Comprehensive Exam Process and Grading

The Comprehensive Exam preparation occupies terms four and five of the PhD. Normally this will begin in Fall of Year 2.


  1. Committee: Students will assemble a committee consisting of the dissertation supervisor(s) and TWO dissertation readers. The Department will assign a non-voting chair for the purposes of administering the exam.
  2. Field List: With the support of the committee, the student will identify their field of study and assemble a reading list that consists of approximately 80-100 books or equivalent (where 4 articles is equivalent to a book-length reading). The reading list should be designed to provide the basis for the student’s general area of scholarly expertise, which may fall in traditional genres, periods, national literatures, areas of theoretical inquiry, rhetorical or literary study, professional writing, writing studies, etc. The committee will help the student define this area, with a view to moving toward expertise in teaching, research, and professionalization for careers within or outside of academia. The list will establish competence in an area of study and contribute to the dissertation bibliography. Previous exam lists may be consulted as examples or to identify foundational texts. The list should be provided to the Support Services Coordinator by the end of the first month of term 4 (normally September), for review by the Graduate Studies Committee. 
  3. Reading and Exam Preparation: During the remainder of the Fall and Winter terms, students will read the lists and consult regularly with their supervisor(s) and readers regarding their reading, their developing work on the dissertation proposal, and potential questions that might appear on the exam itself. The goal of this preparation process is to gain a broad knowledge of the field of study, and to identify the student’s potential contribution to that field.
  4. Written Exam: The written exam will be administered via LEARN. Students will have a seven-day window in which to complete the exam and upload it to the Dropbox. This written exam will normally take place in May, at the start of term 6. The exam will consist of answering three questions the committee has developed in consultation with the student. Answers normally total about 5 double-spaced pages each, or 15 pages total.
  5. Dissertation proposal: Students develop their dissertation proposal in tandem with their exam prepration, throughout terms 4 and 5. The final proposal will be due two weeks after the written exam for review by the Graduate Studies Committee.
  6. Approximately one month after the written exam, students will sit an oral examination of their primary area and their dissertation proposal. Normally this will occur in June. The oral examination will be the student’s opportunity to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the field (via a discussion of exam answers and reading lists); and to defend the dissertation proposal for final approval by the committee.


The possible outcomes of a first exam are: pass; conditional pass (with clearly defined conditions to be met); or re-examination. Each component of the exam (written and oral) is graded separately. Please use the webform to grade all exams.

Examination committee responsibilities and expectations

Prior to the exam:

  • The examination committee should meet with the candidates at the start of the process in order to:
    • Discuss exam format, regulations, and expectations;
    • Advise on the development of the reading list
    • Discuss study-strategies, exam-taking strategies, etc;
  • The exam draft must be submitted to the Support Services Coordinator at least one month prior to the exam.
  • The exam committee chair, with feedback from the graduate studies committee, ensures that the exam questions, format, and reading list meet exam regulations.

The day of the exam, the Support Services Coordinator will send the completed exams to the examination committee members. Please use the webform to grade all exams.

Comprehensive Exam Timeline 2024

Student declares supervisor and readers

By end of June

Student identifies field of study with help of committee

By end of June

Student meets with the examining committee and supervisor

First week of September

Reading list to Support Services Coordinator

September 27

GSC review of reading list

September 27 - to October 4

Reading list revisions due

October 11

Student submits dissertation proposal draft to full committee

December 2

Exam draft due


Exam drafts reviewed for approval by the Graduate Studies Committee

April 9 to 16

Exam revisions due

April 23

Learn site design

April 23

One week exam period

May 10 to May 17

Grades and comments are submitted to the Support Services coordinator

May 24

Conditional pass exams rewritten May 31
Student Submits FINAL Dissertation Proposal to Support Services Coordinator

June 7

Proposal and exam defence

June 17 to 21