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University Oral Examination

Overview

University and GSE policies require an oral examination (i.e., a defense of the dissertation) for the PhD, normally in the fifth year when the dissertation is essentially complete. This examination tests the candidate’s command of the field of study and confirms fitness for scholarly pursuits.
 
A student can schedule the oral exam only after at least three members of the reading committee agree that the dissertation draft is essentially complete and ready for defense. This means that all text sections must be drafted, all planned data analyses must be executed and represented in tables and figures, and all appendices must be in place. The draft need not be final because suggested revisions and final formatting will be completed after the exam. Students should leave adequate time (at least a couple of weeks is recommended) to complete any required revisions before submitting their dissertation. If a student schedules the oral exam too close to the dissertation submission deadline for a given quarter, they may not have time to complete revisions and may not be able to graduate that quarter.
 
Students should refer to the doctoral students section of the GSE website for the necessary forms and detailed procedures, as well as consult with the Doctoral Programs Officer, before scheduling their oral exam.
 
A copy of the dissertation must be submitted to each member of the oral exam committee at least four weeks prior to the examination date, at a time convenient for each committee member. The chair of the oral examination committee may want a copy of the dissertation, or only the abstract. At the very least, a copy of the dissertation abstract must be provided to the oral exam committee chair at least two weeks in advance of the exam. The student should communicate with the chair well in advance to determine the chair’s preference.

An Academic Services staff member will arrive shortly before the oral exam and provide all necessary paperwork and instructions to the chair, including ballots. Students do not need to bring any administrative paperwork to the oral exam, though they may bring to the oral exam their dissertation signature page. Stanford requires that students obtain original ink signatures from all reading committee members on this document. High-quality, long-lived, acid-free (neutral pH) bond paper must be used; please check the packaging or contact the manufacturer if you are unsure about this. The student’s typed name should be included on the header of the signature page, in the upper right hand corner (right justified). A sample signature page with further instructions can be found in the electronic dissertation submission guidelines. The faculty on the dissertation reading committee may elect to sign the page after the exam has been passed. They may also wish to wait until revisions are completed, in which case an appointment to get the physical signature should be set. The advisor, in addition to signing the page, will also need to approve via Axess when the dissertation has been finalized and approved, so a signature on the physical page is not the only required action before the final version is submitted.
 
Each requirement and procedure is discussed in further detail in the sections below and on the GSE website.

Scheduling the Oral Exam

The required paperwork and logistics (e.g., room reservation) are normally completed at least four weeks prior to the exam date, including distribution of dissertation copies to each committee member. Faculty and Academic Services staff reserves the right to request a postponement of an oral examination if all of the necessary steps are not completed at least two weeks before the exam date.
 
Because of registration requirements and faculty availability, oral examinations are normally completed in Autumn, Winter, and Spring Quarters only. Scheduling of orals during the Summer Quarter is often impractical because most faculty members are off-duty or absent from campus in the summer, and students are required to register.


The University Oral Examination Schedule form must be completed and submitted to the Doctoral Programs Officer at least two weeks prior to the oral exam. The Doctoral Programs Officer will obtain the signature of the Associate Dean for Student Affairs as the “Department Chair”. Students with departmental PhD minors (e.g., Psychology, Sociology, etc.) must first obtain a signature from that department’s chair or authorized student services administrator before submitting the Schedule form to the GSE. The minor department may require representation on the oral exam committee. Often, this person may be a GSE faculty member who holds a courtesy or joint appointment in the minor department and can already be a member of the student’s reading committee, but not necessarily.

Registration Requirement

Students must be registered and their candidacy must be valid during the quarter in which the oral examination is completed. The period between the last day of final exams of one term and the first day of the following term is considered an extension of the prior term, only if the student was registered for that quarter. For example, a student who was registered in Spring Quarter can complete the oral exam up until the day before Summer Quarter begins without having to register for summer. For oral exams on or after the first day of Summer Quarter, students must register in their regular TGR section – or enroll in at least three units if they have not yet advanced to TGR status.

Room Reservations

Students are responsible for reserving an appropriate room for the date and time of the oral examination. For information on how to reserve a room, please go to: https://25live.collegenet.com/stanford.  The GSE IT group located in CERAS can assist with any technology needs (e.g., audio/visual).

The Oral Examining Committee

The oral examining committee is composed of a minimum of five faculty members, four examiners and the University chair selected by the advisor, in consultation with the student. The committee must include the dissertation advisor and at least one other member of the dissertation reading committee. The oral exam and reading committees are separate and distinct bodies; however, the reading committee normally sits on the oral exam committee. In other words, the three readers are normally also examiners for the defense. Students may only have one non-AC member on the orals committee. The only exception to this rule is if a student has more than the required five for an orals committee. A non-AC member must hold a PhD and contributes an area of expertise that is relevant to the orals and that is not readily available from the Stanford faculty. A petition must be submitted and approved well in advance of the oral exam for a non-AC member of the oral exam committee.

University Chair

The University chair of the oral exam committee must be an Academic Council (AC) member and from a department or school outside of the GSE. In some circumstances, the chair may hold a courtesy appointment in the GSE, or be a GSE faculty member from another Area Committee. If the chair is a GSE faculty member, they must be fully outside of the student’s area (i.e. a person with a full or joint appointment in the student’s area cannot serve as University chair of that student’s oral exam committee).  The Stanford Bulletin outlines the specifics regarding the chair. Professors Emeriti from any department outside of the GSE may serve as oral exam chairs. Advisors are responsible for contacting and making arrangements with the chair, in consultation with the student. If locating a chair is problematic, the Area Chair, and/or the Associate Dean for Student Affairs may be approached for assistance.

The Abstract

No less than two weeks prior to the examination, students must submit one copy of the dissertation abstract to the oral exam chair. The abstract should be 1,000 to 1,500 words, or approximately six pages long, and should include the following:

  1. a summary of the problem;
  2. the primary research questions or hypotheses;
  3. the methods used to conduct the study; and
  4. the most important findings and conclusions.
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