Final PhD Exam

The final exam for PhD students is normally held at the end of the fourth year in the graduate program. PhD students have a maximum of six years from their first term of registration to complete all degree requirements. Master's students who are transferred to a doctoral degree must complete all degree requirements within six years from their first term of registration as a master's student.


Examination Committee Composition

The PhD examining committee is composed of a minimum of five examiners:

  • The chair is a member of the NMHI graduate committee who is not the supervisor and is appointed by the NMHI administrator.
  • The student’s supervisory committee.
  • The (External) External Examiner: an arm's length examiner from outside the University of Alberta.
  • The (Internal) External Examiner: an arm's length examiner from inside the University of Alberta.

Note: An arm’s length examiner must not be (or have been) a member of the supervisory committee or have been connected with the thesis research in a significant way. The examiner should not have been associated with the student, outside of usual contact in courses or other non-thesis activities within the university, nor be related to the student or supervisor(s). Except in special circumstances (fully justified in writing to the vice-dean, FGSR), an arm’s length examiner should not be a close collaborator of the supervisor(s) within the last six years.

It is the responsibility of the supervisor to inform the NMHI office of the U of A external examiner and the non-U of A external examiner. 


Purpose of the Examination

The purpose of the final PhD examination is to assess the student’s:

  1. Knowledge of the literature relevant to their research area
  2. Understanding of the procedures used to collect and analyze their data
  3. Understanding of the significance of their research in the context of their research area
  4. Knowledge of the limitations and pitfalls of their chosen methodology.

The PhD thesis must include the results of original investigations and analyses and be of such quality as to merit publication; furthermore, it must constitute a substantial contribution to the knowledge of the student's field of study.


Role of the Examination Committee

The committee will review the thesis document and conduct an oral examination to test the student's knowledge of the thesis subject and of related fields. The final decision of the examination committee will be based both on the quality of the thesis document and on the student’s performance in defence of that document.


PhD Thesis Document

All regulations regarding the preparation of the thesis are governed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FSGR). Please visit FSGR thesis requirement and preparation for current requirements.


Preparing for the Exam

External examiner outside of the University of Alberta

  1. Once an external examiner has been chosen by the supervisor, the supervisor must complete the External Examiner Invitation form required by FGSR. The original signed form must be submitted to the NMHI office so the appropriate additional signatures can be obtained. A CV for the external examiner, which must contain supervisory experience of the proposed external examiner, must also be submitted by the supervisor to the NMHI office.
  2. In the letter of invitation sent to the external examiner by NMHI, the external examiner is requested to prepare and send to the graduate co-ordinator, at least one week in advance of the examination, a brief written commentary (approximately two to three pages) on the structure, methodology, quality, significance and findings of the thesis. The commentary should not be given to the student prior to the examination.
  3. Very limited funding is available from the NMHI for the travel required by the external examiner. A written request must be made to the NMHI director. There is also funding from FGSR to cover the costs associated with bringing in external examiners; supervisors must apply for this funding first and submit the decision of the request to the NMHI director with their request.

Preliminary Acceptance of Thesis

  1. Students must submit a completed thesis to the supervisory committee with sufficient time so that each member can submit a form indicating their decision on its suitability for defence at least eight weeks prior to the examination. Before the final exam can be scheduled, members of the supervisory committee must recommend, on the Preliminary Acceptance of Thesis form, that the thesis is acceptable for examination. The form must be submitted to the NMHI office by the student.
  2. Because the exam must be set with FGSR at least three weeks prior to the date of the exam, a chair for the exam must be arranged and the external examiner must receive a copy of the thesis at least one month ahead of the exam, the Preliminary Acceptance of Thesis form(s) must be submitted by the student to the NMHI office at least six weeks before the date of the exam. The committee members do not have to all sign the same form.
  3. Once the supervisory committee has preliminarily approved the thesis, the student must mail or email the thesis to the external examiner.  The external must receive the thesis at least four weeks in advance of the exam; please allow for sufficient mailing time if the examiner prefers a hard copy.
  4. Once the signature forms have been received, the administrator will inform the supervisor that he/she can now set the date, time and place of the exam. The supervisor must inform the administrator once this information is confirmed.
  5. The student must provide the NMHI administrator with the exact title of the thesis and a photo for the public seminar poster.

Examination Chair

  1. A chair will be arranged through the NMHI office from among the members of the neuroscience graduate committee after the administrator has received the signatures from the supervisory committee AND after the supervisor has informed the administrator of the date, time and place of the exam. 
  2. Once the chair is arranged, the supervisor and student will be informed. The student then must provide a hard and/or electronic copy of the thesis to the chair.

University of Alberta (Internal) External Examiner

  1. After the student’s supervisory committee preliminarily accepts the thesis for examination, the student must provide the internal external examiner with an electronic or hard copy of the thesis; whichever is preferred.

FGSR-Required Form

  1. Once the meeting has been set and the chair arranged, the administrator will email the supervisor the FGSR form Notice and Approval of a Doctoral Final Oral Examining Committee & Examination Date. The supervisor must print this form, sign it and return it with the original signature to the NMHI office.
  2. The administrator must provide FGSR with the Notice and Approval of a Doctoral Final Oral Examining Committee & Examination Date at least three weeks prior to the exam.

Examination Seminar

  1. The examination will be preceded by a 30 minute to one hour public seminar and question period that will be attended by the examining committee and other interested individuals.
  2. The seminar is usually held in the same room as the exam if the room is appropriate. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to arrange for the venue of the seminar.

Format of the Examination

  1. After a brief break following the public seminar the examining committee and the student reconvene for the formal final examination. After initial introductions are made, the student leaves room while the committee discusses the student's performance in the program and establishes the order of questioning.     
  2. It is generally agreed that the most time should be allotted to the internal/external member and the external examiner and the least to the supervisor. In this way new and challenging questions are asked in place of reiteration of questioning already utilized to develop the student and enhance the research. Examiners should avoid discussions among themselves that exclude the student. They should not lecture but should ask detailed questions about the thesis and occasional broad, disciplinary questions. Typographical and stylistic errors should not take up examination time.
  3. At the close of the examination the student is asked if they have any final question or comments before they asked to withdraw.
  4. For the adjudication, no final verdict should be rendered without each examiner having given an opinion. Two opinions will be sought:
    • on the acceptability of the thesis and
    • on the acceptability of the defence.

    When a positive conclusion is obvious, some time should be spent on discussing the future of the thesis and the research area.

  5. The student is invited back into the room and the chair announces the decision and provides feedback on the committee's discussions regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and the thesis defence.

Possible Outcomes of the Examination

  • Pass: If the student passes the examination, the examining committee shall sign the Thesis Approval/Program Completion form and submit it to the NMHI office. The administrator will arrange for the final signature and submit the form to FGSR.
  • Pass subject to revisions: The student has satisfactorily defended the thesis but the revisions to the thesis are sufficiently minor that it will not require a reconvening of the examining committee. Members wishing to do so may sign immediately. The committee chair or supervisor withholds signature until the thesis is amended satisfactorily and all other committee members have signed. The examining committee shall sign the Thesis Approval/Program Completion form and submit it to the NMHI office indicating “pass subject to revisions.” The NMHI will hold the form. It is expected that the student will make the changes in time to submit the thesis to the FGSR on or before the deadline for the next convocation. These changes should be checked and approved by the supervisor, who does not sign until the required changes are satisfactorily completed. Other committee members may also wish to withhold their signature until they can verify that their required revisions have been made to their satisfaction. Once the conditions have been met, the supervisor will visit the NMHI office, sign the form and the administrator will submit the form to FGSR.
  • Adjourned: The final oral examination should be adjourned in the following situations:
    • The revisions to the thesis are sufficiently substantial (if further research or experimentation or major reworking of sections are required, or if the committee is not satisfied with the general presentation of the thesis) that it will require a reconvening of the examining committee. The committee should not propose that the student has passed; rather the committee shall adjourn the examination.
    • The committee is dissatisfied with the student’s oral presentation and defense of the thesis, even if the thesis itself is acceptable with or without minor revisions.
    • Compelling, extraordinary circumstances such as a sudden medical emergency during the examination.
    • If the examination is adjourned, the committee should:
      • Specify in writing to the student, with as much precision as possible, the nature of the deficiencies and, in the case of revisions to the thesis, the extent of the revisions required. Where the oral defense is unsatisfactory, it may be necessary to arrange some discussion periods with the Student prior to reconvening the examination.
      • Decide upon a date to reconvene. If the date of the reconvened oral examination depends upon the completion of a research task or a series of discussions, it should be made clear which committee members will decide on the appropriate date to reconvene. The final date set for reconvening shall be no later than six months from the date of the examination. A final decision of the examining committee must be made within six months of the initial examination.
      • Make it clear to the student what will be required by way of approval before the examination is reconvened (i.e., approval of the committee chair or supervisor, approval of the entire committee, or of select members of the committee).
      • Specify the supervision and assistance the student may expect from the committee members in meeting the necessary revisions.
      • Advise the vice-dean (FGSR) in writing of the adjournment and the conditions (in the points above).
      • When the date is set for the adjourned final oral examination, the department will notify the FGSR. Normally the dean, vice-dean, associate dean or pro dean attends the examination.
  • Fail: If the final examination committee agrees that the student has failed, the committee chair shall provide the reasons for this recommendation and the department’s decision for the student’s program in writing to the vice-dean (FGSR), to the student and to the NMHI office. For failed examinations, the vice-dean (FGSR) will arrange to meet with the student and with department representatives before acting upon any department recommendation. A decision of the FGSR which affects the student's academic standing (e.g., required to withdraw or transfer to a master's program) is appealable.

Time Limit for Submission of Doctoral Theses to FGSR

Following completion of the final oral examination at which the thesis is passed or passed subject to revisions, the student shall make the appropriate revisions where necessary and submit the approved thesis to the FGSR within six months of the date of the final oral examination. The Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute may impose earlier deadlines for submitting revisions.

If the thesis is not submitted to the FGSR within the six month time limit, the student will be considered to have withdrawn from the program. After this time, the student must apply and be re-admitted to the FGSR and register again before the thesis can be accepted. 

If the final oral examination is adjourned, the six month time limit will take effect from the date of completion of the examination where the thesis was passed with or without revisions.

In order to convocate, all doctoral students must submit their thesis to the FGSR for approval before the deadline dates set out in the Academic Schedule of the Calendar. Students must also ensure that they are registered in the appropriate thesis course in their last registration prior to convocation.