PhD thesis examination regulations

Table of contents

PhD thesis examination

The PhD thesis examination is the culmination of the candidate's research program. The exam is intended to allow the candidate to demonstrate their mastery and expertise in the chosen area of study through a presentation of their research.  The exam also presents an opportunity for the candidate's work to be subject to scholarly criticism by members of the academic community.  Through the process of defending the thesis, the candidate further demonstrates their capacity to engage meaningfully in scholarly discourse in their chosen area.

Based on an evaluation of the written thesis and the candidate’s performance in the thesis examination, the examining committee will render a decision as to whether the candidate’s work has satisfied the requirements for a PhD.

Prior to defense

Prior to submitting the thesis, it is recommended that the candidate meet with their supervisor and/or advisory committee (if applicable).  The candidate should seek endorsement that the research is of sufficient quality to proceed to defence and that the candidate is able to meet the requirements of the oral defence. Although a negative assessment does not prohibit the candidate from proceeding to defence, this should occur only in rare cases and is not recommended.

The Graduate Officer of the department in which the candidate is enrolled will recommend to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies a PhD Thesis Examining Committee for approval. Sufficient information should be supplied in order to facilitate the Associate Dean’s decision, including notes on adjunct appointments and declarations of any conflicts of interest.

A date and location for the examination will be set according to availability of Examining Committee members. The candidate should be prepared to defend the thesis within 4 - 6 weeks of depositing it in the Faculty Graduate Studies Office (see Display Period below).

PhD thesis examining committee

The Examining Committee consists of a minimum of five voting members:

  • External Examiner
  • Supervisor or Co-supervisors
  • Internal Member (from the home department)
  • Internal-external Member (external to the home department)
  • Other Member(s)

The PhD Thesis Examination is chaired by an impartial faculty member with ADDS status from outside the candidate's department. The Chair is appointed by Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA). The Chair is responsible for proper conduct of the examination and does not vote.

External Examiner

The external examiner must hold a doctorate and be knowledgeable in the field of the candidate’s research. In addition, to ensure fairness and impartiality, the external examiner must be at arm's length from the candidate’s thesis, candidate and supervisor(s), and must not be in a potential conflict of interest with regards to the outcome of the thesis examination. There is a conflict of interest when:

  • A proposed external examiner is, or was in the last six years, from the same university, organization or department, or belongs or belonged, in the last six years, to the same research unit as the supervisor(s) or candidate; or
  • There is an administrative or family link between the proposed external examiner and the supervisor(s) or candidate (e.g., head of the department, Dean of the Faculty, etc.); or
  • A proposed external examiner is an industrial or government representative or professional who is or was in the last six years directly involved in collaborative activities with the supervisor(s) or candidate; or
  • A proposed external examiner is a former research supervisor or graduate student of the supervisor(s) or candidate; or
  • A proposed external examiner has collaborated or published with the supervisor(s) or candidate within the past six years; or
  • A proposed external examiner is a planned future research supervisor or employer of the candidate or plans to collaborate or publish with the candidate in the foreseeable future; or
  • The proposed external examiner is uncomfortable with reviewing the proposal due to previous conflicts or any other reason (e.g., past student or supervisor, even if more than six years ago, or personal conflict); or
  • The Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, has reason to believe that a specific proposed external examiner should not be involved in the review.

In cases where the candidate’s thesis research has involved collaborations with other local members of the examining committee beyond the supervisor(s) within the past six years, the external examiner must be free of potential conflict of interest under the guidelines above with those members as well.

Recommendation of an individual to serve as external examiner is made by the supervisor(s) or Graduate Officer/Associate Chair, Graduate Studies, as appropriate, to the Faculty, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies for approval. The Graduate Officer/Associate Chair is responsible for determining that the requirements for arm’s length have been met, and the recommendation must be accompanied by a curriculum vitae covering the past six years and a conflict of interest statement, as well as full disclosure of any past affiliations involving the candidate and supervisor(s) to assist in confirming an arm's-length relationship.

The Associate Dean is the contact for the external examiner regarding the thesis and its defence. At no point should the candidate be in communication with the external examiner prior to the defence. The Department may communicate with the external only for the purposes of other arrangements not related to the defence (e.g. arrangements for a research talk).

The external examiner must provide the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies with a written assessment of the thesis at least one week before the scheduled defence. Whether the assessment is positive or negative, the Associate Dean will copy the report of the external examiner only to the supervisor, who will inform the candidate of any major criticisms of the thesis, so that the student can respond to these, but the evaluation must not be shown to the candidate. The candidate may be shown the evaluation after the defence, with the permission of the external examiner. Should the assessment be negative, the Associate Dean may wish to advise that the candidate withdraw the dissertation and defend with the same external examiner at a later date. A candidate may withdraw the thesis only once. Despite a negative assessment, a candidate has the right to proceed to a defence.

Supervisor or Co-supervisors

The student’s supervisor serves on the Examining Committee.

In the case that there is more than one supervisor, all co-supervisors are expected to attend the defence and the supervisor vote is divided fractionally among the co-supervisors such that each may vote independently but the total supervisor vote (one) remains unchanged.

Only with the approval of the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies may a co-supervisor be absent from the exam. In that case, the other co-supervisor, who must have ADDS status, will represent them.

Internal Member

The internal member is normally drawn from the student’s Advisory Committee and is from the student’s home department.

Internal-External Member

The internal-external should have suitable knowledge of the subject matter of the dissertation and is normally external to the student’s home department. The internal-external member ensures that the thesis meets university standards of quality and helps to assess the performance of the candidate at the defence.

In rare cases, identifying an internal-external who is able to make a meaningful contribution to the examination is problematic. In such circumstances, the requirement that the Internal-External be external to the department may be waived by the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies based on a rationale provided by the Graduate Officer. Holding an adjunct or cross appointment in the student’s home department does not preclude serving as an internal-external.

Member

Normally, this committee member is drawn from the student's Advisory Committee. The member normally holds a tenured or tenure track position at the University of Waterloo or has another type of ongoing faculty appointment.

Adjunct faculty on Examining Committees

In some cases it may be beneficial for a student to have access to the expertise of a particular adjunct faculty member. The Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies may give permission for an adjunct faculty member to serve on the Examining Committee as the Internal-External or Member, provided that the Adjunct faculty members holds a PhD. No more than one adjunct faculty member (including Professors Emeriti) may serve on the Examining Committee, with the exception of cotutelle student defences, which may involve the participation of more than one adjunct faculty member. 

Back to top

Display period

When a candidate is ready to proceed to defence, they must deposit the thesis to the Faculty Graduate Office. Faculties may request either paper or electronic copies.

Copies are distributed to members of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee and a copy is held in the Faculty Graduate Office for at least four weeks, where it may be requested by any member of the University for examination. The Daily Bulletin announces the submission of the thesis and the date and location of its defence.

If a candidate is requesting a closed examination (see Guidelines for Thesis Examination without Public Disclosure below), the thesis will be displayed but with the requirement that a non-disclosure agreement be signed by anyone wishing to review the thesis.

Major criticisms of the thesis by members of the University must be submitted in writing to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies no later than one week before the thesis defence. The Faculty Associate Dean will forward these concerns to the supervisor(s) and/or address these concerns and/or convey them to the Chair of the Committee, if necessary.

Members of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee who have major criticisms of the thesis are encouraged to submit written comments to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies no later than one week before the thesis defence. The Faculty Associate Dean will share these concerns with the supervisor and candidate. If written comments are not submitted in advance, criticisms can be discussed at the defence but should not be discussed with other members of the Examining Committee prior to the defence.

Guidelines for thesis examination without public disclosure

Central to the University of Waterloo’s mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. As new scholars, graduate students are expected to disclose and publicly defend their research results to ensure review from their peers and acceptance and inclusion of their findings in open scholarly discourse.

At times, graduate students may wish to protect their research results, particularly when they contain material of commercial or marketable value, or when restricted by a publication agreement. It is expected that in the vast majority of these cases that protection of the intellectual property will be obtained in a timely manner, well before the preparation and examination of the student’s thesis (for example in the form of filing a patent application). In those rare cases where such protection is not obtained in advance, it may be necessary to restrict the disclosure of thesis results from the public arena. In cases where private companies or other supporting organizations are involved in the research through a research contract or agreement, this request may be required by the terms of that agreement. In these cases:

  1. The graduate student and supervisor(s) must begin the process to restrict disclosure of the thesis results as early as possible to ensure timely completion of the thesis examination. Normally, this recommendation to restrict disclosure will be forthcoming from the supervisor and, where appropriate, the Advisory Committee, to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.
  2. Any request for a closed thesis examination must be forthcoming, at the latest, one week prior to the submission of the thesis to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies by completing a Request for a Closed Thesis Examination Form. This ensures that committee members are aware of the requirements for non-disclosure before examination of the thesis.
  3. Examining Committee members, including the external examiner, will be asked by the University of Waterloo to sign a Confidential information thesis non-disclosure agreement form (Graduate Studies forms website) regarding the contents of the thesis before examining the thesis. Potential committee members have the right to refuse to sign the agreement; however this will result in the requirement to resign from the committee. Any member who refuses to sign the agreement will not be permitted to view the thesis and/or attend the defence.
  4. All parties should recognize that the time required to secure this agreement from all Examining Committee members may result in a longer period between submission and defence of the thesis, unless this consent is obtained in advance of the thesis submission.
  5. The thesis will be displayed but with the requirement that a Confidential Information Thesis Non-Disclosure Agreement Form (Graduate Studies forms website) be signed by anyone wishing to review the thesis.
  6. The examination, including any oral presentation associated with the examination, will be open only to members of the University community who agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement under these terms. It is the responsibility of the graduate student and/or thesis advisor(s) to prepare and manage these agreements.
  7. The requirements for non-disclosure will expire once the thesis is published in UWSpace. In most cases, student will request a one year restriction on the circulation of the thesis in UWSpace. Any extension to that time period must be approved by the Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Failure to follow these guidelines in their entirety will result in the normal practice of public disclosure and circulation of the thesis.

Thesis written in french

L'université de Waterloo offre aux étudiants la possibilité de rédiger les théses de doctorat et de maîtrise en français. Ceci n'est pas un droit de l'étudiant ou de l'étudiante. Mise à part la condition évidente de la compétence linguistique du candidat ou de la candidate par rapport au domaine étudié, il est nécessaire de satisfaire à d'autres exigences.

Lorsqu'un candidat ou une candidate demande à son département de rédiger sa thése en français dans le cadre de ce réglement, il ou elle doit soumettre une déclaration d'appui de la part de son directeur ou sa directrice de thése, des membres éventuels du comité de supervision et d'évaluation ainsi que leur accord d'appartenir à ce comité.

Tous les membres du comité doivent posséder un niveau de compétence linguistique tel qu'il leur permettra d'evaluer avec pertinence, à la fois le contenu et la présentation du matériel examiné.

Back to top

Thesis defence

Procedural guidelines

The thesis defence is an oral examination of the student by the student's PhD Thesis Examining Committee, chaired by an impartial faculty member with ADDs status from outside the candidate's department. Any member of the university may attend.

The Chair is responsible for the proper conduct of the examination. Candidates first present their thesis orally with whatever aids are required to make an effective presentation. This presentation should be limited to no more than thirty minutes with the focus being on the main contributions and conclusions of the work.

The presentation is followed by questioning. The Chair will give priority to questions from members of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee and any member of the university who has submitted written questions in advance. The oral examination should be structured in such a way that a period is set aside at the end of the examination for questions from non-Committee members. If the chair of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee is unsure of the appropriateness or relevance of a question, they should ask the members of the Committee whether any of them wishes to have the candidate answer the question, thus in effect making the question posed one which would be authorized by a member of the Committee.

The Chair, with agreement of the Examining Committee, will decide when to conclude the questioning. The candidate and audience will be asked to leave the room and the Examining Committee will deliberate in a closed session. The Graduate Officer, Departmental Chair, Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies and Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs may attend the closed session. Once a decision is made, the candidate is invited back into the room and informed by the Chair of the Committee’s decision. The Chair will provide a report to the Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs on the conduct of the examination, any issues or problems that arose, and the decision of the Examining Committee. 

Recording of the thesis defence is not allowed, nor is the use of cell phones, cameras or any other recording devices unless used for the purposes of the examination presentation.

Absent committee members

It is expected that all members of the PhD Examining Committee attend the defence. If a committee member is unable to attend in person, that member may participate remotely.  If the member (other than the supervisor, who cannot be replaced) cannot participate remotely, then a new committee member should be found. 

In the case of an unanticipated, last-minute emergency absence of a committee member, the defence can proceed subject to the agreement of the candidate and the supervisor(s) as long as the following committee members are available (in person or through electronic media) to present their votes:

  • Supervisor
  • External Examiner
  • Two other members of the committee

Any exceptions to this regulation must be approved by the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.

Participation through electronic media (remote participation)

Participation through electronic media (teleconference, videoconference) is limited to one member of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee. Only in exceptional circumstances may the remote participant be the supervisor. In exceptional circumstances, additional members may be allowed to participate remotely with approval of the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies. If the Associate Dean is a member of the Examining Committee, a decision to allow more than one member to participate remotely must be made by the Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs. Candidates may not participate remotely and must attend the defence in person.

Any member of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee, including the external examiner, participating by electronic media must make allowances for the possibility of a failed connection. When remote participation is planned in advance, a written report must be submitted to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies at least one week before the examination clearly identifying one of the categories pertaining to acceptability of the written thesis document.

In the event that remote connection is lost, the Chair will determine whether or not the duration of the disruption has had a material impact on the committee member's ability to assess the candidate's defence. If there has not been a material impact, and the connection has been reestablished, then the examiner may cast their vote as if the loss of communication had not occurred.  If there has been a material impact, and in the case that remote participation was planned and a report was submitted in advance, then the report will be read by the Chair and the vote of the member participating through electronic media, as indicated in the report, will be counted . When there is no such report, the vote may be nullified. The Chair’s report must note the lost connection, including the timing and whether or not the vote was included in the decision.

If the connection fails during or before the examination, the report will be read by the Chair and the vote of the member participating through electronic media will be counted.

Back to top

Decision

The decision of the PhD Thesis Examining Committee is based both on the thesis and on the candidate's ability to defend it.

The decision of the Examining Committee is made by majority vote. Should the external examiner’s vote differ from that of the majority, or if there is a tie vote, the decision shall be deferred and referred to the Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs.  The Associate Vice-President will consult with the Faculty Associate Deans, Graduate Studies and will make the final determination

The following decisions are open to the PhD Thesis Examining Committee:

A. Accepted
The thesis and the oral defence have been completed to the satisfaction of the examining committee.  The thesis may require typographical and/or minor editorial corrections to be made to the satisfaction of the supervisor and submitted and approved in UWSpace within one month of the date of the defence. If more time is required to make these corrections, the Committee should consider whether a Category B decision is merited. If the thesis is not submitted within this timeline, the student will be withdrawn from the program.

B. Accepted Conditionally
The oral defence has been completed to the satisfaction of the examining committee.  The thesis is acceptable but requires content changes which are minor enough that re-examination is not required. The PhD Thesis Examining Committee's report must include a brief outline of the nature of the changes required and must indicate the time by which the changes are to be completed. Changes must be completed to the Committee's satisfaction and submitted and approved in UWSpace within four months of the date of the defence or the student will be withdrawn from the program. At least two members of the Committee must confirm that required changes have been made. 

Any extension to the time limits for A or B must be requested in writing and approved by the Graduate Officer and Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.

C. Reexamination
Re-examination is required in either of the following situations:

  • The oral defence is not to the satisfaction of the Examining Committee.The PhD thesis examination requires that the candidate demonstrates their mastery and expertise and engages meaningfully in scholarly discourse in their chosen area.If the candidate fails to satisfy these requirements, the Examining Committee may require reexamination.The PhD Thesis Examining Committee’s report must contain a recommended set of activities that aims to improve the candidate’s abilities to present their research and respond to inquiries related to their studies.
  • The written thesis requires modifications of a substantial nature, the need for which makes the acceptability of the thesis questionable. The PhD Thesis Examining Committee's report must contain an outline of the modifications expected and indicate the time by which the changes are to be completed. In this case, the revised thesis must be re-submitted to the Faculty Graduate Office for re-examination.

Reexamination must occur within one year of the date of the first defence. Normally, reexamination will follow the same procedures as for the initial submission except that the display period may be reduced or eliminated at the discretion of the Associate Dean. Normally, the same PhD Thesis Examining Committee will serve, with the exception that in some circumstances, a new External Examiner can be found. A decision to reexamine is open only once for each candidate.

D. Failed
If after reexamination the candidate does not achieve Category A or B, then the student will be withdrawn from the program. The PhD Thesis Examining Committee shall report the reasons for rejection to the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, who will confirm the decision in writing to the student within one week of the date of the examination, as well as the requirement to withdraw.

Deferral of Decision

If the PhD Thesis Examining Committee is not prepared to reach a decision concerning the thesis at the time of the thesis defence, it is the responsibility of the Chair to determine what additional information is required by the Committee to reach a decision, to arrange to obtain this information for the Committee, and to call another meeting of the Committee as soon as the required information is available. It is also the responsibility of the Chair to inform the candidate that the decision is pending. Candidates are not normally present at this second meeting of the Committee.

Grievance

A request for re-examination of a graduate thesis is a type of academic grievance, as per Policy 70. A student who wishes to request a re-examination of their thesis should contact the Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, who will form a committee of Associate Deans, Graduate. This committee will determine the appropriate course of action, which may involve a reexamination of the thesis or the denial of the student's request.

Back to top