PhD Qualifying (Comprehensive) Exam


12.1. Objectives. To establish to the satisfaction of the Department that the student has a sound proposal for PhD research, an effective grasp of his/her main and related areas of study, and the ability to handle facts, new ideas, and concepts at the PhD level.

More specifically, the nature of the questions will be along those outlined for the scope of PhD thesis defences in Section 14. Due to the general nature of the Biology Department, specific areas of questioning cannot be listed here. Students should:

  • be familiar with experimental and analytical procedures used or proposed.
  • be prepared to discuss and defend all proposed approaches (and alternative approaches) to the problem: their rationale, the procedures, the objectives and the hypotheses.
  • be prepared to evaluate the potential significance of the results they may obtain and their relationship to further experimental work.
  • have a working knowledge of their general field of study.

12.2. Timing. PhD students must complete the qualifying examination within twelve months of registering in the PhD program. It is strongly recommended that students take the exam within 4-6 months of registering in the PhD program. Exceptions to the 12-month time limit will be considered only in special circumstances (e.g. part-time students) and must be approved by the Graduate Studies Committee. The supervisory committee should meet with the student ahead of time to outline areas of expertise required by the student at the exam.

12.3. Proposal Format. The qualifying exam is an oral examination based on a written thesis research proposal prepared in a standard format, as follows

  • single-spaced text, 12 pt serif font (e.g., Times), with 1 cm margins on all sides
  • page 1 is a summary of the proposal written in lay terms so that any intelligent person might be able to understand it
  • page 2-6 comprises the proposal, usually organized under the following subheadings: Background, Objectives, Methods, Preliminary Results (if available), Expected Results, Expected Significance of the Research. Feel free to modify these or add other subheadings.
  • pages 7-n is a list of references quoted in the proposal. Use whatever format you like. There is no limit here but most proposals have no more than 2 pages of references
  • you may also add an appendix containing extensive tabular material, figures, and copies of the slides in your talk if you think this would be useful but the examiners are not required to read this appendix, and the proposal should stand alone without it.
  • number each page in the top right
  • feel free to add small in-text pictures and graphs to the main proposal pages if these help to clarify.
  • must include a signed cover sheet

This thesis research proposal must be made available to the members of the examining committee at least two weeks prior to the examination.

12.4. Qualifying Exam Format. At the beginning of the examination, the student may opt to give a 20 minute seminar or may be requested to do so by the examining committee (this request must be made at least two weeks in advance of the examination). The questions asked by the examiners will focus on the thesis proposal and may also involve related areas of biology and other scientific disciplines relevant to the proposal.

12.5. Examining Committee. The examining committee must include a minimum of 5 faculty, as follows:

  • 1 Chairperson (appointed by the Graduate Studies Assistant)
  • 2 faculty members from a different research area inside or outside Biology (these may be supervisory committee members; cross-appointees included)
  • 1 Biology faculty member from the candidate's research area (usually a member of the supervisory committee)
  • 1 Supervisor (or, in some cases, 2 Cosupervisors)

The Chairperson is usually a member of the Graduate Studies Committee and their role is to manage the exam and (usually) not to ask questions of the candidate, nor do they vote on the outcome of the exam.

Examiners may be regular full-time faculty members at a recognized university, emeritus professors (as long as they are still active in research), adjunct professors (provided this is covered in their letter of appointment and funds are available to cover the costs mandated by the faculty union), or other researchers in government agencies and NGOs (usually a PhD is required plus approval from the Graduate Coordinator and the Graduate School). Please consult with the Graduate Coordinator if you are unsure about the status of a potential examiner.

Other faculty may be invited by the Department Head to be members of the examining committee. All faculty are permitted to attend the examination but must obtain permission from the Chair to ask questions and cannot take part in the decision of the committee. Other observers (e.g., students) may be allowed to attend the examination but only if the candidate agrees and requests that the Chair allow them to attend.

12.6. Arrangements. The student's supervisor is ultimately responsible for the arrangements for this examination. Copies of both the comprehensive examination form, and the report itself, must be given to the Biology Graduate Office and each of the examining committee members. The Biology Graduate Office must be notified of the date of examination at least two weeks before it is held.

12.7. Results. The Chairperson will present the report of the Examining Committee to the candidate immediately after the exam and will discuss any written comments with the candidate.

The examining committee should rate the candidate's performance as one of the following categories:

  • Pass. The student is permitted to proceed with research and the writing of the PhD thesis.
  • Referred. The candidate is required to rectify some deficiency, either by taking one or more graduate courses for credit or completing a term paper for one or more of the examiners on a prescribed subject. The student must obtain a minimum 65% on any courses taken, or must prepare the term paper to the satisfaction of the committee. The supervisor must notify the Graduate Studies Office, in writing, when such conditions have been fulfilled.
  • Fail. A written report by the Chair is required in the event of a failure. The examiners may recommend either that the student retake the examination within six months or withdraw from the program.

12.8. Appeal Procedures A PhD candidate may appeal the decision of the Qualifying Exam Committee (see Section 16.2).

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