Purposes of the Comprehensive Examination

The comprehensive examination for the PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability is a diagnostic test with written and oral components. The goals of the comprehensive exam are as follows:

  1. To test the candidate’s comprehension and competence related to leading literature and perspectives in the broader context of transdisciplinary research and the sustainability of social-ecological systems;
  2. To test the breadth and depth of the candidate’s comprehension and competence related to leading literature and perspectives in his or her field(s) of study;
  3. To test the candidate’s capacity to engage in scholarly communications, both oral and written; and
  4. To ensure that the candidate has established a foundation for pursuit of a specific research topic in his or her field, as will be elaborated in the dissertation proposal to be prepared following completion of the comprehensive exam.

Timing of the Examination

Candidates enrolled full-time in the program normally must complete the written and oral requirements of the comprehensive exam within 4 terms (16 months) of continuous enrolment from the beginning of their program; an equivalent time-frame, based on terms of registration, will be calculated for part-time PhD students. Students seeking an extension on this deadline are is required to submit a petition providing evidence of extenuating circumstances to the Faculty of Environment’s Associate Dean, Graduate Studies. Valid extenuating circumstances are normally limited to issues related to the student’s (or student’s immediate family’s) health or documented incidents involving graduate student supervision that can be demonstrated to have delayed the student’s progress. The conduct of research or other projects is not considered a valid extenuating circumstance to delay beyond the normal comprehensive examination completion deadline. If the petition is granted, the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV) shall coordinate with the student’s Graduate Officer to establish a new deadline by which the comprehensive exam shall be completed. This deadline shall be communicated to the student in the notice of decision on the petition. Failure to complete the comprehensive examination within the prescribed time, without prior approval from the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, will result in the student’s academic status being changed to “Required to Withdraw”. Students may seek to have their standing changed to allow them to continue in their programs by submitting a petition under Policy 70 to the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV), not later than 10 business days from the change of status.

Pre-Requisites and Follow-up Activities

Students must have completed the core courses (ERS 701 and 702) before attempting the comprehensive examination; ideally, electives required as part of the PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability should also be completed prior to the examination.

ERS 701 and ERS 702 play crucial roles in the preparation of students for the comprehensive examination. ERS 701 will help students establish a foundation in the literature relating to transdisciplinary approaches to understanding, evaluating, and critiquing sustainability principles and practices. Through ERS 702, students will develop a Research Profile that helps them to situate their interests relative to key bodies of literature and the fields of study of the PhD program. The Research Profile developed for ERS 702 normally provides the foundation for the student’s reading list.

Following completion of ERS 702, and in the months prior to receiving the examination question, students are advised to prepare “focus papers” – critical reviews of the literature that engage with key issues in their literature. These are a useful tool for revealing gaps in knowledge and demonstrating the capacity to undertake the examination. Topics for focus papers should be identified in consultation with the student’s comprehensive examination committee (see below). Preparation of focus papers is entirely optional. Students may use text they have prepared for focus papers in their comprehensive examination essay (see below).

The Comprehensive Examination Committee

The comprehensive examination committee is an essential part of the exam process. In SERS the comprehensive examination committee has four members, with membership criteria as follows:

  • The advisor or co-advisors must be members.
  • One member must be from outside SERS. This person must have a PhD or equivalent degree (as determined by the Associate Vice President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs). He or she can hold a faculty appointment at the University of Waterloo, or be employed elsewhere. If this person is not from the University of Waterloo, then he or she must have an Adjunct appointment at the University of Waterloo in a unit other than SERS. This person cannot have had significant interaction with the candidate prior to the formation of the comprehensive examination committee.
  • At least two members must be faculty having a minimum 0.51 appointment in SERS; cross- appointments and adjunct appointments do not count. The advisor may count as one of these members; in a co-advisory situation, both co-advisors may count.

The comprehensive examination committees must be approved by the by the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV), or delegate.

The comprehensive examination committee should be formed no later than the end of the third term of full time enrolment in the SERS PhD program. Students should consult with their advisor (or co-advisors) on suitable members. Advisors must ensure that prospective members not only meet the requirements specified above, but also are acceptable to the student.

Students are encouraged to work closely with the members of the comprehensive examination committee in the time leading up to the examination. For example, it is appropriate and desirable for the candidate to ask for advice on relevant bodies of literature and specific publications in the reading list; and to seek feedback on focus papers and other materials prepared prior to the examination. At minimum, the advisor and the candidate shall arrange one meeting of the full committee well in advance of the examination date to discuss the scope of the examination and to review the proposed reading list.

Following successful completion of the comprehensive examination, some or all members of the student’s comprehensive examination committee may serve as members of the Dissertation Advisory Committee. However, it is not required or expected that participation as a member of the comprehensive examination committee will lead to membership on the Dissertation Advisory Committee.

The Comprehensive Examination Question

The comprehensive examination is based on a question developed by the advisor, with the advice of the committee. The question may have multiple parts. The draft question must be approved by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, in consultation with at least two other members of the Graduate Affairs Committee. The advisor is responsible for ensuring that the draft question is provided to the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, for approval at least five business days prior to the anticipated date on which the student receives the question. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies, will ensure that the draft question is reviewed promptly (normally within two business days).

The question will be released to the student by the SERS Graduate Program Administrator via email on a date determined by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies (in consultation with the advisor). Normally this occurs by 9:00 AM Eastern time. Following submission of the candidate’s written answer, a printed public notice of the examination will be posted next to the office of the Graduate Program Administrator.

Importantly, the comprehensive examination is an individual test. Release of the question to the student marks the beginning of a period during which the student may not receive advice or assistance on any part of the examination (including the oral phase), except as noted below regarding seeking clarification of the question from the advisory committee within two business days. This period ends following the oral examination, after which students are free to seek advice or feedback from anyone.

Comprehensive examination questions can take various forms, but all must address the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the following:

  • the leading literature and perspectives in the broader context of transdisciplinary research and the sustainability of social-ecological systems; and,
  • the leading literature and perspectives in his or her field(s) of study.

It is normal for the student’s specific research interests to be situated within the broad scope of the literature covered by the examination. However, the comprehensive examination must not be narrowly focused on the student’s specific planned research or research proposal. Samples of previous questions are publically available on the SERS website.

The Written Response to the Question

The first component of the comprehensive examination is a written response to the comprehensive examination question.

On receiving the question, the candidate has two business days to ask the members of the comprehensive examination committee questions of clarification, and to receive clarification. After this time has passed, and until the end of the oral examination, it is forbidden for the candidate to seek advice or assistance from anyone. The candidate must complete the written response alone, without any assistance. This includes assistance with spelling, grammar and other writing concerns. PhD students in SERS are expected to be able to write at an appropriate level in English.

The written portion of the examination will be an essay no longer than 10,000 words, excluding the list of references cited, but including figures, tables and boxes. Each figure counts as 300 words of text. The essay should be neatly formatted using a 12 point font, single-spacing, and normal margins. Failure to meet these requirements may result in Decision Deferred.

Students must submit their response by email in both Word and PDF forms to the Graduate Program Administrator by 4:00 PM Eastern time three weeks after the day they receive the question. Failure to submit the written portion of the comprehensive exam in the required format by the specified date and time will result in a decision of failure in the examination unless a prior legitimate reason has been approved by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, in advance. Examples of legitimate reasons include serious illness or injury occurring during the three work writing period. Candidates who require an extension must notify the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, by email prior to the due date.

The Oral Defence

The oral defence takes place after submission of the written component. Specific rules associated with the oral examination portion of the comprehensive examination include the following:

  • The oral defence normally will take place within 10 business days of submission of the essay. The date and time for the oral examination will be established prior to the student receiving the question. The student’s advisor is responsible for working with the student and the Graduate Program Administrator to identify a suitable date and time. The Graduate Program Administrator will make the arrangements for the defence.
  • The oral defence is open to the University community.
  • The entire oral defence, including all stages described here, must be completed within a maximum of three hours. Failure to appear for the oral defence without approval from the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, or the SERS Director if the Associate Director, Graduate Studies is a member, will result in failure.
  • A maximum of one member of the comprehensive examination committee may, in exceptional circumstances, participate by conference or video call. The student and the student’s advisor are responsible for working with the Graduate Program Administrator to ensure that the necessary equipment is available.
  • An examination Chair who is not a member of the comprehensive examination committee will be appointed by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. The Chair will be a SERS faculty member, or a faculty member from another unit whose members regularly participates in the program, and must have Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervision (ADDS) status.
  • The examination Chair is responsible for the conduct of the oral examination, and for ensuring that University of Waterloo and SERS rules and procedures are followed. He or she will ensure that the examination is fair, and that it is completed on time. The Chair does not participate in the exam by asking questions.
  • After the examination, the Chair will indicate the decision of the examiners on the PhD comprehensive examination report form; will ensure that any notes or conditions related to the decision are clearly written on the report form, and in supplementary notes as needed; and will deliver the report form to the Graduate Program Administrator without delay.
  • The Associate Chair, Graduate Studies, will ensure that any written conditions have been implemented before successful completion of the comprehensive examination is reported to the Graduate Studies Office.

The format for the oral defence is as follows:

  • The defence begins with introductions and brief comments by the Chair on the order of proceedings, followed by an oral presentation by the candidate outlining the key contents and conclusions in the comprehensives paper. The candidate may make use of computer and projector presentation equipment and/or other suitable visual aids. The oral presentation should be no longer than 20 minutes.
  • Following the presentation, examiners will ask questions. Normally questioning takes place in

two rounds, with the first round lasting no more than 60 minutes (up to 15 minutes per examiner) and the second round lasting no more than 40 minutes (up to 10 minutes per examiner). The advisor (or co-advisors) will be the last questioners in each round. Once both rounds of questioning from examiners are completed, the Chair may, at his or her discretion, invite members of the audience to ask questions.

  • In their questioning, examiners should focus on issues and topics arising from the candidate’s written response to the comprehensive examination question. However, examiners are free to ask any questions needed to test the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the leading literature and perspectives in the broad area of transdisciplinary research relating to the sustainability of social-ecological systems, and the leading literature and perspectives in the student’s specific field(s) of study.
  • At the end of the question period, the candidate and the audience are excused while the committee deliberates on the adequacy of the examination paper and the oral defence relative to the goals of the SERS comprehensive examination.
  • The Candidate is then asked to return and the decision of the Committee is reported by the Chair.

Evaluation of the candidate’s performance begins with the examination Chair asking each of the members of the examination committee, in the order of questioning, whether the written and oral parts of the examination, taken together, demonstrate that the candidate has the necessary foundation to proceed in the PhD program. On a candidate’s first attempt, after allowing for reasonable discussion of any issues that may arise, the Chair will ask each member of the examination committee to state his or her position on the candidate’s written essay and oral defence, using the following categories:

  • Passed: the candidate successfully completed all requirements of the examination.
  • Passed conditionally: the candidate will be considered to have completed the exam successfully upon having satisfied conditions established by the examining committee. The conditions shall 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 advisor or co-advisors. Failure to satisfy the conditions within the designated time limit shall result in an outcome of Re-examination.
  • Re-examination: the candidate will be required to repeat the exam. In this case, 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 formation rules outlined above, and be approved by the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV), or delegate.

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

  • Passed
  • Exam Unsuccessful: the candidate 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 is deemed to have failed to satisfy the comprehensive exam requirement may not continue in the current PhD program. The student’s status will change to Required to Withdraw 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.

The outcome of the exam (first, and re-examination) 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-advisors’ votes shall count as one vote.
  • 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 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 Faculty of Environment’s Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV), who shall make the final determination of the outcome of the exam.

Those members of the examining committee who are voting members shall be clearly communicated to the candidate. The Chair of the examination is not a voting member.

A student may seek reassessment of the exam evaluation only when the outcome is Re-examination or Exam Unsuccessful based on the quality of the written element of the comprehensive exam. A student may not seek a reassessment based on the oral component. A request for reassessment shall follow the process described in Policy 70 (reassessment challenge).

Accommodations to the Examination Format

Students may warrant an accommodation to allow for an alternative examination format other than described here. For accommodations related to health, the student shall provide supporting medical documentation to the University’s AccessAbility Office where the request will be vetted. As a result of that evaluation, AccessAbility shall determine whether an accommodation is warranted. When an accommodation is determined appropriate, AccessAbility shall communicate the decision and the nature of the accommodation to the SERS Associate Director, Graduate Studies.

Requests for accommodation not related to health issues shall be made by students to the SERS Associate Director, Graduate Studies, who will coordinate the process by which the request for accommodation will be advanced.

Academic Integrity and the Comprehensive Exam

The University considers academic integrity to be an integral part of all scholarship. Violations of academic integrity are handled under University Policy 71.

Students shall employ the University’s plagiarism detection software prior to submitting the written response to the examining committee. Students are encouraged to discuss the reports generated from the software with their advisor(s) to avoid academic integrity violations; such a discussion must be limited to the report generated from the software. The report that evaluates the student’s written submission shall be included with the student’s written element and shall be made available to the committee.

In the event that anyone suspects a violation of academic integrity in the written response the student has submitted, the following process shall be followed. The person identifying the possible violation shall communicate the concern in writing only to the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV). The Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV) shall then assess the allegations. If the vetting cannot be completed prior to the scheduled date of the oral component of the exam, the oral exam shall be postponed, pending the outcome of the investigation. If the vetting is completed prior to the oral exam, and no violation is identified, then the exam can be held as scheduled.

When a change in comprehensive examination date is necessary, the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV) shall inform the candidate, the advisor or co-advisors and the Associate Director, Graduate Studies not later than one week prior to the date of the scheduled exam. If a violation is determined to have happened, the Associate Dean shall proceed under Policy 71. If no violation is deemed to have occurred, the exam shall be rescheduled to the satisfaction of the student, the advisors, and the examining committee.

Investigations related to academic integrity in which the student is determined to not have committed such a violation are considered to be a valid extenuating circumstance to extend the examination deadline.

If an academic integrity violation is believed to have occurred during the oral component of the comprehensive exam, the person suspecting the violation shall ask the Chair to pause the exam. The concerns identified shall be communicated to the Chair (only) who will then determine the course of action. If the Chair believes that uncertainty exists regarding the concerns identified, the Chair may determine that the exam shall continue and the potential academic integrity violation will be vetted after the completion of the exam. If the Chair believes that the suspected violation is likely to be valid or that the alleged occurrence precludes a fair evaluation of the candidate, the Chair shall then suspend the exam until a determination can be made as to whether an academic integrity violation has occurred.

In both cases, the suspected academic integrity violation shall be reported to and investigated by the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV) under Policy 71.

Summary of Steps and Stages in the Comprehensive Examination Process

What Who When

Complete ERS 701, ERS 702 and required elective

Student

Prior to comprehensive examination (normally first two terms)

Form the comprehensive examination committee

Advisor and Student identify members consistent with rules

Proposed committee must be approved by Associate Dean, Graduate Studies (ENV)

Full committee must be formed no later than end of third term of full time enrolment

Finalize reading list (Research Profile)

Student prepares, normally starting with ERS 702 Research Profile

Advisor and members of the comprehensive examination committee provide advice and suggestions; formal approval is not required

A draft complete reading list should be completed prior to the first full meeting of the Committee

Prepare focus papers in consultation with advisor, and Comprehensive Committee if formed (optional)

Student

After ERS 702 and before receiving the comprehensive examination question

Arrange and hold one meeting of the full Committee to evaluate the Reading List and assess the student’s readiness

Student arranges the meeting

Following formation of the Committee and before the Examination

Students should consult members bilaterally prior to this meeting as appropriate

Scheduling the oral defence

Student’s advisor works with the student and the Graduate Program Administrator identify a date and time

Graduate Program Administrator arranges all facilities

Preparations should be in place prior to submitting the question to the student

Formulate comprehensive examination question

Advisor, in consultation with Committee, drafts question and submits to Associate Director, Graduate Studies

Associate Director, Graduate Studies, in consultation with at least two members of the Graduate Affairs Committee, approves the question

Advisor submits question for approval to Associate Director, Graduate Studies, at least five business days prior to scheduled defence date

Associate Director, Graduate Studies, completes review promptly

Provision of comprehensive examination question to Student

Graduate Program Administrator

Emails question by 9:00 AM Eastern time on the first day of the written portion

Submission of written response

Student

Submits the written response by 4:00 PM Eastern time three weeks after receiving the question

Oral defence

Student, comprehensive examination committee

Within 10 business days of submission of the written response

Typical Schedule for the Oral Defence

The Oral Defence takes place within three hours, maximum, from start to finish. The following is a typical schedule:

  • Introductions and instructions (10 minutes) Presentation by the student (20 minutes)
  • First round of questioning (60 minutes – maximum 15 minutes for each examiner) Break (10 minutes)
  • Second round of questioning (40 minutes – maximum 10 minutes for each examiner) Deliberations (30 minutes)
  • Reporting of results (10 minutes)
  • Total: 180 minutes