Doctoral Comprehensive Exam Procedures School of Planning

In the School of Planning, a comprehensive examination consists of a written paper and an oral examination. The purpose of the comprehensive examination in Planning is threefold: 1) to evaluate a student’s ability to correlate and integrate concepts of a general and a specific nature, 2) to determine if the student demonstrates a solid and broad comprehensive basis of knowledge of their subject area and of its relation to planning, and 3) to allow the student to demonstrate adequate preparation to undertake thesis research.

Timing of Examination

It is the student’s responsibility to inform the Supervisor that they are ready to begin the exam. It is the Supervisor’s duty to initiate exam arrangements as described below.

The comprehensive exam must be completed before the research plan (or research proposal) milestone.

Preparations for the exam must begin within four academic terms of continuous enrollment and the oral exam will normally be completed before the end of the fifth term. An equivalent timeframe, based on terms of registration, will be calculated for a part-time PhD Student.

The Associate Director, Graduate Studies may permit extensions up to the end of the seventh term. Possible grounds include but are not limited to illness, personal problems, and/or the exceptional preparation time required by some interdisciplinary students. As per the Minimum Guidelines for a PhD in the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar, students who are unable to complete their comprehensive exam before the end of their seventh term must use the formal petition process to seek an additional time extension.

The comprehensive exam is a seven-week process, from the receipt of the exam question to completion of the oral exam. This timeframe does not include the time needed to prepare and study the reading list, nor the time needed to satisfy any conditions (see ‘Allowable Decisions’).

The Comprehensive Advisory Committee

The Comprehensive Advisory Committee is normally formed in the third term of the student’s program. Committee formation will be initiated by the student, in close consultation with the Supervisor. The Committee will be comprised of the Supervisor, who will normally be a member of the School, and a minimum of two other members. At least one of the Committee members needs to be a member from the School of Planning, and one needs to be from outside the School of Planning.  All Committee members are not required to be approved PhD Supervisors, although it is recommended that a majority be. The Supervisor must be a regular member of the University faculty with Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS) status or, when a Supervisor has adjunct status, another on-campus professor must serve as co-Supervisor. The Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) of the Faculty has the authority to waive the co-supervision requirement on the recommendation of the department/school. A minimum of two Committee Members are still needed in the case of Co-Supervisors.

At the discretion of the Advisory Committee, other persons may be added to the Committee.

The Comprehensive Advisory Committee is responsible for assisting the student and Supervisor in creating the reading list, and working with the Supervisor to devise the examination question. Normally, the entire Comprehensive Advisory Committee should meet with the student at least twice before the written examination begins.

The student is responsible for convening meetings with their Committee and Supervisor.

Note: Typically, the members of the Comprehensive Advisory Committee will also become members of the Thesis Examining Committee, the requirements for which are on the Graduate Studies website.

Comprehensive Examining Committee

The Comprehensive Examining Committee will be constituted as a result of discussion between the student’s Supervisor and the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. The Committee will consist of the student’s Comprehensive Advisory Committee and a person external to the School of Planning.

The external examiner cannot be an adjunct, joint- or cross-appointed to the School.

Exam Question and Content

The content of the examination will vary with the student’s area(s) of specialization. However, the School strongly believes in the principle that all students possess the intellect, maturity and perspective to clearly relate their areas of specialization and research to the context of planning. The student should develop a reading list, appropriate to the student’s area of interest, in conjunction with the Supervisor.

The reading list should cover three sub-areas; two of these areas should be in the student’s chosen field, and one should specifically connect those areas to the field of planning. Each citation should be tagged with the relevant sub-area, and each sub-area should be represented in at least 1/3 of the citations.

The Supervisor, in conjunction with the Advisory Committee, will devise two or three possible questions. Each question needs to address all three sub-areas and meet the purposes of the comprehensive exam articulated in paragraph one. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies checks the questions for conformity with this document and picks one for the exam. The Graduate Program Administrator will give the student their question on the day they wish to start their written examination (see Stage One below).

Procedure of the Examination

The Comprehensive Examination is completed in two stages with Stage One being written and Stage Two being an oral examination.

Stage One:

The student writes a major paper on the approved topic and in response to the set question. Twenty-one (21) calendar days are allowed for the writing. During the first three (3) business days after the student has received the comprehensive exam question, they may ask the Supervisor and/or the Committee questions of clarification regarding the scope of the question. The paper will not exceed 40 typed, double-spaced pages (12-point font, Times New Roman, or similar), including the bibliography and the abstract. Papers that exceed this number of pages will notbe scheduled for examination.

It is the student's responsibility to submit the paper to the Graduate Program Administrator for distribution to the Comprehensive Examination Committee, the Chair, and the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. If the paper is not submitted within the specified time period, then the student will be deemed to have failed the comprehensive exam. 

Stage Two:

Stage Two is the oral component of the Comprehensive Examination and is based upon:

  1. The exam purpose, as outlined in paragraph one
  2. Questions related to the paper prepared in Stage One
  3. The content of the student’s approved reading list.

The oral examination is open to all members of the University community. Details regarding oral exam procedures are provided in the instructions to the chair. In general, comprehensive exams last about three hours (including deliberation) and begins with a 20 to 25 min presentation from the student. There are two rounds of questions, each starting with the external, followed by Committee members. The Supervisor(s) is the last to ask questions in each round.

The Chairperson for the oral examination is selected by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. Neither the Associate Dean nor the Associate Director, Graduate Studies will serve as the Chairperson of the oral examination. 

Exam Arrangements

The oral examination dates will be established by the Supervisor, in consultation with the student. The Supervisor will contact the other Comprehensive Examining Committee members regarding their availability for the oral exam.

Normally, at least four (4) weeks will elapse between the receipt of the completed paper by the Graduate Administrator and the date of the oral examination. If a shorter time is desired, it is the responsibility of the Supervisor to obtain a written agreement from the student and all examiners, and to submit this to the Associate Director. In any case, notice of the oral exam must be published at least two (2) weeks in advance.

The Supervisor should then submit the Comprehensive Examination Worksheet to the Graduate Program Administrator a minimum of two weeks before the student wishes to pick up the question. Through this worksheet, the Supervisor will provide to the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, names, affiliation, and email addresses of two or three possible external examiners ranked in order of preference. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will contact examiners, in order of preference indicated by the Supervisor, to check for availability and schedule the exam.

The Associate Director, Graduate Studies and Graduate Program Administrator will make all subsequent arrangements, setting and publishing the date for the exam in the School and in the Faculty.

Academic Integrity

The student is required to submit an iThenticate report of their written submission of the comprehensive

If any member of the Examining Committee has concerns regarding academic integrity violations in the written document, the member should contact the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies prior to the oral examination, or, as soon as possible. The Examination may be postponed until a decision has been made about possible academic integrity violations.

Absent Committee Members

It is expected that all members of the PhD Examining Committee attend the oral exam. If a Committee member is unable to attend in person, that member may participate remotely. If the member (other than the Supervisor, who cannot be replaced) cannot participate remotely, then a new Committee member should be found. 

In the case of an unanticipated, last-minute emergency absence of a Committee member, the oral examination can proceed, subject to the agreement of the candidate and the Supervisor(s), as long as the following Committee members are available (in person or through electronic media) to present their votes:

  • Supervisor
  • External Examiner
  • One other member of the Committee

Any exceptions to this regulation must be approved by the Faculty Associate Dean, Graduate Studies.

Allowable Decisions

The examining Committee must make one of the following three decisions based on both the quality of the written and the oral exam. An “examination passed” decision requires that the student pass both the written and oral components of the exam.  If one component is deemed passed but the other not, at a minimum, conditions aimed at demonstrating competence in the failed component should be imposed. If this is a repeated comprehensive examination, see below for further information.

Examination Passed -- The student may continue with the regular course of study and research.  All examiners will sign the examination report.

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;
  • 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.

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 guidelines and be approved by the student’s Associate Dean Graduate Studies or delegate.

Repeated Comprehensive Examination

Decisions in the case of a repeated comprehensive examination -- The examining Committee must make one of two decisions in the case of a repeated comprehensive: either, Examination Passed, or Exam Unsuccessful.

A student who is deemed to have failed to satisfy the comprehensive exam requirement (Exam Unsuccessful) 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 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 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.

Those members of the examining committee who are voting members shall be clearly communicated to
the candidate.

The comprehensive exam will be considered satisfied when the candidate has passed all components of the exam. The comprehensive exam will be considered failed if the candidate receives an exam unsuccessful outcome on any component. No component may be repeated more than once.

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

Grieving/Disputing Exam Decision

If a student wishes to dispute or grieve the decision made by the Committee, they should consult Policy 70, found on the University of Waterloo Secretariat website.