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PhD Comprehensive Exam

Comprehensive Examination milestone

All PhD students at the University of Waterloo are required to successfully complete the PhD Comprehensive Exam milestone. A comprehensive exam serves multiple purposes, specifically to ensure that:

  • PhD students have the appropriate academic background – a foundation and breadth of knowledge in the field of study– to be successful in their PhD program;
  • PhD students have the capacity to engage in scholarly communications – both oral and written – necessary to be successful in their PhD studies;
  • PhD students have developed a novel research topic to be evaluated during their PhD studies.

In the Faculty of Engineering, the PhD Comprehensive Examination consists of an oral examination conducted at the University of Waterloo with the candidate and members of the Comprehensive Examining Committee present. The examination consists of the following two parts:

  • An examination of the research proposal that the candidate intends to develop into a successful PhD research thesis,
  • An examination of the breadth of the candidate's knowledge of the academic field of the thesis and the adequacy of the candidate's background preparation to pursue the proposed research.

Note: Beginning in Fall 2015, Electrical and Computer Engineering has implemented a 2-part Comprehensive Exam format. For details please consult the ECE webpage

All students should review the guidelines surrounding Academic Integrity and the Comprehensive Exam prior to booking their examination.

Comprehensive Examination timing

Students admitted to the PhD program from a completed Master’s degree (PhD2) must complete the Comprehensive Exam by the end of the fourth term of their PhD program. 

Students admitted to the PhD program from an incomplete Master’s degree or directly from a Bachelor’s degree (PhD3) must complete the Comprehensive Exam by either four terms from the first term registered in the PhD program or in term seven from the beginning of your master’s – whichever occurs first.

Students who have previously completed studies in another PhD program at the University of Waterloo or at another university, are required to successfully complete the comprehensive exam no later than their fourth term of studies in their current program or their seventh term of studies at the PhD level, whichever is longer.

Students who anticipate not meeting these requirements may seek an extension to the deadline to complete the comprehensive exam. The student is required to submit a petition providing evidence of extenuating circumstances to the student's Associate Dean, Graduate Studies 

Research Proposal

All PhD students must complete a research proposal which will consist of a double-spaced report of no more than fifty (50) pages including tables, diagrams, and references. The proposal will identify:

  • The research problem
  • Review the relevant literature
  • Describe the tasks planned to solve the problem, and 
  • Propose a timetable for the completion of the project and defence of the PhD thesis.

There are no formatting guidelines for the Research Proposal, however, students are welcome to follow the thesis formatting guidelines published by the GSPA.

With approval from your supervisor, you may wish to distribute background working papers to members of the Committee to provide further evidence of background preparation.

A copy of your proposal (paper or digital) will be given to each of your committee members at least 2 weeks before your Comprehensive Exam. The EGSO does not require a copy of your research proposal

Booking your Comprehensive Examination

To begin preparations for the Comprehensive Examination you must follow the steps provided below:

  1. Select your Committee Members following Faculty of Engineering and UWaterloo guidelines:
    • Your supervisor(s)
    • 2 tenure or tenure-track faculty members from your home Department (internal)
    • 1 tenure or tenure-track faculty member from another department (internal/external)
    • No more than 1 adjunct faculty member may serve on the Committee
  2. Set the date for your examination in consultation with your committee members.
  3. At least 4 weeks prior to the date of your Comprehensive Examination, submit the PhD Comprehensive Examination Form to your Departmental Program Coordinator/Advisor.
  4. Your Departmental Program Coordinator/Advisor will submit your forms to the EGSO at least 3 weeks before your Comprehensive Examination date
    • The composition of the comprehensive examining committee will be approved by the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.
  5. At least 2 weeks prior to the Comprehensive Examination you must provide a copy of your research proposal to each member of your Examining Committee.
  6. The comprehensive exam shall be chaired by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member at the University of Waterloo with Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervision (ADDS) status.

Comprehensive Examination evaluation

On a candidate's first attempt at the comprehensive exam, the outcome will be one of:

Category 1: Passed

The candidate successfully completed all requirements of the examination

Category 2: Passed conditionally

Students who receive a category 2 will be given an amount of time, up to a year after the date of their examination, to complete the conditions of their pass. Conditions may include taking additional graduate courses, preparing a report on specific aspects of the proposal, and/or presenting a seminar on the revised proposal. The conditions will:

  • be communicated to the student in writing;
  • contain the date by which the conditions must be satisfied; and
  • identify the member(s) of the examining committee responsible for determining that the conditions have been met. Normally, this determination will be made by at least one member of the committee other than the student's supervisor or co-supervisors. 
  • Failure to satisfy the conditions within the designated time limit shall result in an outcome of re-examination.

Category 3: Re-examination required

Students who receive a category 3 will be required to repeat the exam, no earlier than six weeks after, but within one calendar year of their unsuccessful attempt. Students who fail to meet this condition will be required to withdraw.

The student shall be provided written communication that identifies the deficiencies in the exam that led to this outcome and the deadline by which the re-examination must take place. In the case of re-examination it is anticipated that the committee membership will be the same as the initial committee. Any change in membership must adhere to committee guidelines and be approved by the student's Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.

When a candidate is re-examined, the outcomes are limited to:

  • Category 1: Passed
  • Category 4: Exam Unsuccessful

Category 4: Exam unsuccessful

Students who receive a category 4 will be deemed to have failed to satisfy the program's comprehensive exam requirement. In this case, the student shall receive written communication identifying the deficiencies in the exam that led to this outcome.

A student who fails their comprehensive exam will be required to withdraw from the PhD program in the term immediately following the term in which the examination took place. The student may seek admission to another PhD program or to any Master's degree program at the University of Waterloo.

For more information regarding the outcome of the comprehensive examination, please see the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar

Majority Rule

The outcome of the exam is determined by the majority vote of the examining committee. The following rules govern the voting process:

  • In the case where the student is co-supervised, the co-supervisors' votes shall count collectively as one vote. In the case where co-supervisors vote for different outcomes, these votes shall count as 0.5 votes for each outcome.
  • In the case where only two outcomes receive votes and the number of votes is equal for both outcomes, the decision shall be for the less positive outcome, provided that the outcome is not exam unsuccessful.
  • If the previous case results in an exam unsuccessful outcome, or if no majority is obtained, the case shall be referred to the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, who shall make the final determination of the outcome of the exam.