7. The Dissertation

7.1 Preliminary Acceptance of the Dissertation

Before the dissertation is forwarded to the external examiner, the doctoral supervisory committee members shall ensure 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.

If the supervisory committee considers the dissertation ready for the examination committee, the supervisor will initiate the Preliminary Acceptance of Dissertation by Supervisory Committee form to indicate their approval of the dissertation and the students readiness proceed to the final Oral Examination. This form must be initiated 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.

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.

7.2 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. This is often 3 committee members, plus one faculty member external to Athabasca University,
  • 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 program but is someone who comes to the finished dissertation having read none of its earlier drafts.

7.3 Appointment of the External Examiner

At least eight weeks before the proposed date of the oral examination, the graduate program director and/or the student’s supervisor, shall submit the name of a potential individual for the role of external examiner to the FGS. The special field(s) of expertise and achievements of each individual will be reviewed before approved. This may include a review of publications by the individual that have been of central importance or, are closely related to the doctoral candidate’s research. The individual whose names are submitted to the FGS should be individuals who are recognized authorities in a specialized field related to the candidate’s dissertation. Experience in supervising doctoral candidates is preferred. Once the external is approved by FGS, the supervisor will initiate the External Examiner and Notice for Dissertation Oral Examination form.

The proposed external examiner must be in a position to review the dissertation objectively and to analyse critically the work and the presentation (at arms-length). 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.

7.4 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 dissertation,
  • 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 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 virtually 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.

7.5 Distribution of the Dissertation for Examination

The candidate must submit to the FGS the dissertation in pdf or Word format, depending upon the preference of the examination committee members. The FGS will distribute a copy of the dissertation to the external member of the examination committee, 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. The external examiner will be given up to 4 weeks to review the dissertation and provide their comments and adjudication decision. The document must conform to the dissertation guidelines as set out in the Formats for Theses & Dissertations Guidelines.

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.

7.6 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.

7.7 Adjudication on the Doctoral Dissertation prior to Oral Examination

  • Acceptable
  • Unacceptable

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 will 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 work with the examination committee to determine a date for the oral exam.

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 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.