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Durham University

Learning and Teaching Handbook

8.1.9: Assessment

1. The University requires that all research degrees are examined by an Internal Examiner and an External Examiner. Where a candidate is also a member of staff within the University, or where appropriate examining expertise cannot be found within the University, a second External Examiner will replace the Internal Examiner. Staff candidates include those who have become staff since completing supervised study.

2. The University will offer training and guidance to internal and external examiners of research degrees.

3. All examiners:

  • must normally be post probation (members of staff who are on probation may be nominated if they have had previous appropriate examining experience);
  • must normally be a current member of academic staff of a University or Research Institute;
  • must normally have gained a doctoral degree or have equivalent experience of research. Experienced members of staff who do not themselves hold a PhD qualification may be considered as examiners provided they have the relevant subject expertise;
  • must have subject expertise;
  • must be demonstrably research active;
  • are nominated by the Board of Studies on the forms issued by the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service (Appendix A8.03). Supervisors should be consulted about the nominations.

In addition to the above, external examiners must have standing within their own academic community.

4. The nominating Board of Studies will be required to state any current personal or professional relationship between the proposed examiners and the student/supervisors that may give rise to a potential conflict of interest;

5. Staff who have acted in any formal supervisory capacity for a candidate cannot be considered for appointment as examiners;

6. The following will not be considered for appointment as External Examiner:

  • former members of Durham University or former postgraduates unless more than five years have elapsed since that person left the University.
  • those with a close relationship with the candidate e.g. have published with or worked directly with them to a significant degree within the last five years.
  • honorary members of Durham University.
  • those whose own work is the primary focus of the research project

7. The two examiners must normally between them have experience of at least three successful supervisions and have examined three students at postgraduate research degree level.

8. An Independent Chair may be appointed to advise the two examiners during the examination process if the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee) approves the nomination from the Board of Studies.

9. The Board of Studies is required to provide the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service with a nomination for the appointment of examiners three months prior to the submission of the thesis, for the consideration of the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee). The nomination should include confirmation from the Head of Department (or nominee) that the examiners meet the criteria as outlined in paragraph 3 of this page.

10. If an examiner, or the examining team, does not meet these criteria, a case must be made by the head of department/school which will be considered by the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee) and, if support by that Deputy Executive Dean, referred for approval to the Chair of Education Committee. Where an examiner, or the examining team, does not meet the criteria, but an Independent Chair has been nominated by the Department, the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee) may approve the nomination without referring the nomination to the Chair of Education Committee.

11. Once nominations are received and approved, the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service will notify academic departments. A letter of appointment to the Examiners will be sent to examiners with the thesis once it is submitted.

The Thesis

12. A thesis is expected to form a coherent whole, with a consistent argument or series of arguments running through it. The incorporation of material written and published by the candidate during the period of registration for the degree is permitted, but the footnoting/end noting must make clear which sections of the thesis are based on published material and how much individual responsibility the candidate has for any jointly authored work. Such material must be properly and stylistically incorporated into the thesis, and will be subject to the presentation and assessment requirements defined in the Rules for the Forms of Compositions and the Submission of Work for Higher Degrees and the Core Regulations for Research Degrees by Thesis or Composition respectively.

13. During the continuation period, the supervisor is expected, as part of their normal duties, to offer the student advice and constructive criticism on the preparation of the thesis without compromising the independence of the candidate's work.

14. The supervisor is expected to read the final draft of the thesis before it is prepared for submission, to offer an opinion to the student and, if appropriate, to advise that modifications are made. However the supervisor is not an examiner and the student should be made aware that the final decision rests with the examiners and that the supervisor's opinion is not part of the examination process. If the supervisor considers that a thesis has serious shortcomings which will jeopardise its likely success, he or she should put that opinion in writing to the student. The decision on when to submit a thesis is however entirely the student's own.


15. When the thesis is ready, the student must submit an electronic copy and two paper copies to the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service.

16. The Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service will send the copies of the thesis to the appointed examiners with the Guide to Examiners and the Report Forms.

Oral Examination (viva voce)

17. Preparation for the oral examination should be given via the supervisor. The supervisor should ensure that the student understands the requirements and purpose of the oral examination and is prepared for this.


18. The criteria and requirements by which a candidate is assessed are specified in the Core Regulations for Research Degrees by Thesis or Composition, and/or the Programme Regulations for Research Degrees by Thesis or Composition, or the Core Regulations for Professional Doctorates. Examiners are requested to complete the examination within three months of their receipt of the thesis, and to contact the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service if this is not possible.

19. An oral examination is required for all Doctoral degree candidates and higher Master's degrees (MLitt, MPhil, MEd), but is at the examiners' discretion for first Master's candidates. An oral examination is similarly required at re-examination for all Doctoral degree candidates and higher Master's degrees (MLitt, MPhil, MEd) when the examiners do not find the revised thesis or folio acceptable.

20. After reading the thesis, each examiner should independently write an individual report (available from answering some specific questions designed to emphasis the criteria for the award of the degree and provide a general report of his or her opinion of the thesis.

21. A copy of the individual report should be sent to the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service in advance of the oral examination.

22. The arrangements for an oral examination will be made by the internal examiner, or the supervisor/Independent Chair where there are two external examiners; this will include notification of the details to the candidate and the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service. In all cases where an oral examination is held, the supervisor will be consulted by the two examiners, and should be available for the oral examination, and may, at the invitation of the examiners, attend all or any part of the oral.

23. The University requires that oral examinations should be conducted in accordance with the procedures as set out in the Guide to Examiners of Research Degrees in Section 8.6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook.

24. The oral examination may be held outside the University with the approval of the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee). If the circumstances require it, the candidate's expenses should also be refunded.

Outcome of the Examination

25. The recommendations of the examiners may, at their discretion, be reported informally to the candidate at the oral examination.

26. Report Forms (available from are completed by the Examiners and returned to the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service for final approval by the appropriate Deputy Executive Dean (or their nominee).

27. Candidates will receive a letter notifying them of the result of the examination. If unsuccessful, students will be referred to their supervisor for information on what further action is required or available to them.

28. If the decision is that the degree be awarded forthwith, the candidate should submit one electronic copy of the thesis to the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service.

29. Where minor corrections are required, these must be completed, normally within three months of notification.

30. Where the examiners consider that a thesis is unsatisfactory the following options are open:

  • to recommend that the candidate should fail and should not be permitted to resubmit, i.e. that the failure be outright (this would be where the thesis falls very short of the required standard);
  • where the shortcomings are considered capable of correction within twelve months, and when it is the first examination of the thesis, they may recommend that the candidate should be permitted to resubmit the thesis for re-examination in a revised form;
  • that they be awarded a lower degree forthwith on the basis of the thesis as submitted, or that the thesis be resubmitted for second re-examination for a lower degree;
  • in cases where the thesis was satisfactory, but the oral examination was not, the candidate will be allowed to have a second oral examination or take a written examination within six months.

31. The procedures for submission for re-examination are similar to those for the original examination. In addition, candidates have to pay the appropriate resubmission and continuation fee at the time.

Conferment of the Degree

32. Once the final, approved copies of the thesis have been submitted to the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service, students will be issued with a letter and Pass List confirming that they have met the requirements of the degree, subject to conferment at congregation and being free from debt. Until the degree has been officially conferred, the Curriculum, Learning and Assessment Service can provide successful candidates with a statement confirming that they have satisfied the examiners, should copies of the Pass List not be considered adequate by other authorities.

33. Students with any outstanding tuition debts to the University will not be able to go through congregation until the debts have been settled. Students can not claim to have been awarded the degree until they have gone through congregation, either in person or in absentia.