Oral Examination: Doctoral Degree



The guide below includes the steps and policies normally required as per the Graduate General Regulations. Requests for exceptions to these for extenuating circumstances can be made by the supervisor or graduate chair to the Associate Dean, Academics in writing to defence@sfu.ca.

  • You must be registered in order to defend/graduate.
  • You may apply to graduate through SIMS.
    IMPORTANT: the deadline to apply to graduate is not the same as the library thesis submission deadline. Students can apply to graduate at any time in what is planned to be their final term of graduate studies. 
    • It is a straightforward process to withdraw your application, but more challenging to add you to the graduation list after the deadline.
  • If you complete your degree requirements during the first calendar month of the term, you may be eligible for an early completion refund. You do not need to formally apply for this. More information can be found on the Degree Completion page.

Oral Examination: Doctoral

Degree Completion Timeline

This timeline is meant to give you a rough guide only. As everyone's writing speed is different, and your supervisor's and committee members' commitments and schedules can fill up quickly, we recommend that you give yourself, your supervisor and your committee as much time as possible.

6-8 months before your intended date of defence
Present your supervisor and your supervisory committee members with an outline of your thesis and notify them of your intention to defend in 6-8 months' time. Review your thesis progress regularly with your supervisor.
8-10 weeks before intended date of defence
Consult with your supervisor and committee to ensure that they have read your thesis and agree that you are ready for defence.

6-8 weeks before intended date of defence
Work with your graduate program assistant to complete all required forms. You should also apply to graduate (if you haven’t already done so).

NOTE: You should not be responsible for filling out any of the pre-defence paperwork or submitting it to Graduate Studies. It is the responsibility of the academic unit.

The documents must be submitted to Graduate Studies a minimun of 6 weeks prior to your intended date of defence. Your academic unit may have earlier deadlines; please consult your graduate secretary or program assistant.

6 weeks before intended date of defence
Your academic unit submits doctoral forms and thesis file (PDF format) to Graduate Studies. The email and associated PDF file should include the title "Academic Unit - YourLastName.pdf" (ie. "Mathematics - Smith.pdf").
After the defence
As per GGR 1.10.4, if thesis revisions are required, the student may complete them and submit the thesis to the Library no later than the end of the subsequent term after their successful examination.

Preparing to Defend

Scheduling a Defence

Once your thesis is substantially complete, your supervisory committee will work with your graduate program chair to determine the date, time and location of your defence (GGR 1.9.3-GGR 1.9.6). Students and supervisors are expected to discuss defence dates well in advance, and to plan defences around known absences.

At least six weeks before your defence date, your graduate secretary or program assistant will require information from you and your supervisor to fill out and submit a form for the Approval of Examining Committee for a Doctoral Student to Graduate Studies. 

Once the paperwork is received, the Dean of Graduate Studies will formally invite your external examiner and distribute an electronic copy of your thesis to the external examiner and the rest of the examining committee.


Approval of Examining Committee Form
Access it in the Faculty & Staff area now

External Examiner Selection Process

External examiners should be selected in a collaborative manner by the supervisor and chair/director of the graduate program committee. The goal is to find an external examiner who is expert, available, not in a conflict of interest, and whose services can be obtained at a reasonable cost to the University.

Normally, an informal approach to a prospective examiner is made by the supervisor or chair/director of the graduate program. This is done to ensure willingness and availability. Students are not permitted to contact potential external examiners. Once a date has been set, the academic unit is responsible for filling out the appropriate forms.

Conflict of Interest

Our regulations (GGR 1.9.4) and common sense dictate that the external examiners of theses should be free of potential conflict of interest. An examiner should be a disinterested evaluator of the work and should not be placed in a position in which it might be perceived that personal considerations could sway the examiner's assessment of a piece of work.

The following is a list of relationships that could be perceived as creating a conflict of interest:

  • Student and external examiner have or had a relationship unconnected to the student's academic work. Examples: family connections; business connections.
  • Student and external examiner had or have an academic relationship. Examples: examiner was student's instructor or a member of a previous supervisory committee; they have participated together in a research project; they have published together.
  • Student and external examiner are planning a future relationship, contingent on a successful defence. Examples: student will work as post-doctoral fellow in external's lab; student will be hired by external's company.
  • External and supervisor have the kinds of relationships discussed in points 1 through 3. Examples: external examiner was supervisor's student (or vice versa); they have been collaborators in a research project.

Given the interconnections between researchers, the need for students in many disciplines to publish, and the very specialized nature of some areas of research, it is unrealistic to expect that external examiners will have no knowledge of, or no connection to, the student in all cases. It is also unrealistic to try to write precise rules for avoiding such problems.

A better approach is for supervisors and graduate program chairs to ask themselves before contacting an external examiner whether a potential conflict of interest could be perceived. In addition, when the potential examiner is contacted, it would be worth checking whether there is a conflict of interest that ought to be declared.

Leaving/Retiring Supervisors

If the student's expected completion time is within a year of the supervisor's retirement, then the retired faculty member may remain as a supervisor.  

If the student's expected completion time is within six months of the supervisor's departure from SFU, the departing faculty member may remain as a supervisor. If the expected completion time exceeds six months, then the request for approval of a new or co-supervisor must be submitted to the graduate committee.

At the Examination

Thesis examinations are open to the University community.

Tip: We strongly recommend that you attend other defences in your academic unit so that you know what to expect during your defence.


Below, we've outlined the basic steps you'll go through to prepare for your defence. You are only responsible for checking that technology requirements, if needed, are ordered by your academic unit. Please note that you should have no direct contact with the external examiner or the examining committee regarding the thesis.

Best Practices

Elements of a successful thesis defence include:

  • The first thing the external examiner assesses you on is your thesis: how you craft and round out your thesis matters; it is the basis of a first impression
  • understand and prepare for the four possible examination outcomes
  • know yourself; demonstrate that you are the subject expert for your thesis in a professional manner
  • know your audience; in addition to the panel of experienced mentors (the examination committee) you may also find members of the public in attendance
  • develop the structure of your oral presentation in consultation with your supervisor - it may include the following:
    • hypothesis
    • scope & depth
    • comprehensive, and/or with a potential focus on particular chapter(s)
    • new knowledge generated
    • future research  
  • practice your oral presentation (timing, length, pace, aids)
    • by memorizing your opening statement
    • in the examination environment, if possible, and in front of your supervisor, group members, and friends
    • with those who will provide objective critical feedback - then critique the feedback, and consider presentation adjustments
  • develop questions about your thesis work from your oral presentation and/or the thesis itself (these questions may be your own or come from others)
  • it is normal that changes and/or edits to the thesis may be required after your defence; the manner in which the thesis is revised is a reflection of your behavior, your potential as a colleague/collaborator/mentor/leader, and is on file permanently in the library

What to Bring

You only need to bring your thesis and presentation notes. Your Graduate Program Assistant (GPA) should be consulted to ensure that the following will be available:

  • Copies of your thesis abstract for the audience at your defence. Some information about yourself may also be included with your abstract, such as previous credentials, list of publications, list of awards.
  • Appropriate audio-visual or videoconferencing equipment, if required to support your presentation.
  • Water and cups for you and the examination committee. (Additional refreshments may be ordered at the discretion of your academic unit)

Day of Defence Schedule

The following describes the process what normally occurs during the defence. The schedule in GGR 1.9 and GGR 1.10 should be followed.

At the start of the defence the chair will introduce you and all members of the examining committee. The chair will also outline the procedures that are to be followed during the defence.
You will give your oral presentation of your thesis research. It is expected that this will not exceed 20-25 minutes (a typical conference paper length).
Two rounds of questioning will begin with the external examiner, followed by the examiner and supervisory committee members. The supervisor normally asks questions last. Each person may ask multiple questions during their turn. Once the second round of questioning is done, the chair will ask if there are any other questions from the committee. The exam will continue until all committee members are satisfied.
The chair will invite questions from the audience. Once the questions from the audience have been completed, the chair will ask you and the audience to leave to room. The committee will make a decision to classify the thesis according to the outcomes referenced in GGR 1.10.2.
After the committee has made their decision, you will be invited to return to the room to be given the results of your defence, and if any significant revisions are required. Your supervisor should ensure that any annotated copies of the thesis are passed to you to help with revisions (if required).


The second and third outcomes cited in Graduate General Regulation 1.10.2 both involve revisions, and can be subject to interpretation.

Outcome 2: The thesis may be passed on the condition that revisions be completed to the satisfaction of the supervisor

There is sometimes considerable discussion among members of the examining committee of the meaning of 'revisions'. Although there is no University-wide definition, some academic units have developed their own guidelines.

Typically, these revisions address deficiencies in spelling, grammar, punctuation and presentation or minor deficiencies in the work itself.

Outcome 3: The examining committee may defer making judgement if it judges that the thesis could pass after additional work by the candidate. A thesis upon which judgement is deferred shall come forward for re-examination within a period specified by the examining committee. The examining committee may require formal re-examination under section 1.10.1 or may reach its decision by examination of the revised thesis.

If your defence falls under outcome 3, the participation of all members of the original examining committee is required in the re-examination leading to a final decision. The role of the external examiner should normally be limited to providing a critique and suggestions for improvements at the time of the original defence.

A second oral examination may not be required, depending on the performance of the candidate in the original defence.