Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam is a 2-part exam used to evaluate whether a student has the knowledge and skill to be successful as a PhD candidate. The exam consists of both a written component (a thesis proposal) and an oral examination. If a PhD student fails one of the components of the comprehensive exam, the student may ask for one re-examination. Failure to pass the re-examination will result in a withdrawal from the PhD program.

Learning Objectives

The comprehensive exam will evaluate that a candidate has sufficient knowledge and competence to successfully complete PhD studies. As such the exam will evaluate the following:

  • General and project-specific scientific knowledge (the candidate is expected to answer general questions related to the field of research)
  • Knowledge of the scientific literature in the proposed field of study
  • Ability to generate a research question and to propose an experimental plan
  • Ability to use research methodologies and interpret results (generated during the first year of studies)
  • Communication of science both written and orally
  • Ability to integrate the proposed work in the context of current knowledge in the topic of research and the broader field of research
  • Potential to identify limitations of their chosen approaches and make informed judgments in their specific field of research


The first attempt should occur within 4th or 5th term of enrolment. The comprehensive exam must be successfully completed before the end of the 6th term. If a student requires a formal leave of absence, the exam deadline will be extended by the time away.


At the second meeting of the TAC, normally in the 4th term after first enrolment, the both the student’s research project and the Comprehensive Exam should be discussed.

At least six weeks before the anticipated date of the examination, the candidate must write to the Director of the Graduate Program via the Graduate Studies Office and request the convening of the Exam. The request must include a research abstract. Names of potential examiners should be submitted by the supervisor. The Graduate Studies Office will assist by confirming the time and location of the exam. At least 2½ weeks prior to the event, the candidate must submit his/her research proposal to the Graduate Studies Office.


The candidate will prepare a PhD research proposal on their own proposed thesis project. This research proposal cannot be a summary of a grant proposal submitted by the research supervisor, but rather, must be specific to the research questions to be investigated by the candidate and reflective of research progress made in the first year of studies. Please see the document “Comprehensive Exam, Research Proposal.

Examination Committee

The committee will be composed of 3 members: 2 TAC members and one additional examiner who will be nominated as the chair for the exam. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to form the examination committee, not the student’s. At least one of the committee members should be from the home graduate program. The Chair is expected to ensure the efficient conduct of the exam and a respectful examination environment.

Roles of the Supervisor and Student

The comprehensive exam is intended to be an independent learning process. The proposal is to be written by the student as an independent exercise. The supervisor will not edit the proposal, but rather provide feedbacks on the scope of the research and the hypotheses. The supervisor may also be consulted on matters of methodology or format of the proposal. It is expected that the supervisor will be present for the exam but will only participate as an observer. The thesis supervisor may not ask or answer questions during the exam. The supervisor will be asked by the chair of the examining committee to comment at the end of the exam, after the student has left the room (in particular the supervisor will be requested to describe his/her involvement in the preparation of the exam). The thesis supervisor and the candidate are not to be present during deliberation following the exam.

The Chairperson’s Responsibilities

  • Ensure that the exam is conducted within the guidelines;
  • Ensure the thoroughness of the assessment of the candidate according to the format of the examination;
  • Oversee the order, nature and timing of the questioning
  • Distribute and collect the completed evaluation forms from the Examiners
  • Fill out the report of the examination for the candidate’s file and submit it to the Graduate Studies Office;
  • Provide a detailed report in writing to the Director of the Graduate Program if the decision of the Examining Committee is that the student is unsuccessful.

The Chairperson may intervene:

  • in the questioning, if needed to maintain the appropriate level or conduct of the Exam;
  • in the discussion and assessment by examiners, if the vote or consensus does not accurately reflect the results of the questioning during the Exam;
  • to deny the privilege of voting, and thus participating in the formation of a consensus, to any member of the Examining Committee who is absent from any part of the Exam.

Assessment and Evaluation

The exam is evaluated as Pass/Fail. The student can fail either the written or oral component. Each component (written and oral) is evaluated by the examination committee. Following submission of the written component (research proposal), the examination committee will be granted 1 week to complete its evaluation with two possible verdict outcomes:

(1) the research proposal is ready to proceed to defence

(2) the research proposal must be revised

A minimum of 2 satisfactory votes are required to successfully pass the Comprehensive Exam. A student must submit a revised proposal if more than one examiner requires major changes (verdict of 2). Note that this will be considered a first fail, and the subsequent submission and oral defence must be passed to successfully pass the Comprehensive Exam. Following a Verdict 1, the student will be asked to prepare for oral defence. For the oral defence, the PhD candidate will be asked to present a short 15 minute summary of their research topic and their proposal, followed by two rounds of questioning in which the student’s basic scientific and technical knowledge will be evaluated. Specific questions relating directly to the research proposal will be asked.

At the end of the Exam, the student will be asked to leave the room and the Supervisor will be given the opportunity to express his/her opinion of the student’s performance to the Committee. The Supervisor will then be asked to leave the room and members of the Examining Committee will deliberate in the absence of the student and the Supervisor. At the end of the examination, each examiner, including the Chair, will vote (satisfactory/unsatisfactory). A minimum of 2 satisfactory votes are required to successfully pass the comprehensive exam. A student whose performance is deemed to be unsatisfactory (more than one unsatisfactory vote) will either be asked to repeat the exam or will be withdrawn from their program (if it is a second fail). For the re-examination, corrective measures will be communicated to the student and the same Examining Committee will judge the candidate’s success in meeting the corrective measures.

The candidate and Supervisor will be invited back into the room and will be informed of the Committee’s decision and will, if necessary, suggest areas where the student needs to improve his/her background knowledge.

The Documentation Form and an Oral Evaluation Form from each examiner, along with additional recommendations, will be forwarded to the Graduate Studies Office.


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