Accessibility statement

Guidance for the appointment of examiners for research degrees

This guidance is for departments when they are considering whom to appoint as internal or external examiners for research degrees. This guidance should be read in conjunction with the University Policy on Research Degrees, which contains the definitive policy statements.

Principles: All examiners of research degrees must be independent, impartial, have no known conflict of interest and be of suitable professional standing. 

Appointment of external examiners

Independence

Independence is normally established by the external examiner being a current employee, on a substantial contract, of another University and by their not having been a recent employee of the University of York. Those soon to be employees of the University of York should also to be excluded. There must be no connection to the University of York that could suggest that they might feel compelled to make any particular decision.

Impartiality

Impartiality requires there to be no personal relationship between the external examiner and anyone else involved in the process: student, supervisor, internal examiner, chair of graduate studies committee (or whoever signs off the recommendation at departmental level) or anyone else involved in making a decision in the examination process. 

It is a feature of academia that people are often required to make impartial academic judgments about someone with whom they have some level of professional relationship (eg when writing references, grading REF submissions, promotions panels etc.) so we should not assume that any existing professional relationship thereby inhibit impartiality.

Professionalism

We require external examiners to be of suitable professional standing – which is to say that we can expect them to behave with professional responsibility. There are many forms that professional standing may take – eg employment by a university or research organisation or membership of a professional body – and these may vary by discipline. If professional standing is not obvious, for example if the proposed examiner is an independent scholar or works in industry with no academic affiliation, the Graduate Chair should provide some discipline-specific context for SCA.

Conflicts of interest

Some of the questions on the appointment of examiners form are there to ensure that there is no potential conflict of interest. The form asks the external to declare any potential conflicts of interest. For an external examiner, conflicts of interest arise when the examiner could have a personal 'stake' in the outcome. This could be, for example, through too strong a connection with the student, or the student’s work or with the work of the supervisor, internal examiner or other staff closely involved, in the specific area of the students of work.

The following are conflicts of interest and should be avoided at all costs:

  • collaboration or co-authorship with the student
  • collaboration or co-authorship with the supervisor or internal examiner on topics closely related to the student’s research
  • the supervisor or internal examiner has recently examined, or will or imminently examine, one of the external’s research students
  • there exists a formal relationship with the department which might have meant working with student (eg honorary visiting professor in same research group).

The following might present conflict of interest and are to be avoided if possible:

  • an academic relationship exists, such as co-authorship or collaboration or sitting on the same funding committee, to the supervisor or internal examiner, but which does not involve the student project
  • an academic relationship exists to the Department, but which does not involve the student as a researcher in any way (eg lapsed or purely honorary Honorary Visiting Professor or regular visits to give lectures)
  • the external was the supervisor’s supervisor or the supervisor’s supervisee
  • the external recently supervised the student’s dissertation or thesis at another institution as part of a previous taught programme.

The following examples would not constitute conflicts of interest:

  • the external has met the student at conferences
  • the external knows the supervisor well but no collaboration or co-authorship
  • the external knows the internal well but no collaboration or co-authorship
  • membership of same professional association or body as the supervisor or internal examiner
  • the external was the supervisor’s PhD examiner.

Appointment of internal examiners

Although a member of University staff, and likely appointed from within the student’s wider research grouping in the student’s department, the internal examiner must be able to make an independent academic judgement on the candidate’s thesis. If the nominated internal does not feel able to do so, for any reason, they must recuse themselves from the examination process.  

The same principles of impartiality and conflicts of interest apply in relation to appointment of internal examiners. There should be no circumstances in which the internal examiner has a personal or professional interest in the outcome of the examination. Thus, an internal examiner should not have had co-authoring or collaborative involvement in the student’s current research project, and their work should not be the focus of the student’s thesis. The nominated internal examiner must not be appointed (or the nominated examiner should recuse themselves) if there exists a close personal relationship with the student’s supervisor, as defined by the University Policy on Personal Relationships).