PhD comprehensive examination procedures

Comprehensive exams serve multiple purposes depending on the discipline. According to the University of Waterloo’s Graduate Studies Academic Calendar, permitted purposes for comprehensive exams at the University of Waterloo include demonstrating that:  

  • PhD students have the appropriate academic background – a foundation and breadth of knowledge in the field of study – to be successful in their PhD program;
  • PhD students have the capacity to engage in scholarly communications – both oral and written – necessary to be successful in their PhD studies.

The purpose of the comprehensive examination in Recreation and Leisure Studies is to ensure doctoral candidates develop, engage, and synthesize the most useful relations among those bodies of knowledge, methodologies, theoretical frames, and substantive areas that best prepare them to take up teaching, scholarship, and service based on students interests, in collaboration with their supervisor and committee members.

The process is designed to enable candidates to develop/acquire a solid grounding in and understanding of leisure studies, and/or allied disciplines or fields of study. This then provides a foundation for the critical analysis demanded by the dissertation proposal and final defence.

Timing of comprehensive examinations

The procedures for setting up the comprehensive examination should begin within four terms of the student’s initial enrollment into a full-time doctoral program, or within seven terms for students enrolled on a part-time basis. At this point, required coursework will normally be completed along with those supplemental experiences a supervisor may curate for a particular student, such as directed readings, experiential learning, or manuscript preparation.

After completion of coursework, all PhD students will be invited to attend a comprehensive exam information seminar with their cohort. The purpose fo this seminar is to: 

  • discuss the purpose and procedures of the comprehensive exam process;
  • share tips and strategies for a successful experience;
  • develop and build support networks and resources; and
  • address all questions and concerns students may have about the process.

These sessions will be facilitated by the RLS Associate Chair for Graduate Studies (or delegate from the RLS Graduate Studies Committee) and may include students who recently completed their exam. 

Prior to beginning the comprehensive examination process, supervisors and students should meet to discuss research interests, expectations, and goals for the comprehensive examination. Following this meeting, students are encouraged to share a short, written statement of research interests with supervisors and committee members.

Throughout the PhD program, supervisors and students are encouraged to schedule regular 'check-in' meetings that involve discussing the comprehensive examination process. These check-in meetings can be used to support students as they prepare for the comprehensive examination process (e.g., discuss salient bodies of literature, theoretical approaches, and/or methodologies); clarify questions about the examination expectations or process; and to debrief and provide feedback after the examination. Meetings with supervisors during the examination process are open to all discussions deemed appropriate for a supervisory relationship (see: GSPA guidelines for student and supervisor responsibilities), but may not include providing direct feedback on written exams, including both draft or final versions of responses prior to their submission. 

Once the comprehensive examination process is initiated, the entire process, including the written and oral components, normally will be completed over a period of four months for full-time students and six months for part-time students. Normally the oral defence will be scheduled a minimum of two weeks after submission of the written responses. Students with no previous studies at the PhD level must successfully complete the comprehensive exam not later than the end of their seventh term of studies. Students with previous studies at the PhD level (e.g., transfer students) are required to successfully complete the comprehensive exam not later than their fourth term of studies in their current program or their seventh term of study at the PhD level, whichever is longer. The comprehensive examination process must be completed before the submission of a thesis proposal.

A student who anticipates not meeting these requirements (up to the final evaluation of the exam) may seek an extension to the deadline to complete the comprehensive exam. The student is required to submit a petition providing evidence of extenuating circumstances to the student’s Associate Dean, Graduate Studies. Such petitions are submitted according to Policy 70 using Form 70A.

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. Guidance on seeking accommodation due to health reasons shall be managed by the University’s AccessAbility Services office.

If the petition is granted, the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies shall coordinate with the student’s Associate Chair for Graduate Studies 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.

If no petition has been previously adjudicated, and a student fails to meet these requirements by the end of the seventh term, the student’s academic status will be 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 using Form 70A under Policy 70 to the student’s Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, not later than 10 business days from the change of status. The petition rules described in this section apply.

A student is encouraged to communicate with supervisor(s) and/or instructors regarding the need to balance the student’s effort toward preparing for and completing the comprehensive exam, and any other academic requirements in the term during which the comprehensive exam takes place.  Additional guidance for students serving as a teaching assistant are outlined in Policy 30

In cases where agreement cannot be reached on revised expectations, the Department’s Associate Chair of Graduate Studies shall determine and communicate the revised expectations, if any, to the student and the supervisor/instructor.

The examination committee

Students will work with their faculty supervisors to set up their comprehensive examination committee. The comprehensive examination committee must be approved by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies and the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies for the student's Faculty, or delegate, before a comprehensive examination process can begin. Students and supervisors should choose their committee wisely given that these individuals will be responsible for engaging and assessing the student's theoretical, methodological, and content expertise. 

Prior to establishing the examination committee, students are strongly encouraged to build relations and become familiar with the body of work of their supervisors and potential committee members. This practice can help improve examination experiences by helping to develop shared expectations; and requisite substantive, theoretical, and methodological expertise/alignment. 

The University requires that the committee includes at least three examiners who hold a PhD or equivalent degree (as determined by the Associate Vice President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs), two of whom are not the student’s supervisor(s), and one of whom is a tenured or tenure-track member of the student’s Department or School. Normally, the examining committee will not exceed five examiners.

Therefore, the committee should consist of their faculty supervisor, a minimum of two faculty members (at least one of whom should be from the home department), and a chair appointed by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies. The faculty supervisor must have Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS) status and all members of the advisory committee must have academic appointments. One committee member may be drawn from faculty members of any other department within the University or from another University (including from members who have an adjunct appointment with the department) if such an individual has a unique contribution to make to the research process.

The comprehensive exam shall be chaired by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member at the University of Waterloo with ADDS status, normally from the student’s home Department/School, who is not the student’s supervisor or co-supervisor.  The Chair’s role is at a minimum to ensure that this portion of the exam is conducted in a manner that is consistent with appropriate guidelines as stated in the Chair's memo. The Chair is a non-voting member of the comprehensive examining committee.

The comprehensive examination committee will normally be the same as the student’s advisory committee. However, if deemed appropriate it may have different members than the advisory committee. All members of the examination committee, except for the Chair who is a non-voting member, will have an equal say into the decision.

Format of the comprehensive examination

The comprehensive examination includes both a written and oral component. The same comprehensive examination committee is used for both components.

Examination procedures and content

The supervisor will meet with the comprehensive examination committee to:

  • Determine the specific areas of student interest to be covered in the examination.
  • Review the examination procedures to be followed.
  • Determine, in consultation with the candidate, the timing of the exams (Form 1 PhD Comprehensive Examination Approval of Committee and Date of Examination Form should be completed at this time).
  • Develop three questions (normally each of the three committee member will submit one question for review by the other committee members) and submit them to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for review. 
  • Ensure the comprehensive examination schedule and final three questions are forwarded to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies at least one week before the student is to receive the questions.

On the appropriate date, the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies will email the questions to the candidate (requesting confirmation that they have been received). The examination process begins once candidates receive the questions.

Written responses to each of the three questions are to be presented to the student’s committee normally not more than four months after the student has received the questions (or six months in the case of part-time students). Each question is considered separately. The responses to each of the questions should be no longer than 9,000 words, double-spaced, including references. The responses must be written and prepared independently. This means the individual student must be the sole author of all exam responses. Students are permitted to seek support from the UW Writing and Communication Centre, particularly as it relates to writing style and mechanics. If students require further clarification on issues related to sole authorship or independent writing, they are encouraged to consult with their supervisor and/or the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies. Responses must provide proper acknowledgement/citation of all sources, including any of the student's prior work.

Students may warrant an accommodation to allow for an alternative exam format other than the norm as described by a Faculty or Department. For accommodations related to health, the student shall provide supporting medical documentation to the University’s AccessAbility Services office where the request will be vetted. As a result of that evaluation, AccessAbility Services shall determine whether an accommodation is warranted. When an accommodation is determined appropriate, AccessAbility Services shall communicate the decision and the nature of the accommodation to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the student’s home Department. 

Requests for accommodation not related to health issues shall be made by students to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the student’s home department, who will coordinate the process by which the request for accommodation will be advanced.

The oral exam should be scheduled such that committee members have a minimum of two weeks to read the student’s responses. The committee does not meet prior to the convening of the oral examination, thus students should not expect feedback regarding their written responses prior to the oral exam. However, feedback is provided during the examination period in which the student can take notes for further discussion post-exam. Feedback may also be given orally in discussion with the supervisor post-exam based on their reading of the student's responses and the oral examination. 

The candidate will arrange the location of the oral examination. Please reserve the meeting room for at least three hours. The oral examination will be based on the questions and answers provided in the written exam. This exam will be open to other members of the department. Upon successful completion of the oral defence, the student normally has a maximum of two months to make any changes or conduct re-writes as required. Part-time students may be given one additional month to make changes (total of three months) if deemed appropriate by the committee.

Any member of the comprehensive committee who cannot attend the oral defence (in-person or virtually) must submit a written report (questions) to the Chair of the comprehensive exam committee before the defence and arrange that a delegate reads these questions. 

Outcomes of the comprehensive examination

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 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;
  • 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.

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 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. 

In programs where the comprehensive exam involves multiple components, a student may obtain different outcomes on each component of the exam. 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 (notice of reassessment challenge, Form 70C). 

The role of the chair

The Chair, appointed by the Associate Chair Graduate Studies, will be a non-voting member of the Examination Committee. The Chair’s role is that of an impartial referee, ensuring that all policies and procedures are met and that the examination is fair. The Chair should receive (from the Administrator, Faculty Graduate Studies) a copy of Form 1: PhD Comprehensive Examination Committee and Date Approval which specifies the make-up of the committee and the date of the oral examination. The Chair should also receive (from the Administrator, Faculty Graduate Studies) a copy of the exam questions as prepared by the exam committee and a written description of the Chair’s role.

The Chair is responsible for conducting the oral examination, typically allowing for three rounds of questions from the committee members. Each round will focus on one of the candidate’s written responses. Each round should start with a different committee member; the last round beginning with the candidate’s supervisor. Normally students will not make a presentation prior to these rounds of questions. The Chair ensures that the questions asked of the candidate are based on the written responses and may include questions of clarification, further explanation, or follow-up questions.

At the end of the oral examination, the Chair adjourns the exam and the committee then meets in camera to determine whether the student receives a pass, conditional pass, or re-examination (in the case of the initial examination) or a pass or unsuccessful outcome (in the case or re-examination). The decision should be based on the examination as a whole (written responses and performance during oral exam including ability to respond to questions and defend positions) and must be made at the time of the examination. The candidate must be informed of the decision.

The Chair of the examination committee must provide a written report of the examination (Form 2: PhD Comprehensive Examination Report provided by the Administrator, Faculty Graduate Studies), which includes the signatures of all the committee members, and a memo outlining any conditions that still need to be fulfilled by the student or any required areas of re-examination as well as the process by which the committee will determine if the candidate has met the requirements. Normally, within a week of the oral examination, the Chair ensures that the comprehensive exam file, including Form 2, a copy of the questions for the exam, and the written memo if the decision is anything but a ‘pass’, is returned to the Administrator, Faculty Graduate Studies.

Academic integrity, grievances, and appeals

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

When the comprehensive exam involves a written submission of original work by the candidate completed in a non-invigilated setting, students are encouraged to employ the University’s plagiarism detection software leading up to the submission of the written document to the examining committee. The student is encouraged to discuss the reports generated from the software with their supervisor(s) to avoid academic integrity violations. The report that evaluates the student’s submission to the examining committee shall be included with the student’s written element and shall be made available to the committee.

In cases where comprehensive exams involve the submission of a written document followed by an oral exam component, the following process shall be followed regarding suspected violations of academic integrity on the written element. The person identifying the possible violation shall communicate the concern in writing only to the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies in the student’s home Faculty. The Associate Dean 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 shall inform the candidate, the supervisor or co-supervisors and the Associate Chair for 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 supervisors, 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 in the student’s home Faculty under Policy 71.

When the comprehensive exam includes the completion of a written exam in a controlled environment, suspected violations of academic integrity in these cases should be reported to the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies in the student’s home Faculty. 

Last revised March 2022

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