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The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to demonstrate that a student has the appropriate academic background – including a foundation and breadth of knowledge in the field of study – to be successful in the PhD program in Sustainability Management.

Comprehensive Exam Reading List

The comprehensive exam reading list, comprising approximately one-hundred readings, provides a common set of literature for all students. Items are selected to give a substantial foundation and exposure to the breadth of the field of sustainability management. The reading list is revised and updated annually and approved by SEED. Over time the reading list will change, consisting in part of ‘classic texts’ and reflect the changing nature of sustainability management. The reading list is made available to the incoming doctoral cohort in September of year 1. Study of the readings is supported by the core courses (SUSM 701 and SUSM 702).

Comprehensive Exam Timing

The comprehensive examination will take place on a date in the fall term of the second year of the program (the fourth term of study). The re-examination, if necessary, will take place on a date in the winter term of the second year of study (the fifth term of study) and also serves as an alternate date for examination. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will set the date for the exam.

Students are normally expected to successfully complete the comprehensive exam requirement no later than the end of their fifth term of study. Students who have completed previous studies in another PhD program at the University of Waterloo or at another university, are expected 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.

For a student who may not meet this timing, for example for reasons of health or other extenuating circumstances, the student may petition requesting extension as per the University’s graduate studies regulations for the comprehensive examination.

See detailed requirements, below.

Comprehensive Examining Committee

SEED will assign regular faculty members to a pool for PhD comprehensive examinations, chaired by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. The pool will develop a comprehensive examination question.

The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will act as the non-voting chair of each comprehensive examining committee. The chair will normally allocate three (3) faculty members to an examining committee for each student, each member with one vote. Normally one member of the committee will be the student’s supervisor, or in cases where a student is co-supervised, both co-supervisors may be members, in which case the committee will comprise a total of four (4) members and co-supervisors will each have one-half of a vote.

See detailed requirements, below.

Format of the Comprehensive Examination

The comprehensive examination is structured as single question designed to produce a critical synthesis based on the PhD reading list. Students will have 24 hours to respond to the question by submitting a paper up to 3000 words, not including bibliography.

Students may warrant an accommodation to allow for an alternative exam format other than the norm as described, as per the University’s graduate studies regulations. See detailed requirements, below.

Outcomes of the Comprehensive Exam

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. 

On a candidate’s first attempt at the comprehensive exam, the outcome will be one of:

  • Passed: the candidate successfully completed requirements 
  • Passed conditionally: the candidate will be considered to have completed the exam successfully upon having satisfied additional conditions established by the examining committee. Normally, this condition will be an oral examination that is evaluated by the same committee as the initial committee. The oral examination will be chaired by the Associate Director, Graduate Studies. Conditions will:
    • 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.

        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 examination.  In this case, the student shall be provided written communication that identifies the deficiencies in the first 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 (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.

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 student requesting reassessment of the written element shall submit a Notice of Reassessment Challenge to the Director of the School. A student who believes that a decision or process has been unfair and has reasonable grounds, can initiate a grievance by submitting a Notice of Challenge to the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies. Refer to Policy 70 for forms and procedures.

Academic Integrity and the Comprehensive Exam

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

The student shall employ the University’s plagiarism detection software.  The report generated related to the document submitted to the examining committee shall be included with the student’s written element and shall be made available to the committee.

See detailed requirements, below.
 

Detailed Requirements

Comprehensive Examinations

PhD programs require doctoral students to successfully complete a comprehensive exam as part of their academic requirements.  In some cases, students may be required to successfully complete a series of exams to be considered to have satisfied the comprehensive requirement. 

The purpose of this document is to provide university-level guidance to students, supervisors and Departments / Schools (referred to as Departments in this document) on the comprehensive exam.  This document also presents links to Faculty level guidelines that are consistent with the principles established here.  Links to Departments’ guidelines are available on the Faculty pages. 

Comprehensive Exam Purpose

Comprehensive exams serve multiple purposes depending on the discipline.  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;

  • PhD students have developed a novel research topic to be evaluated during their PhD studies.

The purpose(s) of the exam shall be communicated clearly to students.

Comprehensive Exam Timing

The comprehensive exam is an important accomplishment in the completion of students’ PhD programs.  Normally, completing the comprehensive exam allows students to advance to the research or dissertation phase of their studies.  The timing of the exam should allow sufficient time for students to achieve the foundational knowledge to be successful in their programs.  The exam timing should also be determined with consideration of providing timely feedback to students on their progress and motivating appropriate times to completion.  To balance these two objectives, the University requires that:

  • Students with no previous studies at the PhD level successfully complete the comprehensive exam not later than the end of their seventh term of studies;

  • Students who have completed previous studies in another PhD program at the University of Waterloo or at another university, 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.

Earlier deadlines are at the discretion of the Faculty, Department or Program level.

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. 

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 Office.

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

Comprehensive Examinations and Students’ Academic Requirements

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 TA are outlined in Policy 30. 

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

Comprehensive Examining Committee

In many cases a student’s comprehensive exam written and / or oral components are evaluated by an examining committee constituted for a given student.  These rules govern the composition of these examining committees. 

The comprehensive examining committee shall engage those who can advance the purpose(s) of the exam.  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),

  • at least one of whom is a tenured or tenure-track member of the student’s Department or School, and

  • at least two of whom hold regular faculty appointments at the University of Waterloo.

Additional committee members may be required at the discretion of the Faculty, Department or Program.  When examining committee members are external to the University of Waterloo, their purpose in the exam process shall be clearly communicated to the student.

Normally, the examining committee will not exceed five examiners.

The comprehensive exam shall be chaired by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member at the University of Waterloo with Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervision (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 consistent with appropriate guidelines.  The Chair is non-voting.

The composition of the comprehensive examining committee will be approved by the Associate Dean, Graduate Studies for the student’s Faculty, or delegate.

The method by which the comprehensive examining committee is constituted and the timing of the examining committee formulation shall be clearly articulated and communicated to students.

Comprehensive Exam Format and Content

The format and content of the comprehensive exam shall be directly related to the stated purpose(s) of the exam.   These elements shall be clearly articulated and communicated to students to ensure transparency and clarity of expectations.  If a student in a program perceives a lack of clarity on these issues, these concerns should immediately be communicated to the student’s Department’s Graduate Officer.

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 Office where the request will be vetted.  As a result of that evaluation, AccessAbility shall determine whether an accommodation is warranted.  When an accommodation is determined appropriate, AccessAbility shall communicate the decision and the nature of the accommodation to the Graduate Officer in the student’s home Department. 

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

Outcomes of the Comprehensive Exam

This section defines permitted outcomes of Comprehensive examinations 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 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 (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. 

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 (reassessment challenge). A student who believes that a decision or process has been unfair and has reasonable grounds,can initiate a grievance by submitting a Notice of Challenge to the Associate Dean of Graduate studies. Refer to Policy 70 for forms and procedures. 

Academic Integrity and the Comprehensive Exam

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 an uninvigilated setting, the student shall 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 generated related to the document submitted 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 graduate officer 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.