PURPOSE OF THE COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION
The comprehensive examination consists of a written (2 part) and oral component that is designed to assess: 1) the student’s general biological knowledge; 2) the student’s depth of understanding in subjects related to their research area; and 3) the ability of the student to express and defend their ideas in a logical and coherent manner both orally and in writing. For PhD students with cross-disciplinary programs of study, the expected knowledge base may extend to other areas beyond the conventional boundaries of the biological sciences.
TIMING OF THE COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION
Timing of the Comprehensive Examination is dependent on the nature of entrance into the PhD program. Students who have been admitted directly into the program must successfully complete the Comprehensive Examination no sooner than 12 months but no later than 18 months from the starting date of their enrolment in the PhD program. A student who successfully defended the required thesis proposal as part of the transfer examination may complete the required comprehensive examination within the first year of registration as a PhD student, but no later than 18 months from the starting date of their enrolment in the PhD program.
COMPOSITION OF THE COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION COMMITTEE
The composition of the Comprehensive Examination Committee is determined by the (co)supervisor with input from the Supervisory Committee. The Comprehensive Examination Committee is composed of an Examination Chair, two (2) members of the student’s PhD Supervisory Committee, and one (1) additional member of the School of Graduate Studies. Neither of the two Supervisory Committee members may be the student’s primary research supervisor or co-supervisor. The committee members should represent a broad range of expertise in the life sciences and at least two members, including the Examination Chair, must be members of the Department of Biological Sciences. The Examination Chair must be a regular faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences (i.e. not an Associate Member of SGS). The role of the Chair, as a representative of the School of Graduate Studies, is to ensure the format is followed, organize times, rooms for exams, and circulate information to the (co)supervisor and Examination Committee and the student. The supervisor will provide a copy of the student’s thesis proposal to the Chair and the other members of the Examination Committee such that they are familiar with the student’s area of research.
The examination is comprised of 3 components — a written essay, a 3-hour written examination (hereafter referred to as the written examination), and an oral examination.
The Examination Committee identifies 3 general areas of the life sciences that are not directly part of the student’s doctoral research project. Each member of the Examination Committee (not including the Examination Chair) is assigned a topic and develops a minimum of 3 questions. One of the questions from each topic must be designated by the relevant committee member to be a potential source of the substantive written essay. The format of this essay is flexible and while it traditionally is a review paper, it can also be a short research grant proposal, a critique of a scientific paper, etc. The Examination Committee will circulate questions amongst themselves (not to the student) prior to the start of the exam to ensure there is no overlap with the questions, adequate coverage of the literature and general consensus of the questions among the Examination Committee.
At the start of the written exam, the Examination Chair provides the student, and cc’s the (co)supervisor and all members of the Examination Committee, with the 3 general topics and a list of 3 questions per topic. The student has four weeks to complete the essay question and to prepare for the three-hour written examination. Within 1 week of being given the questions, the student must notify the Examination Chair which one of the three potential essay questions they will be answering.
Essay Question: The essay should be 4000-6000 words in length excluding table or figure captions and literature cited. Once the student receives the questions, they may not enlist the aid of anyone in preparing the answers for the exam questions. All answers must be solely the work of the student. Any questions that arise regarding the questions should be directed to the Examination Chair who will contact the appropriate examiner. The Chair of the Examination Committee may submit the essay to Turnitin.com and the results submitted with the essay.
Written Examination: The written examination is completed 4 weeks after the student was given the list of questions. For the 3-hour written exam, each member of the Examination Committee will suggest one of the questions from their assigned topic to the Chair. The two essay questions that were not chosen can be included as possible questions for the written exam. Questions for the written exam are selected by the Examiners in consultation with the Examination Chair. The student will submit either a digital or hard copy (as requested by the Examination Committee) of the essay question to the Examination Chair, and then the student will be provided with the 3 questions, one per topic, to be answered. The Chair is responsible for supervising the student during the 3-hour written exam and all members of the exam committee must to be available (e.g., by phone or email) should questions arise. Immediately after the written exam is completed, the Chair will distribute copies of the submitted essay and the written exam answers to all members of the Examination Committee and the student.
The examination committee must meet within 3 business days to determine if the student has passed the written portion of the examination prior to proceeding to the oral examination. Immediately after the written exam is assessed, the student and supervisor will be notified of the outcome (pass or fail). If the student does not pass the written portion of the examination, they have one opportunity to retake the written component. The Examination Committee has the discretion to have the student repeat both the essay and 3-hour written exam or just one of the two if written answers are deemed unsatisfactory.
Oral Examination: No more than 2 weeks after successful completion of the written exam (when the essay was submitted and written exam conducted), the student will be examined orally by the Examination Committee on their written answers as well as additional questions that were provided to the student but were not included on the written exam (i.e., the remaining five questions from the three topics). The date of the oral exam will be mutually agreed upon by the Examination Committee and student. The student will also be examined more generally in the 3 selected areas of biology or on any general knowledge within the biological sciences. The oral exam will be a maximum of 2 hours and is closed to the public. The student’s supervisor may attend as an observer and must be available for consultation during the Committee’s deliberations following the exam.
Immediately after the oral component has been completed, the student (and the (co)supervisor if they are present) will be asked to leave the examination room. The Examination Committee will then deliberate to discuss the oral component of the exam and assign a final pass/fail grade. The student and supervisor will be notified of the outcome immediately after deliberation. If the student does not pass the oral portion of the examination, they have one opportunity to retake the oral component.
For both the written and oral components the assigned grade will be either pass or fail. Following a discussion, the Examination Committee members will vote, and the majority of votes will decide the grade. The Chair is a non-voting member of the committee.
In the event of a failure, within one week the student must be provided a written assessment explaining the basis for the failure prepared by the members of the exam committee.
A student is permitted to take each component (written and oral) of the comprehensive exam up to 2 times. The second attempt must be completed within 3 months of the first attempt.
If a student fails the second attempt of either component, they must withdraw from the PhD program. The supervisory committee may consider recommending that the student’s project be completed for consideration at the MSc level.
REQUESTING A DELEGATE FROM THE SCHOOL OF GRADUATE STUDIES
The student or examination committee can request that a delegate from the School of Graduate Studies attend the oral examination and subsequent deliberations, a minimum of 1 week prior to the oral examination. This request to the school of Graduate Studies must be made via the Chair of the Examination Committee.
COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION SCHEDULE
The dates for the written and oral component of the examination are set by the Comprehensive Examination Committee. Members of the Examination Committee and the student should allow two months for the entire process. A sample schedule is included.
At least four weeks prior to the beginning of the Comprehensive Examination, the Supervisor(s) recommend(s), in writing, the membership of the Comprehensive Examination Committee to the Doctoral Program Committee.
- Week 0: Establishment of the Examination Committee and submission of paperwork to the School of Graduate Studies.
- Week 1-3: A preparation meeting should be held to discuss topics and dates for the written and oral components of the examination. The student’s supervisor is encouraged to attend this meeting to provide information regarding the scope of the student’s PhD research to guide selection of appropriate topics. The student is encouraged to attend the
- first part of the meeting where the format of the exam (i.e., timeline and process) is reviewed.
- Week 4: The Chair of the Examination Committee will send questions to the student and the examination committee.
- Week 5: The student will notify the examination chair of their choice for the essay question. This must be done no later than 1 week (7 calendar days) after receiving the questions.
- Week 8: The essay question must be submitted to the Examination Chair, who will send the submitted document to the Examination Committee for evaluation. After submitting the essay question, the student will be provided with the 3 questions for the written exam. The 3-hour written examination must be completed in the presence of the Chair of the Examination Committee. The 3-hour written exam is normally done in person. Any request for additional materials (e.g., calculator) must be brought to the Chair of the Examination committee and approved by the Examination Committee a minimum of 3 working days prior to the written exam. Once complete, the Chair of the Examination Committee will distribute copies of the questions and answers to the examination committee and to the student. The Examination Committee has 3 working days to provide a grade of pass or fail for the written exam to the Chair of the examination committee. A meeting of the Examination Committee and Chair should be held to discuss the written exam.
- Week 10: Provided the student passes the written portion of the examination, an oral examination must take place a maximum of 2 weeks after completion of the written examination.
Approved by Graduate Council on December 1, 2022.