Comprehensive Examination for Doctoral Students

A comprehensive examination is normally held after completion of all required coursework and is intended to test the student's grasp of the chosen field of study as a whole, and the student's ability to communicate his or her understanding of it in English or in French. The student's committee will set and judge this examination in a manner compatible with the policy of the graduate program concerned. Programs should make available to students a written statement of examination policy and procedures. The comprehensive examination is separate and distinct from the evaluation of the doctoral dissertation prospectus.

The doctoral student will take the following examinations:

  1. Course examinations where applicable; a minimum of 68% must be obtained unless otherwise specified
  2. Tests of the student's ability to read languages other than English where program regulations require it
  3. A comprehensive examination
  4. A graduate program may require a formal examination of the thesis before it is transmitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies for final oral examination

Recommended guidelines for graduate programs' comprehensive examination statement

Although all doctoral students in the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies are required to successfully complete a comprehensive examination before being admitted to candidacy, the nature of the examination may vary significantly from graduate program to graduate program. It is important that graduate programs develop and make available to all new doctoral students (and faculty) a written statement clearly outlining their policies and procedures for the examination including; purpose, timing, examination format, examination committee, scope, criteria for evaluation, and adjudication.

This document identifies many of the topics that to be outlined in this statement. The objective is to help ensure that there is consistency in the nature of the comprehensive examination from student to student within a program, absence (and perceived absence) of bias, and overall fairness. The examination is to be an academically useful tool and to be consistently of the highest academic standard.

Purpose of exam

  • Clearly outline the purpose of the examination, including an assessment of whether the student has developed:
  • strong analytical, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities
  • required breadth and in-depth knowledge of the discipline
  • required academic background for the specific doctoral research to follow
  • potential ability to conduct independent and original research
  • ability to communicate knowledge of the discipline


  • specify timing of the comprehensive examination, including the earliest and latest dates by which the comprehensive examination is to be completed
  • given the importance of the examination and consequences of failure, students are to be informed of the specific dates of their examination so that they have adequate time to prepare. The examination should be held reasonably early in the program. Students should not spend an unreasonable length of time preparing for it
  • specify prerequisites. For example, clarify whether all coursework, laboratory rotations, seminars, etc. must have been completed prior to the examination and whether the examination is the final step before advancement to candidacy

Examination format

Clearly state the format of the examination. The format should be consistent for all doctoral students within a particular graduate program. The following list provides some of the more common examination formats used in achieving the purpose of the exam. Some graduate programs combine two or more of these formats or provide an option of more than one format to their students.

  • oral examination of the student's knowledge of the field of study
  • oral examination of student's knowledge of a series of previously assigned research papers or research topic(s)
  • student prepares a research grant proposal which forms the basis of an oral examination
  • written examinations
  • take-home examination
  • preparation of an extended research paper(s)
  • preparation of an annotated bibliography
  • develop a syllabus for a course

Oral examination format (if applicable)

  • chair reviews exam purpose and exam format
  • chair establishes order in which examiners ask questions
  • set the approximate length of time for each examiner
  • set the number of rounds of questioning
  • indicate whether or not the examination is held in camera
  • student provides a brief oral introduction

Examination Chair

  • outline procedure for setting examination chair
  • is the chair an examiner?
  • does the chair vote?
  • outline role of the chair (e.g. ensure impartiality, program's procedures are followed, file exam report)

Examination Committee

  • outline procedure for selection of the examination committee members and chair
  • can examiners from outside the student's graduate program be included?
  • can examiners who are not members of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies be included?
  • does the student's supervisor have a role in the examination?
  • have at least three examiners in addition to the chair


  • the content of the examination is to be consistent with its purpose
  • subject areas included in the exam
  • outline the range of material to be tested and suggestions as to how to cover this material (e.g., reading lists, courses, refereed journals, etc.)
  • students are to be encouraged to meet with the examiners well before the examination and discuss the examiner's expectations

Criteria for evaluation

  • the evaluation is to be relevant to the stated purpose
  • outline how each component of the examination is factored into the committee's final decision or if the assessment is global
  • does failure of one component of the examination (or one question) result in the student being required to be re-examined on this component, adjournment with the student being required to be re-examined on more than one component, failure, etc.


  • are the committee's decisions made on the basis of a simple majority vote or must there be unanimous agreement amongst committee members?
  • In most graduate programs the examining committee meets in camera to evaluate the student's performance in all aspects of the exam and renders one of the following decisions:

Unconditional Pass
Conditional Pass

  • If the student is given a conditional pass:
  • the student may be required, for example, to successfully complete a course or write a paper in an area in which the committee finds the student needs additional knowledge
  • the additional academic requirements are to be provided to the student in writing by the examination committee and include expected standards of achievement and times for completion


  • specify the conditions under which the examination is adjourned
  • procedures for continuing the examination are to be specified in writing by the examining committee (most programs allow a student one examination adjournment or retake, provided the student has the opportunity to complete the examination within the first 36 months of his/her program)


  • outline the procedure to be followed if a student fails the examination.
  • the student is to be informed in writing by the examination committee of the failure and be provided with the conditions relating to a repeat or a continued examination, if any
  • if the student is allowed to repeat the examination, the student is to be informed immediately after the examination.
  • conditions for repeating the examination are to be clearly stated, including the time frame, potential dates, nature of the re-examination, consequences of a second failure, etc.
  • the examination committee membership usually remains unchanged for the subsequent examination.


  • The assessment and reasons for the decision reached by the examination committee are to be documented and provided to the student in sufficient detail to allow the student to understand the decision, including identifying strengths and weaknesses.
  • Some graduate programs have developed a standard form for the committee chair to complete following the examination to help maintain a thorough and consistent record of the programs comprehensive examinations.
  • In the case of oral examinations, the student should be given feedback on presentation, logic flow, ability to answer questions and clarity.

Other desirable features to consider

  • the student's supervisory committee meets to confirm the student's readiness for the examination
  • the student's peer group and supervisor may have a "dry-run" to help prepare the student
  • if the oral examination is a retake, videotape the examination
  • allow the student to select a faculty member to act as a neutral observer
  • have one or two faculty members serve as neutral chairs for a graduate program (e.g. graduate advisor, department head)
  • student's supervisor or supervisory committee member not chair the exam
  • have an "outside" examining committee member
  • have the oral examination open to other faculty members