Doctoral Office
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PhD Ethics Application

All researchers should apply for ethical approval of a study before they may commence with research. A particular responsibility for oversight rests with the institution in the case of researchers in training, such as PhD candidates. Every PhD candidate must apply for ethics approval, to the most suitable Research Ethics Committee (REC) within Stellenbosch University. To help make this process accessible and transparent up front, please see the Tygberberg Doctoral Office combined Ethics Application Guide for PhD students in the FMHS. (A version more suitable for other SU postgraduate students is available here).

A student will be issued with a letter to facilitate their ethics application following successful completion of the proposal review process and submission of the review documents to the Tygerberg Doctoral Office. Most PhD projects can be assessed by one, particular REC, but some projects will straddle the domain of more than one REC. Stellenbosch University has five RECs, all functioning under the SU Senate Research Ethics Committee (SREC), as follows:
  1. Animal Care and Use (REC: ACU)
  2. Biosafety and Environmental Ethics (REC: BEE)
  3. Health Research Ethics Committee 1 (HREC1)
  4. Health Research Ethics Committee 2 (HREC2)
  5. Social, Behavioural and Education Research (REC: SBE)

A majority of doctoral research projects in the SU Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences are considered by the respective RECs for Animal Care and Use, or Biosafety and Environmental Ethics, or the Health Research Ethics Committees. Each committee has its own rules and procedures. Three months should be allowed for the ethics process of a doctoral study, from application to outcome.

On receipt of the ethics approval letter bearing your name, this should be submitted to the Tygerberg Doctoral Office at, right away. Ethics approval for an individual study, OR a letter adding a student as investigator to an existing, ethics-approved study, is acceptable. In case of the latter, we also request the original or most recent ethics approval of the larger study.

At this stage, your practical research may begin, while we proceed to submit your project to the Committee for Postgraduate Research on behalf of your department. From there it travels to the Faculty Board and Senate, for formal approval of your doctoral study. This is a quarterly process which takes about three months.

Regardless of the details of a specific project or the stipulations of its ethics clearance, all research should adhere to the SU Policy for Responsible Research Conduct. Also consult the Principles, Processes and Structures for Ethics in Health Research of the SA Department of Health.

​Notes ​on Confirmation of Proposal Review

  • Before accepting a doctoral study for ethics review, the Health Research Ethics Committees (only) require a letter to confirm that the relevant faculty proposal review process was followed correctly, and the review completed successfully.
  • The Tygerberg Doctoral Office will provide confirmation that the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences proposal review procedures were followed in the case of all FMHS students. Turnaround is fast, but do submit your five review documents to in good order, and in a single email, by three workdays prior to your ethics deadline. There is no need to request the letter - it will be issued automatically on receipt of your five review documents (and not before).
  • When applying for minor amendments with no title change implied, we rely on the domain-specific judgement and good ​faith of the supervisor and student. The same ​review confirmation letter provided previously may be uploaded in order to satisfy the HREC requirement for a document from our office. 
  • In the case of applications for major amendments, or amendments involving a title change, a revised set of review documents may​ be submitted to as the basis for an updated review confirmation letter. For effective processing, the proposal should​ be edited using track changes.
  • Doctoral candidates from other faculties may obtain a formal letter from a suitable independent party in their own faculty - such as the HoD, but not the supervisor - to confirm the correct internal processes for scientific review were followed; in order to facilitate an ethics application to the HREC.​ Unfortunately, the Tygerberg Doctoral Office cannot assist in this regard.

For clinicians only:

In the case of clinical trials, a separate ethics process governed by the Department of Health follows.

In addition, the trial may be registered on the South African National Clinical Trials Register (SANCTR), housed on the website of the Medical Research Council, at this link.

Ethics FAQs and videos developed by the UREC office:

At this link, a number of useful videos on various aspects of health research ethics have been published by the Undergraduate Research Office within the FMHS Division for Research Development & Support and Internationalisation. Staff members who watch these videos can also return to the same page to complete the relevant multiple choice quizzes in order to earn CPD points.

At this link, a number of core questions about health research ethics are answered.