PhD thesis proposal

PhD advisory committee vs. PhD thesis examining committee

Confusion often exists regarding the distinction between the PhD advisory and examining committees. The PhD thesis committee is the committee whom you will work with from the beginning (i.e., developing and approving your proposal) to the end (i.e., completing your dissertation). The PhD examining committee, meanwhile, is formed for the explicit purpose of your final defence. The PhD examining committee, which includes two individuals in addition to your thesis committee (namely, an independent external examiner and an internal/external examiner), is not appointed until 8-12 weeks prior to the final PhD defence. University and faculty policies govern the composition of both these committees.

The outcome of the exam is determined by the majority vote of the thesis committee. Those members of the thesis committee who are voting members shall be clearly communicated to the candidate before the exam and at the start of the exam.

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PhD thesis proposal checklist

Once you and your supervisor agree that the written proposal is ready for defence, there are a number of steps you must follow:

  1. Contact all members of the committee to determine possible dates and times for the defence.
  2. Book a room for a two-hour period and inform all committee members of the date, time and room booking (or book a videoconference). The Faculty of Health receptionist can assist with room bookings. Any necessary AV equipment must be booked in advance through Health Computing.
  3. Complete the online PhD Thesis Proposal Notification Form and submit it at least three weeks in advance of the proposal defence. Note: the information provided in the Thesis Proposal Notification Form will be used by administration in related thesis proposal paperwork. Please ensure that this information is accurate and inform the graduate research team of any changes.
  4. Provide each member of the committee, as well as the graduate coordinator, with an electronic copy of the proposal, at least three weeks in advance of the defence.

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PhD thesis proposal guidelines

Please note that the page limit for the proposal itself, excluding title page, abstract, work plan, and references, is a maximum of 16 full pages (normally single spaced, size 12 font, normal margins). Double-spacing is permitted, in which case the page limit doubles to 32 full pages. You may add appendices with additional tables, figures or details.

Please see the LEARN site for the document entitled MSc and PhD Thesis Proposal Guidelines for further information on how the thesis proposal should be formatted.

Note: You have not been granted formal permission to proceed with data collection and/or analyses until the dissertation proposal has been successfully defended and approved by all members of your PhD thesis committee. Your thesis committee may request minor or major modifications to the proposed study rationale, objectives and/or methodology (design, sampling, instruments, data collection procedures, analyses, etc.), regardless of work conducted prior to the proposal defence. It is also very important to keep in mind that UWaterloo ethics approval is required for almost all research projects, including student thesis research, prior to data collection. Thus, students are strongly advised to ensure their supervisor is aware of all activities and obtain formal approval for their thesis research as soon as possible

The guidelines for MSc/PhD thesis proposal defenses, MSc thesis defenses, and PhD comprehensive examinations have been temporarily modified to permit online or hybrid defenses/examinations, in addition to in-person defenses, due to COVID-19. In the case of hybrid defenses, the School of Public Health Sciences (SPHS) is permitting any combination of the student and committee members (including supervisor[s]) to be present in-person or online. These temporary guidelines may be revised at any time. Please check with the research graduate coordinator at the time of scheduling your defense/examination.

Guidelines for PhD thesis defenses are set by the University. This includes guidelines for absent committee members. See the PhD thesis examination regulations on the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) website. GSPA currently allows remote PhD defenses.

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Procedures for PhD proposals and final defences

The supervisor of the committee acts as the chair for the PhD proposal defence. The oral defence will consist of a 20 minute presentation by the candidate. Committee members get 15 minutes to ask questions in the first round of questions. A second round can happen where they then 10 additional minutes. At the end of the defence, the PhD thesis committee decides whether to grant the student approval to proceed and the conditions of such approval and then shares that decision with the student. An addendum may be required stipulating changes to the original proposal.

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Decision categories for PhD thesis proposal defences

  1. Accepted: The thesis may require typographical or minor editorial corrections to be made to the satisfaction of the supervisor.
  2. Accepted conditionally: The thesis requires more substantive changes but will be acceptable when these changes are made to the satisfaction of those members of the committee designated by the committee. The supervisor’s report will include a brief outline of the nature of the changes required, the maximum timeline of two months*, and the consequences (examination failure) if the changes are not made satisfactorily. The supervisor must inform the Graduate Coordinator when the changes are complete. The thesis proposal acceptance form will not be processed until the graduate coordinator is so notified.
  3. Decision deferred: The thesis requires modifications of a substantial nature that make the acceptability of the thesis questionable. The supervisor’s report will contain a brief outline of the modifications expected and the date by which the changes are to be completed. The revised thesis must be resubmitted for re-examination following the process described in PhD thesis proposal checklist above. The re-examination will follow the same procedures as for the initial submission except that the display period may be reduced or eliminated at the discretion of the associate director, graduate studies. Typically, the same committee will serve. A decision to defer is open only once for each candidate.

*The associate director may approve an extension to the two-month deadline under extenuating circumstances, at the request of the student and supervisor. Back to text

In the case of examination failure because of not making required revisions, the student will be Required to Withdraw from the program. Back to text

If the decision is for a conditional acceptance (category 2), the designated committee members must be satisfied that the changes requested of the student have been made to their satisfaction.

If the decision is deferred (category 3), the student will go to re-examination. When a candidate is re-examined, the outcomes are limited to:

  • Passed
  • Rejected: the candidate will be deemed to have failed to satisfy the program’s proposal exam requirement. In this case, the student shall receive written communication identifying the deficiencies in the proposal that led to this outcome.

A student who is deemed to have failed to satisfy the proposal requirement (Rejected) may not continue in the current PhD program. The student’s will be Required to Withdraw.

The outcome of the exam is determined by the majority vote of the thesis committee. Those members of the thesis committee who are voting members shall be clearly communicated to the candidate.

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SPHS policy on absent committee members for PhD thesis proposal examinations

The thesis supervisor will chair the proposal presentation, questioning period and deliberations.

All committee members will be expected to make every attempt to be present at the proposal presentation. Videoconference participation can be arranged if necessary. The presentation cannot take place unless at least two committee members, one of whom must be the supervisor or co-supervisor, are present. If one committee member (other than the supervisor) cannot attend (and provided reasonable efforts have been made to accommodate scheduling), it is permissible to proceed. If this situation is known in advance, the supervisor must contact the absent member and obtain their written questions, expected responses, assessment of proposal acceptability, and suggestions for modifications. The supervisor is responsible for relaying this information during the meeting. If a committee member is unable to submit questions in advance or fails to attend as planned due to unforeseen circumstances, the supervisor must obtain written feedback from the absent member prior to reaching a final decision concerning the acceptability of the proposal and permission for the student to proceed with data collection.

It is up to the supervisor to ensure that all committee members’ concerns (whether present at the proposal examination or not) are adequately addressed by the student prior to approval of the proposal. As a means of documenting changes to the original proposal, particularly the methods, the candidate can be asked to develop a brief addendum which is given to all members of the committee (and to the graduate coordinator for the student’s file). In extreme cases, the proposal may need to be rewritten and another presentation meeting scheduled.

Note: If a committee member is unable to continue serving on a thesis committee, a replacement should be found by the supervisor and student. The graduate coordinator and associate director, graduate studies should be informed of any and all changes to the composition of a student’s thesis committee.

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