Doctoral Thesis Assessment Criteria

Editor’s note: this article, published in 2018, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

Right now on Thesislink we’re talking about assessment. These blog posts are written to help you understand the thesis and dissertation assessment process at AUT.

However, please consult the AUT Postgraduate Handbook for official information on assessment policies and procedures and discuss with your supervisor(s).

Last week, we looked at the general process for assessing a thesis, and broke down the criteria for grading a Masters or Honours thesis or dissertation.

If you’re working towards your doctorate, you can expect the assessment process to take a few months – the doctorate is, after all, the pinnacle of academic achievement, and cannot be awarded lightly.

Here’s what typically happens after you submit a Pathway 1 thesis (the process may be more complex, depending on the examiners’ recommendations):

1. Examiners read your thesis and submit independent reports to the Graduate Research School, each making a provisional recommendation for a particular outcome. As with any thesis or dissertation examination, there is a subjective element to the examiners’ recommendations.

2. Reports are send to members of the AUT Examination Panel, consisting of the examiners, plus an independent convenor who ensures the fairness of the oral examination. The panel considers the reports in relation to the outcomes; if examiners provisionally recommend a pass (outcomes 1-3), then an oral exam is planned. NB. There are often differences between examiners’ recommendations. If there is a major difference of opinion, there may be some negotiation with examiners prior to the exam proceeding.

3. Anonymised reports are normally released to you a week before the oral exam (not showing the provisional recommendations).

4. You sit the oral exam.

5. Examination Panel works toward a consensus on a final recommendation for a particular outcome. (This happens immediately after the oral; you will find out their recommendation at this point.)

6. The University Postgraduate Board considers the recommendation and makes a final decision (accepting the recommendation, if it is unanimous).

You can find more details about this process on pages 114-124 of the 2018 Postgraduate Handbook; or check out pages 124-127 if your research is practice-led.

You might assume that, for a complex piece of research and a complex assessment process, the assessment criteria would get a little more complicated too. After all, a doctoral thesis is the longest, most challenging piece of writing you can do as a student.

On the face of it, though, the assessment criteria seem less prescribed at this high level. There are ten criteria in all – six for the written thesis, and four for the oral exam – and each criterion is under 20 words long.

To understand why the criteria are seemingly broad, think about the outcomes of a doctoral thesis. At Masters level, if you pass, you get a grade: A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, or C-. That’s eight types of passing grades. By contrast, at doctoral level, you get an ‘outcome.’ The examiners can recommend any of the following:

Source: 2018 AUT Postgraduate Handbook, p.116-7

There are just 3 passing outcomes, and they aren’t related to the letter grade system. (For instance, an Outcome 1 thesis is not equivalent to an ‘A,’ and an Outcome 3 thesis is not equivalent to a ‘C.’) The outcomes simply reflect the degree of revision (if any) required.

Given that a doctorate is assessed on (a slightly more complicated version of) a pass/fail basis, the assessment criteria are streamlined. Let’s look at them and break them down. (Note that even though doctoral assessment takes part in two phases, it is a continuous process.)

Source: Compiled from 2018 AUT Postgraduate Handbook, p.116-8


Criterion 1: Performance in relation to peers

Examiners are asked to consider your performance in relation to other doctoral candidates. Your thesis is expected to be of a comparable standard to others’ doctoral theses.

Criterion 2: Appropriateness of research methodology

If you have explained and justified your research methodology, showing a good understanding of its relative merits and drawbacks for your particular project, then you are likely to fare well on this criterion.

Criterion 3: Original contribution to knowledge

The ‘original contribution to knowledge’ is one of the things that makes a doctorate so prestigious. Masters research is not required to make such a contribution; this is particular to doctoral degrees. The requirement to make an original contribution to knowledge can sound intimidating. However, there are quite a number of ways to meet it. An original contribution isn’t necessarily all about your results and findings; you can also make an original contribution in your creative use of methods, or innovative application of theory. Check out this past Thesislink post for ideas about how to make an original contribution.

Criterion 4: Depth and breadth of subject matter coverage

This criterion allows examiners quite a lot of scope to comment on your engagement with the literature in your field (and related fields), as well as your discussion of your own research. The key takeaway from this criterion is that both depth and breadth are important in a successful doctoral thesis. You need to balance your immersion in your specific research niche, with your awareness of other work in related areas.

Criterion 5: Thesis presentation

Examiners may comment on big-picture presentation issues like your thesis structure and quality of writing; they may even comment on specifics like your spelling, grammar, and formatting. This criterion allows them to consider elements of style, so of course, it’s important that you do too.

Criterion 6: Quality of knowledge & skills

This is quite a broad criterion, especially since the knowledge and skills under consideration are “both general and subject specific.” It allows examiners to comment on your fitness, as evidenced by the thesis, to hold a doctorate. A doctoral degree is often the last barrier to entry into the academy; in a sense, the examiners are like the gatekeepers to a prestigious and historied world of intellect. Under this criterion, they can comment on whether your thesis demonstrates the level of quality required to ‘join the club.’


Criteria 1: Original contribution

At the oral examination, your examiners will consider the contribution you have made through your research and your thesis, and they make ask questions about where you think the originality lies in your work.

Criteria 2: Critical judgement & understanding

As a potential doctor, examiners will expect your critical faculties to be sharp. How well do you understand your own research and its context? How advanced, nuanced, and sophisticated is your perspective?

Criteria 3: Your contribution

Examiners will consider the degree to which your thesis can be considered your work. This is particularly relevant if you have chosen Pathway 2 (thesis by publication), because any co-authors on your publications will be part-authors of the material included in your thesis.

Criteria 4: Defence

Examiners are required to assess how ‘coherently and competently’ you defend your thesis. Note that ‘defend’ is different to ‘discuss.’ You must justify your decisions: why did you make the choices that you made about your subject, scope, methods, research process, literature, thesis structure? Examiners will be looking for you to defend those choices convincingly.

Finally, here’s what happens once examiners have agreed on your outcome (and the University Postgraduate Board has confirmed it, if necessary):

  • If you get Outcome 5 (which is very rare) you will not be awarded a doctorate, but you may be recommended to receive an MPhil instead.
  • If you get Outcome 4, you’ll have to substantially revise and resubmit to go through the examination process again.
  • If you get Outcomes 2 or 3, you’ll have some amendments to make before you can deposit your thesis and graduate.
  • And if you get Outcome 1, you’re done! Congratulations!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Doctoral Thesis Assessment Criteria

  1. Hi Anaise,

    Thanks for the blog about the pathway 1 (or Format 1: Traditional thesis) assessment criteria.
    I have recently defended my thesis based on pathway 2 (or Format 2: Manuscript style thesis) and it was entirely different from what you stated, from the beginning (writing the thesis) to the end (defending my oral). Although the essence of assessment criteria and the outcomes are the same, in practice it is a whole lot different.
    Can I ask you, if you can publish some guidelines about the format-2 thesis, based on my experience.
    I struggled a lot as there was not enough exemplar to follow apart from the guidance given the the 2019-Postgraduate handbook. I have spend a lot of time in looking at the repository searching for examples and I think ‘Thesis link blog’ is probably the right place to guide future students who wish to succeed using this pathway!
    Thanks, Prabakar Parthiban.

    1. Hi Prabakar, thanks for your comment. The format 2 thesis process is definitely quite different to the format 1 process, and can vary a lot from person to person. We haven’t published any guidelines specific to format 2 (beyond what’s in the Postgraduate Handbook) for that reason – for format 2, individual experiences are often quite unique. If you have some valuable insights to share from your personal experience, you are very welcome to submit a piece of writing about your journey with format 2. Our submission info is on our ‘About’ page at

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