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PhD Comprehensive Exam

Details of the PhD Comprehensive Exam

Exam Requirements

Students are expected to take their comprehensive oral exam before the end of their second year in the program. However, since the examination consists of the initial portion of thesis work, students are encouraged to take the exam earlier if possible. This comprehensive examination will consist of:

  1. an oral presentation (1/2 hour in length) of a written research proposal, which should be distributed to the Comprehensive Examination Committee at least two weeks prior to the examination;
  2. a question period on the proposal.

Details of the Examination

The research proposal should lay the foundation for the student's thesis work. It should be no longer than 20-50 pages, and should contain a description of the motivation for the problem to be tackled, a discussion of relevant literature, and suggested approaches for solving the problem. While it need not contain preliminary results, it should show that the student is prepared to begin research on a reasonably well-formulated problem.

The Comprehensive Examination Committee will normally consist of at least three members, one of whom is the student's research supervisor and one of whom chairs the examination. The chair is someone other than the research supervisor and should not be someone who has been asked to be on the supervisory committee. The chair is responsible for making sure 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.

In keeping with the Faculty of Graduate Studies guidelines, regular Department faculty members can serve on the Examining Committee. Others, such as adjuncts and members of other departments, can serve on the committee with approval from the Graduate Advisor.

See below for more detailed on Criteria for Evaluation and Adjudication.


The Faculty of Graduate Studies' Policies and Procedures Manual states that the Comprehensive Exam "is intended to test the student's understanding of the chosen field of study as a whole and the student's preparation for the thesis research to follow" (section 4.5).

Thus, one purpose of the Comprehensive Examination, which marks the passage to candidacy, is to ensure that students have not only acquired knowledge at the Ph.D. level, but have also developed sufficient skills for thesis work. The student should have begun to develop the skills we expect of our Ph.D. 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.

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 (in a way similar to PhD thesis defense).

Options for the oral part of the exam are:

  • unconditional pass
  • re-take as soon as possible, preferrably within 2 weeks
  • fail (e.g., due to unsatisfactory responses in the question period)

Options for the thesis proposal are:

  • unconditional pass
  • re-write portions of thesis proposal, with a re-take of oral exam
  • re-write portions of thesis proposal, without a re-take of oral exam (this option if only writing improvement is needed)
  • fail

The Comprehensive Exam is graded as a pass only if the Examining Committee unaminously recommends a pass for both the oral exam and the thesis proposal. Admission to PhD candidancy comes after the Comprehensive Exam is passed. A PhD supervisory committee should be formed after a thesis proposal is accepted.


A PhD candidate can change his/her thesis topic and/or thesis supervisor. In this case, the candidate may be asked to defend the new thesis proposal.