Section 7: Examination

7.1 Transfer of status

Most commencing research students are registered as Probationer Research Students (PRS), and/or for a preliminary research training master’s course. Regulations governing applications for transfer of status are set out for each subject within the Examination Regulations or in course handbooks.

The assessment for transfer of status is a formal requirement, and success should not be considered a foregone conclusion by either the candidate or the assessors.

7.1.1 Guidance for students and assessors

In addition to the regulations governing applications for transfer of status, course handbooks must provide information on the process. The relevant Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) and/or the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) should ensure that the transfer procedure in a subject includes:

  • criteria against which applications for transfer to doctoral status (or for the relevant lower degree) will be assessed;

  • instructions about the materials required for the transfer application;

  • instructions to the student as to the nature of the required assessment process and the role of the assessors;

  • information for students about the range of possible outcomes that may be recommended by the assessors, including transfer to the relevant lower degree, subject to opportunity for further application;

  • instructions to assessors as to the nature of the required assessment process and of the assessment report;

  • a review of the assessment report by the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) and/or the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS);

  • (for non-native English speakers) an indication of the assessors’ view of the student’s ability to present and defend the work in English;

  • appropriate feedback to the applicant, especially where an application has been unsuccessful;

  • the University procedure for appeals;

  • the timeframe for the return of assessment reports to the department (as a guide, three weeks after the assessment is considered a reasonable maximum).

In addition, for PRS who are required to take a master’s course during the course of the first year, departments should ensure their own policies are clear. If the transfer depends on achieving a specified level in the initial master’s course, a clear definition of the required level should be provided to students.

7.1.2 Timing of transfer

Students who began their research degree course on or after 1 October 2011 must transfer status before the end of their fourth term (the eighth for part-time students). Students who began their research degree course before October 2011 must transfer before the end of their sixth term. It is possible for the responsible board to stipulate variations within these limits. Exceptions, where they apply, are set out in Special Regulations.

Subject to the approval of the responsible divisional or Continuing Education board as appropriate, and for good cause, a full-time student may be permitted to hold the status of PRS (prior to the first application for transfer of status) for a further one or two terms (a part-time student for a further one to four terms). Applications for extension should be made to the relevant board using form GSO.2b.

7.1.3 Application for transfer

To apply for transfer to D.Phil. status, students must submit a completed GSO.2 form (GSO.2 MSD for Medical Sciences), available from the Graduate Progression Forms page. Students of some subjects will also need to submit an additional subject-specific form, also available from this page.

7.1.4 The assessors

It is the University’s expectation that assessments for transfer of status will be undertaken by academic staff employed within the collegiate University, neither of whom should be the student’s supervisor. On rare occasions, in all subjects, there may be a strong case for having assessors who are external to the University. Where a division, board or department is willing to approve this, external assessors may be used, any fee to be paid by the board.

The appointment of the assessor is formally the responsibility of the relevant board, but the supervisor may make recommendations where appopriate

7.1.5 The assessment process

Transfer applications must be considered by two assessors. Although arrangements for assessing applications vary from subject to subject, and may involve a committee including the supervisor, it is essential to ensure a significant independent element, especially where there may be any doubt about the outcome. The process of assessment must always include an interview with the student.  The supervisor may not be present at the interview, but may be present at the student’s presentation where this is separate to the interview. Where a department wishes to establish a procedure involving an exception to this requirement, permission must first be sought from the relevant division and Education Committee.

The assessors’ report should be returned to the relevant board within three weeks of the date of the assessment interview.

7.1.6 Recording of skills development

The identification of areas of skills training and development is a regular aspect of a student’s work with his or her supervisor(s). As part of the process for application for transfer of status, supervisors are asked to ensure that students:

  • record those subject-specific and personal and professional skills which the student has already acquired in the course of PRS status;

  • identify any such skills which might require further development or refinement;

  • note any other related activities which have made a contribution to the development of the student’s work.

This information is then viewed by the transfer assessors and those who approve applications for transfer, not in order to make skills training a formal hurdle within the transfer process, but as a means of acknowledging the importance of such activities in a research student's training and to provide a fuller picture of a student’s progress. It also aims to help students cope with the increasing expectation on the part of research councils and other funding bodies that, in conjunction with their supervisor(s), they will maintain a record of such skills and achievements throughout the course of their career as a research student.

7.1.7 Unsuccessful transfer applications

A student whose first application for transfer is not approved (including where the outcome is a recommendation to transfer to the M.Sc. or M.Litt.) is permitted to make one further application, and should be granted an extension of one term if necessary. After a second unsuccessful attempt, if transfer to the relevant lower degree (having been considered by the assessors) has not been recommended, the student should be removed from the Register of Graduate Students. Particular attention should be paid in such circumstances to the importance of informal counselling, involving the student’s college, as an integral part of any procedures.

Information on the procedure for complaints and appeals may be found in Section 7.4.

7.2 Confirmation of status

The confirmation of status process enables the student to have an assessment of his or her work by one or more assessors, other than the supervisor(s). If confirmation of status is approved, this is an indication that, if work on the thesis continues to develop satisfactorily, submission within the course of three further terms might reasonably be expected. It should be noted that a successful completion of confirmation of status provides an indicator only for readiness for submission, not for the final outcome of the examination of the thesis.

The procedures involved in assessment for confirmation of status provide students with important practice in presenting and defending their research and gives some experience of the viva to come.  The process of assessment must always include an interview with the student.

The assessment for confirmation of status is a formal requirement, and success should not be considered a foregone conclusion by either the candidate or the assessors.

7.2.1 Guidance for students and assessors

The general regulations for confirmation of status are set out in the Examination Regulations, along with information in the Special Regulations for particular subjects. Course handbooks must also provide information on the process. The relevant Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) and/or the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) should ensure that the confirmation procedure in a subject includes:

  • criteria against which applications for confirmation of doctoral status will be assessed;

  • clear instructions about the materials required for the confirmation of status application;

  • clear instructions to the student as to the nature of the required assessment process and the role of the assessors;

  • clear instructions to assessors as to the nature of the required assessment process and of the assessment report;

  • a review of the assessment report by the GSC and/or the DGS;

  • (for non-native English speakers) an indication of the assessors’ view of the student’s ability to present and defend the work in English;

  • appropriate feedback to the applicant, especially where an application has been unsuccessful, normally in the form of the assessors’ report;

  • the University procedure for appeals;

  • the timeframe for the return of assessment reports to the department (as a guide, three weeks after the assessment is considered a reasonable maximum).

7.2.2 Timing of confirmation of status

Students must have their status confirmed within nine terms of their admission as a PRS. It is possible for the responsible board to stipulate variations within these limits. Exceptions, where they apply, are set out in Special Regulations.

Students may be permitted by the relevant faculty/department or divisional board to defer their application for confirmation of status for a maximum of three terms. Applications for deferral should be made using form GSO.14b.

The confirmation of status process enables the student to have an assessment of his or her work by one or more assessors, other than the supervisor(s).  For this to be of benefit, sufficient time should be allowed for assimilation of the experience and feedback from confirmation before submission takes place.  For this reason, there should be a gap between completion of confirmation of status and submission, normally of not less than three months.

7.2.3 Application for confirmation

To apply for confirmation of D.Phil. status, students must submit a GSO.14 form. Students of some subjects will also need to submit an additional subject-specific form, also available from the Graduate Progression Forms page.

7.2.4 The assessors and the assessment process

The appointment of the assessor is formally the responsibility of the relevant board, but the supervisor may make recommendations where appropriate.

Responsible bodies should bear the following points in mind when appointing assessors, with a particular eye to potential difficulties:

  • The need to take particular care in the choice of assessors, taking account of any views made known by the student and the supervisor(s);

  • The importance of ensuring that the assessors structure the assessment interview to give the student maximum opportunity to demonstrate the standard of their work and to answer any reservations the assessors may have, make a careful record of the assessment interview, and report in some detail (where an interview is held);

  • The consideration of use of one or more external assessors in addition to an internal assessor where expertise is not available internally.  Neither of the assessors should be the student's supervisor.

Given that the special regulations setting out the requirements for confirmation of status may vary according to the subject, it is important to note that the process of assessment must always include an interview with the student by two assessors.  The supervisor may not be present at the interview, but may be present at the student's presentation where this is separate to the interview.  Where a department wishes to establish a procedure involving an exception to this requirement, permission must first be sought from the relevant division and Education Committee.

The assessors’ report should be returned to the relevant board within three weeks of the date of the assessment interview.

7.2.5 Unsuccessful confirmation applications and appeals

A student whose first application for confirmation of their status is not approved is permitted to make one further application, and shall be granted an extension of one term if this is necessary for the purposes of making the application. After a second unsuccessful attempt, if transfer to the relevant lower degree (having been considered by the assessors) has not been recommended, the student should be removed from the Register of Graduate Students.  Particular attention should be paid in such circumstances to the importance of informal counselling, involving the student’s college, as an integral part of any procedures.

Information on the procedure for complaints and appeals may be found in Section 7.4.

7.3 Examination of research degrees

Rules relating to the examination of research degrees are set out in the relevant general regulations of the Examination Regulations, along with information contained on the relevant application forms (see form GSO.20a).

Regulations governing the content and length of theses may be found in the General Regulations and in the relevant Special Regulations.  Guidance notes for divisional boards to assist in the development of Special Regulations for integrated format theses may be found at Annex B.

7.3.1 Preparation for submission

Students must  allow adequate time for writing up the thesis, taking the advice of the supervisor. Particular attention should be paid to final proof-reading. The student should also be made aware that he or she must ensure that the standard of his or her English is sufficient for the presentation of a thesis.

Students and supervisors should be aware that it is the student’s responsibility to decide whether to submit the thesis for examination, after taking due account of the supervisor's opinion. It is in the student's interests to ensure that the final version has been made available to the supervisor for final comment in good time before the intended date of submission.

Students should be made aware that the examination process at Oxford is strictly separate from the supervision of research, and that while a supervisor may offer advice on the student’s chance of success, the outcome will depend on the recommendation of the examiners and on the final judgement of the board, and this may reflect a different evaluation of the merits of the thesis.

7.3.2 Approval and appointment of examiners

Applications for the appointment of examiners are made by a student using the standard form (GSO.3), and may not be made earlier than the term before that in which the thesis is to be submitted. An explanatory leaflet setting out the procedure to be followed and the examination process (GSO.20a) is also available. 

In completing the relevant section of the form, a supervisor is required to consult with the student concerning possible examiners, and to forward to the department, divisional or faculty board the names of suggested examiners together with any details of any special considerations from the student about potential examiners. Students are advised that this does not give them a veto over the appointment of examiners since the final choice lies with the responsible board or committee.

A board or committee that decides against all the examiners proposed by the supervisor, in consultation with the student, should consult the supervisor and student before approving alternative names.

7.3.3 Examiners

External examiners

It is an absolute requirement that one examiner should be external to the University for research examinations. The absence of specific reference to external and internal examiners in the Examination Regulations allows the responsible board to appoint two external examiners where particular circumstances suggest that this would be prudent. It is not possible to appoint more than two examiners in total.

Where two external examiners are appointed, it is common practice to appoint a member of the department/faculty to act as a point of liaison and information for the examination, and to undertake some of the routine tasks (posting notices of the examination, booking a room, finding hospitality) which would normally be undertaken by the internal examiner.

Overseas examiners

The University’s policy in relation to examiners from overseas is intended to ensure that students should, as far as possible, be examined by those well qualified to do so. The University has not therefore put a formal restriction on invitations to examiners from overseas. Boards are asked to consider examiners from within the UK and Europe as a first choice, and only to look further afield if there is no one appropriately qualified from within this group, and if the quality of the student’s examination would be reduced without an examiner from elsewhere. Boards or committees are asked in these circumstances to try to fit the viva around a pre-arranged visit to the UK by the proposed external examiner. Remote vivas may also be used (see Section 7.3.4 below).

Other requirements

Examiners act on behalf of the body which appoints them, and there is no restriction on who may act as an examiner if they are considered suitable by a board/committee, bearing in mind conflicts of interest (see below). It is not necessary to hold a permanent post to act as an internal examiner, but it is important that the internal examiner should have expertise in the subject of the student’s thesis, should understand the procedures which operate in Oxford, and have a clear sense of the expectations and standards associated with a successful Oxford doctoral thesis.

Conflicts of interest

No one in the following categories or circumstances should be appointed as an external examiner:

i. A member of a governing body or committee of the University or a current employee of the University;

ii. *Anyone with a contractual or personal relationship with either the student or his/her supervisor(s) or who has a financial interest in the research of the student: personal is taken here to mean a social and/or family connection;

iii. Anyone who is already, or knows they will be, in a position significantly to influence the future of a student: e.g. a person who is on the appointment panel for a post for which the student has applied;

iv. Anyone significantly involved in recent or current substantive collaborative research activities with the student;

v. Former staff or students of the University, unless a period of three years has elapsed.

* Relationships in this category will be on a spectrum such that appointing bodies may exercise an element of discretion and consider carefully whether the relationship presents a potential risk of perceived or actual bias.

Departments and faculties should also give careful consideration to whether the same external examiner should be appointed for successive students of the same supervisor.

7.3.4 Use of audio-visual communication tools in vivas

In exceptional circumstances, normally affecting the ability of the external examiner to take part in an Oxford-based oral examination, application may be made to the relevant board for special permission to hold the examination using audio-visual communication with the external examiner concerned. The board concerned may approve the application only where

  1. it accepts that no alternative and timely arrangements may reasonably be put in place;
  2. the proposed arrangements are acceptable to both examiners and to the student;
  3. it involves remote communication with only one of the examiners (normally the external);
  4. it is content to bear the additional cost of the necessary arrangements;
  5. an oral examination of this type takes place according to arrangements and in premises approved by the Proctors.

In the event of any technical or other problems, the validity of the process used to conduct the oral examination and to determine the outcome will be decided by the Proctors.

7.3.5 Timeframe for the appointment process

While the University places considerable importance on avoiding unnecessary delays in the examination of research degrees, it has to follow procedures that are designed to preserve the consistency and fairness of the examination process. In particular the procedures are designed:

  • to minimise any direct contact between the student and the proposed examiners prior to the viva (ie by passing the thesis and associated paperwork through the Research Degrees Examinations Office);
  • to ensure that the names of proposed examiners are scrutinised and approved by or on behalf of the relevant responsible body;
  • to recognise that examiners enter into a contract to act on behalf of the University in the examination process, and must therefore be invited formally to act and must also formally accept the invitation;

Graduate Studies Committees (GSC) and/or Directors of Graduate Studies (DGS) are likely to be involved in the approval of examiners for research degrees. This is a stage at which delays can occur, and, if the approved examiners decline to act, where these can be lengthy. It is important that GSC and/or DGS are aware of the procedures, and can intercede on the question of the time-scale for the examination with the new appointees. Such examiners may not understand the importance of working to progress matters as quickly as possible.

If, for any reason, examiners wish to hold a viva within four weeks of receiving their copy of the thesis, notification should be sent to the relevant board, and the permission of the Proctors must be sought. This may be done by emailing the Proctors (proctors.office@proctors.ox.ac.uk) giving details of the proposed arrangement and the reasons for the request.

7.3.6 Information about the examination process

The Research Degrees Examinations Office will provide examiners with a copy of the Memorandum of Guidance for Examiners (GSO.5).  Information about the examination process is given to students in the explanatory leaflet which accompanies the appointment of examiners form (GSO.20a). In addition, the relevant GSC and/or the DGS should ensure that the examination procedure in a subject includes guidance on the criteria against which the thesis will be examined (qualification descriptors are available from the QAA website).

7.3.7 Examination outcomes

Master of Letters and Master of Science by Research

Examiners for the M.Litt. or M.Sc. must choose one of the following outcome recommendations:

  1. Award of the M.Litt/ M.Sc. [possibly with minor corrections]
  2. Reference back [for revision] for M.Litt./ M.Sc.
  3. Outright failure

For a first M.Litt./ M.Sc. examination, examiners may only select from recommendations 1 or 2; for a subsequent examination, examiners may select any one of 1-3. Full explanation of these recommendations is available in the relevant Memorandum of Guidance for Examiners (GSO.7 and GSO.7a).

Doctor of Philosophy

Examiners for the D.Phil. must choose one of the following outcome recommendations:

  1. Award of the D.Phil. [possibly with minor or major corrections]
  2. Reference back [for revision] for D.Phil. or
    Award of the M.Litt./ M.Sc. (as the thesis stands or subject to minor corrections) as the student may choose
  3. Reference back [for revision] for M.Litt./ M.Sc. only
  4. Reference back [for revision] for D.Phil. or
    [for revision] for the degree of M.Litt./ M.Sc. as the student may choose
  5. Award of M.Litt./ M.Sc. (possibly with minor corrections)
  6. Outright failure

For a first D.Phil. examination, examiners may only select from recommendations 1, 2 or 4; for a subsequent examination, examiners may select any one of 1-6. Full explanation of these recommendations is available in Section 6 of the Memorandum of Guidance for Examiners (GSO.5).

The examiners should return their joint report to the relevant Graduate Studies Assistant no later than one month of the date of receipt of the corrected thesis by the designated examiner in cases where minor corrections have been requested, and ideally within two weeks of the date of the viva if no corrections are required.

The University’s procedures are designed to ensure that the formal outcome of the examination is not made known until the recommendation from the examiners has been considered and accepted by or on behalf of the responsible body, while recognising that by asking for minor  or major corrections to be completed, examiners will inevitably provide the student with an informal indication of their likely recommendation.

7.3.8 Enquiries before and after the viva

Where examiners have enquiries about a proposed examination (beyond those of a routine nature that can be dealt with by the Research Degrees Examinations Office), these should be directed to the DGS (and not to the supervisor).

A student who wishes to enquire about the outcome of an examination before the examiners’ report has been considered by or on behalf of the responsible body is directed to the DGS (with the explicit proviso that the DGS may decide to divulge nothing until the report has been formally considered by that body).

Where clarification is required from the examiners of any aspect of their report or recommendations, this may be sought on behalf of the relevant body by its chairman or vice-chairman or by the DGS.

The University attaches importance to supervisors (and students) not being involved in discussions about the validity of the examiners’ recommendations before these have been discussed by or on behalf of the responsible body, and officially released. Once officially released, a copy of the report will be sent to the student.

7.4 Adjustments for disability

In accordance with the provisions of the Examination Regulations, students with disabilities may apply for adjustments to be made to their transfer and confirmation assessments and final viva arrangements using form GSO.19.  Adjustments can be requested at any point from offer of a place to submission; at the point of applying for transfer, at the point of applying for confirmation or at the point of applying for final viva/appointment of examiners.   The relevant Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), using guidance issued by the Proctors, will determine whether the requested adjustment is one that they can approve, or one that must be approved by the Proctors. The relevant department is then responsible for making the necessary arrangements once approved.  The Proctors' guidance to DGS may be found at Annex C.

7.5 Complaints and appeals

If a student wishes to contest the outcome of a transfer or confirmation assessment, either on procedural or academic grounds, he or she should first discuss the matter with his or her DGS, following the department or faculty’s complaints and appeals procedure. If the student feels that a concern has not been satisfactorily settled by that means, then the student, the supervisor, or the college authority may put the appeal directly to the Proctors. The Proctors can only consider whether the procedure for reaching an academic decision were properly followed, and cannot challenge the academic judgement of the assessors.

All complaints relating to the outcome of an examination for a research degree should normally be directed to the Proctors, according to the published guidance for making complaints in relation to research degrees, which is included in subject notes of guidance and is available from the Research Degrees Examinations Office.

7.6 Degree ceremonies

All successful D.Phil, M.Sc., M.Litt. students are required, on the granting of leave to supplicate, to submit a hardbound copy of their thesis to the Bodleian Library. Successful students for the degrees of D.Phil, M.Sc., or M.Litt. whose programme began on, or after, 1 October 2007 are additionally required to upload a digital copy of their thesis to the Oxford Research Archive. Students who do not fulfill these requirements will not be permitted to have their degree conferred.