Geography & Environment Comprehensive Examination Guidelines

These guidelines apply to all Ph.D. students whose supervisor or primary co-supervisor is a Faculty member in the Department of Geography and Environment.

The purpose of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination is to test the Ph.D. student’s knowledge and comprehension across a general field of study (e.g. Physical Geography; Human Geography; Archaeology; Earth, Space and Physical Sciences) and areas of relevant specialization (e.g. remote sensing, climate change, statistical methods, spatial analysis, field techniques). 

All Ph.D. students must complete a Comprehensive Examination following the successful defence of their thesis proposal and within the first 24 months of registration in the Ph.D. program. The Comprehensive Examination has both a written and an oral component. There is normally a preparation period of one semester in advance of the examination.

The Comprehensive Examination Committee

The Comprehensive Examination Committee will comprise:

  • A Chair (Non-Voting Member): A faculty member of the University who is not a member of the Supervisory Committee. The Chair is a representative of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and is required to be familiar with the policies and procedures of the examination.
  • All members of the student’s Supervisory Committee, including the supervisor.
  • Where appropriate, the Supervisory Committee may also nominate an External Examiner, usually from the University and within the same discipline.

The Comprehensive Examination Committee Chair is responsible for administering the Comprehensive Examination. The Examination Committee develops the examination. The content and dates for the written and oral component of the Comprehensive Examination are set by the Comprehensive Examination Committee.

At least six (6) weeks prior to the scheduled start date of the Comprehensive Examination, the supervisor will recommend the membership of the Comprehensive Examination Committee to the Doctoral Program Committee and will submit the Comprehensive Examination Notification form to the School of Graduate Studies.

The Comprehensive Examination Scope and Format

After consultation with the student and prior to the examination start date, the Supervisory Committee will determine the format, general scope, and range of topics and questions to be addressed in the Comprehensive Examination. Where appropriate, this will include setting a seed list of readings prior to the examination.

Once the examination has begun, the student must have no contact with members of the Comprehensive Examination Committee pertaining to any aspect of the examination, except for the Chair.


Examination Component:


Written Component

  • The written examination questions set by the Examination Committee will pertain to the general discipline and to the specific research area(s) and associated methods, as follows:
    • Part A:   Questions related to the general discipline (e.g. Geomorphology, Economic Geography, etc.)
    • Part B:   Questions related to the specific research area(s) and associated methods (e.g. data acquisition, statistical methods, etc.)
    • Each of Part A and B will consist of three (3) questions the student must answer.
  • The format can be one of: 
    • a take-home examination lasting two calendar (2) weeks, where one (1) week is allowed to compose answers to Part A, immediately followed by one (1) week to compose answers to Part B;
    • a sit-down examination taken within a two (2) calendar week period, with Part A and Part B examinations to be taken on separate days. The student will be given the questions to answer at the start of each examination session, and will have three hours to compose answers for each of Part A and Part B. 
  • Assessment of the written examination will follow the SGS policy cited below.

Oral Component

  • The oral examination will occur within four (4) weeks after successful completion of the written examination. The oral examination consists of a public presentation session, followed directly by a closed question session.
  • The student will deliver a 30-minute public presentation, after which members of the public are invited to ask questions for 15 minutes. The presentation will relate to the content of the Comprehensive Examination with the focus being decided by the Supervisory Committee in consultation with the student in advance. The Examination Committee will not ask questions during the public question period.
  • No later than 15 minutes after the end of the public presentation and public question period, the oral examination will be reconvened as a closed session attended by the Examination Committee and the student only. The Comprehensive Examination Committee members will ask the student questions based on the student’s responses to Part A and Part B of the written examination described above, as well as any other related and pertinent questions within the general scope and range of topics and questions identified to be addressed in the Comprehensive Examination. The maximum time for the closed question session is two (2) hours. Normally, the Chair of the Comprehensive Examination Committee does not ask questions.
  • Assessment of the oral examination will follow the SGS policy cited below.

SGS Policy on Assessing the Comprehensive Examination

(School of Graduate Studies Policies and Procedures, Version 2.0: November 26, 2020.)

The written and oral components are completed separately and graded as Pass/Fail. The written component is completed and assessed first. A student who passes the written component, continues to the oral component. A student who fails the written component is given one (1) opportunity to repeat the examination. A student who fails any portion of the Comprehensive Examination must wait a minimum of two (2) weeks before repeating it and up to a maximum of four (4) months from the date of the failed Comprehensive Examination to successfully complete it. A student who fails either portion of the Comprehensive Examination (written or oral component) for the second time may complete a masters-level degree—subject to approval by the relevant Graduate Program Committee and the Dean of Graduate Studies—or may be required to withdraw from the Doctor of Philosophy program.

Note: These Guidelines provide additional information specific to the Department of Geography and Environment. SGS policies on the Comprehensive Examination apply in all cases. Ph.D. students will adhere to both the SGS policies and these Guidelines.

Approved by Graduate Council on March 31, 2021.