PhD comprehensive exam

Table of contents


Comprehensive examination process

Students must complete a comprehensive examination within seven terms of first registration. Students who have completed previous studies in another PhD program at the University of Waterloo or at another university must successfully complete the comprehensive exam no later than their fourth term of studies in their current program or their seventh term of study at the PhD level, whichever is later. The comprehensive examination involves providing written responses to three questions and successfully completing an oral defense. The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to test the breadth and depth of the candidate’s comprehension of the methodological and theoretical aspects of their field of study. The process is designed to enable candidates to acquire a solid grounding in their core area of public health research that will provide a foundation for undertaking dissertation research. The examination will also test the candidate’s ability to critically evaluate the literature and synthesize information from diverse sources to identify knowledge gaps and recommend solutions.

Students with previously completed PhD studies who wish to alter their comprehensive examination timelines in accordance with the previous paragraph must inform the Research Graduate Coordinator no later than the start of their third term of study in the PhD program. Students must supply sufficient proof of previous PhD studies and the Associate Director Graduate Studies will make the final decision on any changes to the comprehensive examination timelines.


Comprehensive exam step-by-step guide

  1. Supervisor and candidate select 2 committee members adhering to the criteria outlined in below
  2. The Supervisor and committee members develop three questions with a reading list for each question.
  3. Schedule the oral examination (2.5-hour slot usually suffices).
  4. The Supervisor or student completes the “PhD Comprehensive Examination- Notification Form” and submits it to the Associate Director Graduate Studies and Research Graduate Coordinator 1 week before the examination proposed start date. All sections of the form must be completed.
  5. The Research Graduate Coordinator will distribute the questions and reading list to the candidate at 9 a.m. on the examination start date.
  6. The candidate will have 1 week (5 working days) to ask clarification questions, submitted to the Research Graduate Coordinator. 
  7. At the end of the 8-week writing period (or 12-week writing period for part-time students), the candidate will send their written answers to the Graduate Coordinator. 
  8. The Graduate Coordinator will distribute the answers to the committee members.
  9. The Graduate Coordinator will then assign an Examination Chair to oversee the oral exam and any subsequent revision.
  10. The candidate will complete an Oral defence of their comprehensive exam within 4 weeks of submitting the written questions. 
  11. The Oral defence will consist of a 20-minute presentation by the candidate, followed by two rounds of questions from the committee about any component of the exam. 
  12. After the question period, the candidate will be asked to leave the room during the committee’s deliberation. Immediately following the deliberation, the student will be notified of the decision.
  13. Refer to comprehensive examination decisions section below.
  14. The Examination Chair will notify the Graduate Coordinator of the examination result via email. If revisions are required, the Examination Chair will notify the Graduate Coordinator of the final examination result upon receipt of the revisions, deemed satisfactory by the committee. The Graduate Coordinator will distribute the “PhD Comprehensive Exam Notification and Report Form” for committee signatures. A copy of this form can be found on LEARN (SPHS Research Graduate Community Group>Content>PhD Forms)
  15. The Graduate Coordinator will complete a milestone completion form and submit it to the Graduate Studies and Post-Doctoral Affairs office.

Creating the comprehensive examination committee

The committee will consist of three voting members and an Examination Chair. In the case of co-supervision, the supervisors (as a collective) contribute one vote. The composition of the comprehensive examination committee (other than the Chair) will be decided by the supervisor and candidate and must be approved by the Associate Director Graduate Studies through review of the notification form. At least one committee member must have Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS) status. In addition to the supervisor, one committee member must have a primary appointment in the School (at least a 0.51 appointment). Only two of the three members of the committee may serve on the student’s thesis committee. Faculty with adjunct status in SPHS are permitted to serve on comprehensive examination committees and they are considered to have a primary appointment in the School for this purpose.

The Chair will be assigned by the Research Graduate Coordinator and is responsible for ensuring the School’s procedures are followed at the oral defence. To meet university regulations, the Chair will be a tenured or tenure-track member of the School (at least a 0.51 appointment) with ADDS status. It is not necessary for the Chair to have a background or expertise in the candidate’s field of study as their function is administrative only. This is a rotating faculty role (all faculty members with ADDS status share the Chair responsibility).


Developing the comprehensive examination questions

The Comprehensive Examination Committee will assess the student’s background and areas of interest prior to developing the examination questions. The Committee will develop three questions along with a brief reading list (5-10 relevant or key readings per question) that will be provided to the candidate on the day the written component of the examination is to begin.

Each of the three questions will have a different focus:

a) One question will require the candidate to demonstrate broad, substantive knowledge germane to their stream or discipline.

b) One question will focus on methodology and study designs used in public health or health systems research. This question may require the candidate to understand methods that will not likely be utilized in their dissertation research.

c) The final question will allow the candidate to develop a deeper understanding of theories, concepts, or methods that are relevant to their dissertation research.

The supervisor will send the questions and reading list to the Research Graduate Coordinator for review and approval by the Associate Director Graduate Studies at least one week before the start of the examination.

The comprehensive examination questions are developed independently of the candidate; i.e., the candidate does not know the questions before the exam. The committee, as a whole, is responsible for writing the three examination questions and each committee member will take the lead in developing one examination question. In the case of co-supervision, the supervisors will develop one question together. The final questions are presented to the candidate as created by the committee, not by specific members.


Comprehensive examination form submission

The “PhD Comprehensive examination- Notification form” (Available on LEARN in SPHS Research Grad Community Group>Content>PhD Forms) must be completed once the examination questions have been determined and sent to the Research Graduate Coordinator. All sections of the form need to be completed, including the date for the oral defence (which must take place within four weeks of the submission of the written exam component). If any information within the form must change after it has been submitted, the Graduate Research Team must be promptly notified via email.


Procedure for the comprehensive examination

The Graduate Coordinator will distribute the questions and reading list to the candidate at 9 a.m. on the start date for the written examination.The candidate has one week (five working days)to ask for clarification of examination questions. Candidates should direct all queries to the Research Graduate Coordinator or their supervisor, who will send the queries to, and receive all responses from, the comprehensive examination committee. The coordinator will pass the responses on to the candidate.

Each examination question is to be answered separately while adhering to a maximum length of 3000 words per question (not including references, tables, and appendices). The written component must be double-spaced with size 12 font. Font and reference style are at the discretion of the comprehensive examination committee.

All three exam responses shall be amalgamated into a single document. Students will run a single IThenticate report on their Comprehensive Exam Responses. This report shall include all references, appendices, tables, figures, citations, etc.

Written responses must be submitted by e-mail to the Graduate Coordinator within eight weeks for full-time students or 12 weeks for part-time students. The candidate is responsible for ensuring that their examination responses meet the University of Waterloo’s academic integrity standards. The student must consult the GSPA guidelines, “Academic Integrity and the Comprehensive Exam.” Among other GSPA requirements, the student must employ the University’s plagiarism detection software.

Submission of an IThenticate report is considered a mandatory component of the written portion of the comprehensive examination. Students who do not submit an IThenticate report with their written responses will be considered to have missed the deadline for submission of the written portion of the examination. Students are strongly advised to set-up an IThenticate account when they begin their comprehensive examination.  Extensions will not be granted due to delays in setting up IThenticate accounts.

The oral examination will typically take place within four weeks of submission of the written responses. The candidate is responsible for reserving the room and scheduling the examination. No feedback on the responses will be provided to the Candidate prior to the oral examination.

Extensions to Comprehensive Examination deadlines are not typically permitted. The only acceptable procedure is student registration with AccessAbility, with whom the Associate Director Graduate Studies may negotiate a revised comprehensive examination deadline. In rare circumstances, a Verification of Illness Form may be sufficient. Any requests for accommodation must occur prior to the comprehensive examination deadline and be submitted to the Gradate Research Coordinator.


Comprehensive oral examination

The Chair is responsible for overseeing the conduct of the oral exam and the revision process if applicable. The conduct of the oral examination will be similar to that of a PhD thesis examination as described in the document “Guide for Chairing a PhD Thesis Examination”. The oral examination usually takes two hours. It begins with an oral presentation by the candidate that should be no longer than 20 minutes. The presentation is followed by questioning in accordance with the usual procedures for a PhD thesis defence: each committee member is given 15 minutes to ask questions about any component of any exam question. All committee members will have read all exam responses. It is expected that the majority of questions will pertain to the candidate’s written responses; however, general questions will also be asked to evaluate the candidate’s depth and breadth of comprehension of leading literature and perspectives in their field. If a second round of questioning is required, each committee member is permitted an additional 10 minutes.

At the end of the oral question period, the candidate will be asked to leave the room and the examining committee will deliberate in a closed session. During the closed session, the Chair will call for a formal vote before any discussion begins. A simple majority of the examiners will be sufficient to select the appropriate allowable decision. The allowable decisions are based on the both the candidate’s written work as well as their responses to questions at the oral defence.


Comprehensive examination decision

This section defines the permitted outcomes for comprehensive exams at the University of Waterloo. On a candidate’s first attempt at the comprehensive exam, the outcome shall be one of:

  • Passed: the candidate successfully completed all requirements of the exam;
  • 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 by the Examination Chair to the student in writing;
    • Instruct the student to submit the revised exam to the Graduate Coordinator, Examination Chair, and Comprehensive Examination committee members within two weeks of the oral examination date*
    • Identify the member(s) of the examining committee responsible for determining that the conditions have been met. Typically, 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 will result in an outcome of Re-examination.
      • *For extenuating circumstances, a resubmission date more than two weeks after the oral examination may be approved by the Associate Director Graduate Studies. In such cases, students will typically have a maximum of two additional weeks* for any necessary revisions. The Chair must inform the Graduate Coordinator when the changes are complete. The milestone will not be processed until the Graduate Coordinator is so notified.
  • Re-examination: the candidate will be required to repeat the exam. In this case, the student shall be provided written communication by the Examination Chair 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 examination 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.

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 examination 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 examination 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 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’ shall collectively contribute 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 unsuccessful. 
  • If the previous case results in an 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 in advance of the examination and at the start of the examination.   

A student may seek reassessment of the exam evaluation under certain conditions. See the GSPA policy on “Re-examination” for details.


SPHS policy on absent committee members for PhD comprehensive examinations

Normally, all Comprehensive Examination Committee members are present at the oral examination. If a committee member cannot attend, they will join by video conference (1st option) or telephone (2nd option).In extreme circumstances, it may be permissible to hold the examination with the Chair and two of the three committee members present where the absent member is not able to join remotely. In such cases, written questions and comments must be submitted by the absent member and addressed at the defence by the Chair. The Associate Director Graduate Studies must be informed and give approval for the defence to proceed with only two committee members present. If such approval is not received, the oral examination will have to be rescheduled. If a member becomes unable to continue to serve on a Comprehensive Examination Committee or cannot agree to an examination date within a reasonable length of time after being approached, the Chair of the Comprehensive Examination Committee and Associate Director of Graduate Programs should be consulted concerning possible replacement of the committee member.


Intellectual property

According to university policy (refer to Policy # 73), the comprehensive examination papers are the student’s intellectual property. As such, these papers must not be shown to anyone (released or disseminated in any fashion) without the explicit written permission of the student (the author).