.

Since this final period can become complex and timelines are critical to successful completion and convocation, a diagram illustrating the Overview of Doctoral Dissertation Final Oral Examination is available as Figure 3.

6.7 Adjudication on the Doctoral Dissertation prior to Oral Examination

The recommendation of the majority of the examiners will determine whether the candidate proceeds to the oral examination. If a majority decision is not evident, the Dean of FGS will discuss the recommendations with the supervisor, and a course of action will be determined.

Acceptable and ready to proceed to oral examination

The dissertation is given preliminary approval. It may or may not need some revisions. However, the examiners consider the quality of the dissertation adequate and the dissertation indicates the candidate has sufficient knowledge in the research area to proceed to the oral examination.


  • The FGS will inform the supervisor of the ‘acceptable’ adjudication recommendation. The FGS may or may not provide the supervisor with the details of the External Examiner’s report. The supervisor can then notify the candidate and the remainder of the committee (except for the external examiner) of the ‘acceptable’ adjudication recommendation.  
  • The FGS will contact the candidate, examination committee, and external examiner to arrange a date for the oral examination.

Unacceptable and not ready to proceed to oral examination

The dissertation is unacceptable and needs major revisions. The candidate cannot proceed to the oral examination until the concerns are addressed.


  • The FGS contacts the supervisor and the examiners regarding this recommendation, to discuss the nature of the concerns.
  • The supervisor will meet with the candidate and indicate in writing the concerns, a time frame within which to address the issues, and the possibility that the oral examination may have to be postponed. The candidate then resubmits the dissertation to the FGS.
  • A different External Examiner will be selected to review the dissertation.
  • FGS then distributes the dissertation to the examination committee for their determination whether the document is “acceptable and ready to proceed to oral examination.” The candidate will need to clearly indicate what changes have been made in response to the committee’s comments. The oral examination shall be held no later than 6 months after the first adjudication.
  • If and when a majority decision is made that the dissertation is acceptable (a preliminary acceptance), then the FGS will contact the candidate, examination committee, and external examiner to arrange a date for the oral examination.
  • A candidate has the right to an examination of the dissertation if they believe it is ready for examination.