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PhD Comprehensive Exam

Details of the PhD Comprehensive Exam

(last updated 15 May 2024)

A student's comprehensive exam (in the Department of Statistics, this encompasses the written Thesis Proposal) is a critical opportunity for the faculty to guide and shape the dissertation research. The proposal process succeeds when it leads the student to a sound and detailed plan for the dissertation. The faculty should provide the student with constructive criticism on proposed methods and approaches, force the student to question assumptions, and challenge the student's perspective on the problem. The proposal process described below has been devised with this in mind.

Students and supervisors should be aware that UBC recommends this happen within 24 months of beginning the PhD (if not sooner) and requires a written extension in order for the student to remain in the program if this has not occurred within 36 months. 

The Comprehensive Examination, which marks the passage to candidacy, should ensure that students have not only acquired knowledge at the PhD level, but have also developed sufficient skills for thesis work. The student should have begun to develop the skills we expect of our PhD students: creativity, originality, independence, ability to formulate and solve problems, the "little things"—finding and referencing appropriate articles. In addition, the student should learn to communicate to the statistical community, orally and in writing.

The acquisition of these skills—the transition from course-related problem solving to research—is often a difficult one. We believe that the Comprehensive Exam should serve an active role in facilitating this transition. The written research proposal and the accompanying question period address this goal.

The process

  1. The student should select a thesis supervisor following successful completion of the Stat 548 Qualifying Exams (if not earlier). The supervisor must be a member of the graduate faculty.

  2. The student, in consultation with the supervisor, selects two or more additional faculty members to form the Committee. The Committee should be selected from the members of the graduate faculty who are best qualified to assist the student in conducting the research for the dissertation. The Committee has the responsibility of supervising the research, reading the proposal, and conducting the Comprehensive Examination. 

  3. The student is encouraged to meet with members of the Committee prior to the Comprehensive Exam to help formulate the research plan. 

  4. The student, in consultation with the Committee, prepares a rough draft of the Proposal Document and selects a date for the Comprehensive Exam. The body of this text is limited to 20 pages, excluding tables and figures. See the subsection The Proposal Document below. The Committee must be given the proposal document at least two weeks before the scheduled date of the Comprehensive Exam.  

  5. During the Comprehensive Exam, the student meets with the supervisor, at least one member of the Committee, and an Exam Chair in a scheduled, 2 hour session. The Chair’s participation should be arranged by the supervisor. The Chair may not be a member of the Committee. The chair is responsible for ensuring that the examination is conducted in an orderly manner, for leading committee discussion of the proposal and the examination, and for reporting the committee's decision, in writing, to the Graduate Advisor and the Student Programs Coordinator.

  6. The Exam begins with a 30 minute presentation by the student followed by questions and discussion. The purpose of this meeting is for the Committee to evaluate and guide the thesis proposal. The session concludes with an in-camera discussion among the Committee. The committee will decide the result (see below for possible outcomes).

  7. The Chair will share a written report with the Graduate Advisor(s) and Student Programs Coordinator. The Student Programs Coordinator will coordinate with the student to ensure that the relevant paperwork is filed with the G+PS.

The proposal document

The proposal document should (1) state the basic problem clearly and succinctly, (2) review relevant literature, (3) provide some demonstration of competence to carry out the research plan, (4) propose specific steps that could be taken to complete the research, and (5) provide a tentative timeline for the successful completion of these steps. These fundamental elements should be clearly evident in the written document. It is usually most convenient to have section headings that identify these components.

Item (3) is the most difficult to formalize. The proposal should occur early in the research process, hence it is not necessary that the student obtain particular results before proposing. On the other hand, it is necessary that the student demonstrates that serious efforts have been made to launch the project. For instance, this section might describe efforts made that failed to solve the problem, provided the student can explain how these efforts helped to illuminate how the problem might be solved. Items (4) and (5) should not be considered binding on the student. Rather, they should demonstrate that the student has carefully thought through the work necessary to complete the research as proposed.

The document should be produced in LaTeX, with an 11- or 12-point font, in a style similar to the LaTeX document style “article” with single spacing and 2.5cm margins. Its length must not exceed 20 pages, together with at most an additional 2–3 pages of references and 5 pages of figures and tables. Citations and the list of references should be done according to the style of a standard statistical journal such as the Canadian Journal of Statistics and must be implemented in BibTeX. Derivations and proofs should be included only as they are necessary to explain the work being proposed. Appendices or further documents may be used for additional derivations or auxiliary results, but the main document should be understandable on its own. A LaTeX template is available in the Department GitHub Organization.

Appendix: Additional details

Criteria for evaluation and adjudication

​​After the oral exam, the Examining Committee should make two decisions, one for the oral exam and one for the thesis proposal (this process mimics the PhD thesis defence).

Options for the oral part of the exam are:

  • unconditional pass

  • re-take as soon as possible, preferably within 2 weeks

  • fail (e.g., due to unsatisfactory responses in the question period)

Options for the thesis proposal document are:

  • unconditional pass

  • re-write portions of thesis proposal, with a retake of oral exam

  • re-write portions of thesis proposal, without a retake of oral exam (this option is available for the case that only writing improvement is needed)

  • fail

The Comprehensive Exam is graded as a pass only if the Examining Committee unanimously recommends a pass for both the oral exam and the thesis proposal document. Admission to PhD candidacy comes after all course requirements are completed and the Comprehensive Exam is passed. A PhD supervisory committee should be formed at this point (this is typically the same as Comprehensive Exam Committee, but this is not required).

Changing the proposed research

Beyond allowable deviations in (4) and (5) of the proposal document, it is possible that a PhD candidate may wish to change his/her thesis topic and/or thesis supervisor. In these cases, the candidate may be asked to defend a new thesis proposal.