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

Preparations for the exam must begin within four academic terms of the student’s first enrolment, with the oral examination completed within at most seven academic terms from initial enrolment (this assumes full-time enrolment; the timing may vary for part-time students).

The oral exam should take place a minimum of (7) weeks after the student receives the written exam question. Exceptions to this timing are permitted at the discretion of the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. (e.g. illness or severe personal problems, exceptional preparation time required by some interdisciplinary students).

The examination dates will be established by the Supervisor, in consultation with the student.

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

The Supervisor should submit to the Graduate Program Administrator, a minimum of two weeks before the student wishes to pick up the question, the Comprehensive Examination Worksheet.

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 person cannot be an adjunct, joint- or cross-appointed to the School.

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 Supervisor will contact the other Comprehensive Examining Committee members regarding their availability for the oral exam.

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 a question, which is then reviewed by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies to ensure that it meets the requirements as detailed in this policy. The Graduate Program Administrator will give the student their question on the day they wish to start their written examination (see Stage One below).

Exam Arrangements

The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will make all subsequent arrangements, once the advisor has confirmed the availability of the examining Committee members, setting and publishing the date for the exam in the School and in the Faculty. 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 Chairperson

The Chairperson for the Defence 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 Defence. The role and qualifications of the Chairperson are described in a leaflet obtained from the School Graduate Office, titled: Guide for Ph.D. Oral Comprehensive Examination 10/02.

Procedure of the Examination

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

Stage One:

The student writes a major paper on the approved topic. Twenty-one calendar days are allowed for the writing. During the first three (3) business days after the student has received the comprehensive exam question, he or she 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 not be scheduled for examination. A minimum of 6* copies of the paper, spirally bound or placed in a binder, will be given to the Graduate Program Administrator who will distribute them to the Comprehensive Examining Committee. An electronic copy of the exam must be submitted as well.  If these copies of the paper are not submitted within the specified time period then the student will be deemed to have failed the comprehensive exam.

1 for each advisor*
1 for each Committee member
1 for chair
1 for external examiner
1 for display in the department

The student must also submit an electronic copy of the paper to the Graduate Studies Administrator.

Stage Two:

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

  1. The exam purpose, as outlined in paragraph two
  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 (whom is assigned by the Graduate Studies Administrator). In general, comprehensive exams last about three hours (including deliberation). 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.

Academic Integrity

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.

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.

Decision Deferred until Conditions Fulfilled -- The student must fulfill clearly specified conditions within a designated time period.  It will be specified which examiner(s) will determine when the conditions have been met.  Unless the conditions are minor, this would normally be all members of the student's Comprehensive Advisory Committee, or a minimum of the advisor(s) plus one Committee member. These conditions will be written in the examination report. All examiners will sign the examination report.

When the time period for meeting conditions has expired, the Supervisor together with the Associate Director, Graduate Studies must establish a way to ensure those responsible for reviewing the work can do so expeditiously.  The Committee will advise the student and the Associate Director, Graduate Studies of the decision, in writing. If the conditions have been fully met, the student will be considered to have passed the exam. If the conditions have been only partially, the student will be required to repeat the comprehensive examination. If the conditions are not met, the examination will be deemed to have been unsuccessful and the student will be required to withdraw from the program. In either of the latter cases, the reasons why the student has not met the conditions will be conveyed in writing by the Supervisor (in conjunction with the Comprehensive Advisory Committee) to the student and Associate Director, Graduate Studies.

Repeat the Comprehensive Exam -- The Committee will clearly state why the student must repeat the exam, recommend the steps the student should take to strengthen his or her case, and specify a time period within which the repeat examination must take place. All examiners will sign the examination report. A new question will be set for a repeated comprehensive examination.  The examining Committee on a repeat examination may be, but will not necessarily be, the same as the initial examining Committee. Only one repetition of the comprehensive exam is permitted.

Repeated Comprehensive

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.

Reaching the Decision -- Often the examining Committee will reach its decision by consensus. In the event that consensus is difficult, the chair will call for a formal vote. A simple majority of the examiners will be sufficient to select a specific decision.

If the external-to-the-school examiner opposes the decision thus selected, and if the chair determines that further consensus is unlikely, the examination will be suspended. The majority view of the examining Committee and the minority report of the external examiner will be presented, in writing, to the Associate Director, Graduate Studies who will determine a course of action for resolving the situation. The examination report will remain unsigned until resolution has been reached. It will then be the responsibility of the Associate Director, Graduate Studies to secure the necessary signatures.

If a member of the examining Committee other than the external disagrees with the Committee's decision, he or she may also submit a written minority report to the Associate Director, Graduate Studies, but this would not result in suspending the examination. The dissenter must make those reasons for disagreement known to the examining Committee while it is deliberating and before it makes its decision. The chair will write in the examination report that a minority report will be submitted. The examining Committee member who will be submitting a minority report will nonetheless sign the examination report along with other members.

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.

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 defence 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.

Effective May 1, 2019