Qualifying examination

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

Please see the University’s requirements for the qualifying examination.


Date Reading list version Intent Examining committee

November 7 - 11, 2022

Reading list 2019 - 2020 (PDF)

Exam for students admitted September 2021


March 20-24, 2023

Reading list 2019-2020 (PDF)


  • Juan Moreno-Cruz
  • Simron Singh
  • Olaf Weber

June 19-23, 2023 (tentative)

Reading list 2022 (PDF)

Exam for students admitted September 2022


November 2023

Reading list 2022 (PDF)



The re-examination is for candidates required to repeat the examination and provides an opportunity for any student who was unable to write (with permission) at the initial exam, part-time students who may have longer schedules, and for students who entered the program out of sequence.

Note: Students who began their studies in the PhD in Sustainability Management in 2018 through 2021 have the option of doing a "traditional" comprehensive exam instead of the qualifying exam. The School has archived the Comprehensive Examination Requirements (PDF).

Exam timing

The qualifying examination takes place over one week in the third or fourth term of studies (see table above). The re-examination, if necessary, takes place over one week in the following term, and this date serves also as an alternate date for the examination. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will set the date for the exam.

Students are expected to successfully complete the qualifying 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 qualifying 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 requirements for the qualifying examination.

Reading list

The qualifying exam reading list comprises approximately 80 readings and 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. These readings:

  • Introduce cross-cutting concepts relevant to sustainability management – including foundational ideas and theory,
  • Offer key examples of scholarly debate in the literature, and
  • Provide examples of applications and relevant approaches, but do not attempt to do this comprehensively.

The list covers key topics such as sustainability management theory and methods; leadership, innovations, behaviour change and transitions; industrial ecology; socio-ecological and economic systems; sustainable business, accounting, finance and investment; global SDGs in law and policy; indigenous worldviews, diversity and social justice; and sustainable resources governance. It is occasionally revised by SEED. Over time the list will change, consisting in part of 'classic texts' and reflecting our changing conception of sustainability management. Recommendations by faculty and students are welcome.

The reading list is made available to the incoming doctoral cohort in year 1. Study of the readings is supported by the supervisor and the core PhD courses (SUSM 701 and SUSM 702). Students can download the relevant SEED PhD reading list for their cohort (see table above). The student is responsible for obtaining readings, although compilations may be available:

In developing the current reading list, the School made an effort to broaden the scope of readings (and authors) to reflect SEED’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. The authors gender balance is roughly 60:40, men to women, and continued attention to balance and inclusion of diverse perspectives, especially from underrepresented groups, will inform future versions.

Role of the supervisor

The supervisor is expected to support the student in preparation for the qualifying exam. For the student this may include:

  • Meetings and discussion with their supervisor the bread of knowledge in sustainability management and about depth of knowledge, particularly in the student’s areas of interest,
  • Writing practice answers and preparatory papers in consultation with the supervisor,
  • Assistance in coordinating with instructors and/or students in areas that support the student’s preparation.


Consistent with the purpose of the qualifying examination, the student will be assessed on the following criteria:

  • Answer to the exam question
  • Critical thinking, originality and synthesis of ideas, including the ability to present an argument or position
  • Breadth of knowledge, including use of the reading list as a foundation of knowledge
  • Depth of knowledge, including conceptual and theoretical engagement
  • Quality and demonstrated communication ability, including written and oral, as appropriate

Exam format and submission

Students will have approximately 5 days to respond to the question by submitting a paper of 3500 to 5000 words.

At the start of the examination the exam question will be made available to the student in the SEED PhD Qualifyin Examination community group on LEARN. A dropbox will open for the student to submit the examination paper and iThenticate report for the due time. The student has until 3:00 PM of the first day of the exam to ask the chair of the examination committee any questions of clarification. After this time has passed, and until the end of examination, it is forbidden to seek advice or assistance from anyone. This includes assistance with spelling, grammar and other writing skills.

Students are expected to base their qualifying examination paper substantially on the reading list; although it is not expected that the reading list be used to the exclusion of other sources. As a rule, the references in the submitted examination paper should draw greater than 50% from the reading list.

The paper is to be submitted with no identifying information, as examinations will be marked anonymously if possible.

The exam paper should follow the SEED academic style guide for a paper of this length:

  • cover page (showing word count and iThenticate similarity score for the paper)
  • page numbers
  • 11 or 12-point font size
  • normal (1 inch) margins
  • numbered section headings
  • table of contents
  • references in APA style
  • inclusive language should be used
  • Microsoft Word format is preferred
  • do not include student name or student identification number on the paper

The 5000 word limit maximum will be strictly enforced. Any paper exceeding the limit will not be accepted by the examining committee. Word count does not include cover page, table of contents or references list. Each figure in the paper will be counted as 250 words and table content will be included in the word count. The paper should not include appendices or other attachments.

Students may warrant an accommodation to allow for an alternative exam format other than the norm as described, as per the University’s requirements for the qualifying examination.

Academic Integrity

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, iThenticate, provided for graduate students and researchers.

For consistency the student should adjust iThenticate filters and settings to:

  • exclude quotes and bibliography, and
  • not to exclude sources by size (word count) or matches.

The student is required to submit a copy of the full length iThenticate similarity report related to the document submitted into the same dropbox on LEARN. The LEARN dropbox will remain open beyond the due time to allow later submission of the iThenticate report.

Qualifying examining committee

Annually SEED will assign regular faculty members to the PhD qualifying examining committee. The Associate Director, Graduate Studies will act as the non-voting chair of the qualifying examining committee. The committee will develop the qualifying examination question.

The membership of the examining committee is identified in the table above.

Outcomes of the qualifying exam

The outcome of the exam is determined by the majority vote of the examining committee, as specified in the University’s requirements for the qualifying examination.

On a candidate’s first attempt at the qualifying 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 qualifying 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 qualifying 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 qualifying 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.

Preparation checklist

The following is provided as guidance for a student preparing for the qualifying exam.

  • Download and study the relevant qualifying exam reading list
  • Consult with senior students in the program who may have copies of papers and books available from previous years, including files in reference management software (e.g., Zotero)
  • Consult examples of successful qualifying exam papers.
  • Write practice answers and preparatory papers in consultation with your supervisor
  • Create an account for iThenticate, the University’s plagiarism detection software for researchers, and familiarize yourself with this tool
  • Practice use of the plagiarism detection software, and discuss the reports generated from the software with your supervisor
  • One month before the exam, confirm that you are registered in the SEED PhD Qualifying Examination community group on LEARN
  • Ensure that examination period is free and clear of other major commitments
  • Questions or concerns regarding the examination or the exam date should be made to the graduate administrator