PhD Comprehensive Examination

It is advisable and encouraged for students to talk to their committee members in advance of the examination to clarify the areas of study and expectations of the examination.

Collaborative Programs

Collaborative programs like Migration and Ethnic Relations and Environment and Sustainability have specific requirements that are merged into the process below - e.g., committee structure and topics.

Purpose of the Comprehensive and Proposal Examination

The examination is the gateway between courses and independent, supervised research, and so is both retrospective (what is known) and prospective (preparation for research). The comprehensive and proposal examination is both an assessment process and an educational opportunity. In general, the focus is on competence and background knowledge in advanced research; methods, concepts and research findings, but there is also some expectation that the candidate should have knowledge of the broader disciplinary context. Educational and assessment objectives include: oral and written communication skills; critical appraisal skills; specialized knowledge of literature, and theoretical and methodological knowledge within geography and beyond. On a practical level, the examination allows the candidate to develop and demonstrate their ability to propose, conduct, and write the thesis. The purpose of the thesis proposal is to demonstrate the requisite theoretical and methodological background and the necessary writing skills to proceed to concentrated thesis work.

Summary of Rules for the Examination Process

Component Details
1. written exam - open book, "take home" style; two parts
2. timeframe for written exam

- within 5 working days (includes a minimum 1 day break)

3. number of "time blocks" - 2 blocks (3 questions picked up at beginning of each block)
4a. duration of each time block - 2 days (9:00am day one to 4:30pm day two). Questions to be acquired from the Graduate Administrator and submitted to the Graduate Administrator and Committee Members*.
4b. duration of written exam - 4 days of writing = 2 blocks x 2 days each
5a. response types - long answers: 2500-5000 words each; short answers: 500-1000 words each
5b. total written responses - 6 responses total = (2 blocks x 1 long) + (2 blocks x 2 short)
6. choice - all questions must be answered; student chooses which will be "long" versus "short" in each block
7. topics/areas - broad foundations, specialized knowledge, methods/ methodology
8.oral exam - always follows approximately one week after the written examination
- not public: only PhD Examination Committee, candidate and Chair of exam are present
- examiners have independently reviewed the written contributions and the research proposal
- two rounds (three, if required) of relevant questions on written responses and the research proposal; at the examiner's discretion
- committee discussion follows
9. assessment - assessments apply separately to the comprehensive exam and to the research proposal
pass: majority pass (3 of 4) is required. For the comprehensive exam, a majority is required on the combination of the written and oral examination. The proposal may pass or fail independently of the comprehensive exam
- re-sit: "first fail" - requires a resubmission of the proposal. For the comprehensive exam, a re-sit means written responses and/or oral exam is re-taken. The committee follows up with a report to the student and a meeting to refine preparation
- fail: "second fail" - failure of re-sit. This applies to the comprehensive and/or the proposal. Withdrawal from program
- all outcomes require written commentary from each Committee member that is consolidated by the Oral Examination Chair
- process must comply with any SGPS requirements

In the interest of efficiency, the questions will be emailed by the Graduate Administrator to the candidate at the beginning of each block.   Likewise, the answers will be emailed by the candidate to the Graduate Administrator and all of the Examination Committee members at the end of each block.

Detailed Rules and Regulations

Prior to Written Exam

Readiness (Timing)

The Comprehensive/ Proposal Examination process is typically not started until all mandatory coursework is completed, as coursework comprises part of the preparatory work for the exam. Once the supervisor and candidate agree the candidate is ready, they begin the process of forming an Examination Committee.

Comprehensive Examination Committee

The comprehensives allow the student to work closely with their extended Supervisory Committee. The Comprehensive Examination Committee consists of four faculty members, comprised of the Supervisory Committee (the Supervisory Committee is the supervisor plus two) plus an additional member. Typically, these faculty members will come from the department; but they may also come from other departments, and as needed (e.g., for collaborative programs), and as warranted from outside the university (by special arrangement). The oral exam requires a fifth person - a non-voting Oral Examination Chair, who is at *arm’s length and from a different field within the Department. The Oral Chair is arranged by the Graduate Administrator after the remainder of the Committee is set. (also see PhD Committees).
*See SGPS Thesis Regulations - - The Thesis

Examination Board

PhD Comprehensive Examination Committee (n=5)
Faculty Member 2 *
Faculty Member 3 *
Faculty Member 4 *
Oral Chair
original Thesis Supervision Committee

*Faculty members (2-4) typically come from UWO Geography, but other faculty may serve if eligible.
A non-voting Oral Chair is required for the oral exam stage. Typically the Comprehensives Oral Chair is from within the Department, but from a field that is different from the candidate's. Otherwise the same rules as the Thesis Defence Chair apply.


The focus of the examination will be negotiated between the student and the Examination Committee (excluding the Oral Chair), but all exams are expected to cover broad foundations, specialized knowledge, and methods/ methodology. There is considerable room for interpretation about what these three areas might cover. Thus, it is important to ensure that there is consensus on the final terms of reference including expectations prior to the written examination.

Preliminary Terms of Reference and First Meeting

Terms of reference are meant to scope the written and oral exam questions from the Committee, but are not meant to constrain the student per se (see final terms of reference). Some months (typically two to four) in advance of the target date for the written exam, the Comprehensive/ Proposal Examination Committee will meet with the candidate to discuss the terms of reference. The supervisor and student are to provide preliminary terms of reference in advance of the first Committee meeting. The terms of reference typically consist of i) a preliminary list of topics and sub-topics, with objectives, expectations and responsibilities (e.g., readings, practical skills); ii) a short research proposal (typically two pages max.); iii) preferred written and oral exam dates. The bulk of the final terms of reference will be the reading list.

Final Terms of Reference

The student will meet with Comprehensive/ Proposal Examination Committee members individually to help finalize the terms of reference. The final terms may be set early in the process or close to the examination. An Examination Committee meeting(s) (i.e., subsequent to the first meeting) may be called to help finalize the terms. Once all are satisfied with the final terms of reference, the supervisor or student circulates it to the Examination Committee members. Though the examination is to focus on the readings identified in the terms of reference, the student may certainly cite material outside this list in their exam responses. The Examination Committee is provided less latitude in this regard – they are discouraged from asking questions outside the terms of reference. The terms of reference should indicate which topics will be covered in each of the two blocks of exam questions.

Study Period

The student will typically spends two to four months preparing and critically analyzing the literature that has been identified in the terms of reference. The student is encouraged to continue to engage with the Examination Committee during this time (e.g., sample written answers). The candidate is encouraged to continually adjust the terms of reference as they progress through the study period (e.g., add readings).

Written Examination

How Exam Questions are Set

The supervisor solicits questions from the examiners and is responsible for setting the final two-part written examination – a copy of which will be sent to the Graduate Administrator. All questions should be written for a long answer because it is the candidate who decides which questions will receive long answers versus short answers. To ensure the examination covers as much of the reading list as possible, it is advisable when setting the final terms of reference to separate the questions into sections that match with the reading list topics/ sub-topics.

Format of Written Exam

The exam is in two parts spread over two time blocks of two days each. At the beginning of each block of time, the Graduate Administrator will email the exam questions for that block - i.e. three questions (typically at 9am on the first day). At the end of the block, the student will submit the responses, by email, to the Graduate Administrator and the Committee (typically at 4:30pm on the second day). The student will have a break of at least one day and then the second block will proceed in the same manner as the first with a new set of three questions. The Committee is not required to provide feedback to the student between blocks 1 and 2 - but the Committee is likewise not prevented from doing so. The student should use the reading list within the terms of reference as the main resource for answering the questions, but s/he is not restricted from a reasonable use of other resources. The candidate is expected to answer six questions: two long answers and four short answers. A long answer will be between 2500 and 5000 words, while a short answer will be between 500 and 1000 words. The student chooses which of the three questions within each block of time s/he will answer in long form, as opposed to short form. All written answers are to: be written in a formal style, contain a recognized and consistent citation format, be submitted by email to the Graduate Administrator and each Committee Member at the end of each block, be subject to submission to plagiarism checking databases like if the Committee so chooses. Candidates are expected to produce entirely original work - copyediting by anyone but the candidate is forbidden.

Assessment of written

No formal assessment of the written answers is required prior to the oral (see below). Nevertheless, examiners are encouraged to make notes that can be shared with the candidate after the oral.

Oral Examination

Format of the Oral Exam

The oral examination occurs within approximately one week of the written examination to allow the examiners time to read the written answers. All Examination Committee Members are examiners except the Chair. The oral exam is closed to the public. The Graduate Administrator arranges the examination, in consultation with the participants. The procedures mimic an oral thesis defence, with two (three, if required) rounds of questions, and will normally last 2-2.5 hours in length. The order of questions is flexible and should be announced at the start of the examination. If required, a third round of questions is permitted. Typically each examiner will have 15-20 minutes in the first round and 5-10 minutes in the second. Unlike the thesis defence, there is no formal presentation by the student and the supervisor is one of the examiners. The questions may address any aspect of the written answers, reading list and research proposal and may extend to broader implications within reason.

Assessment (oral + written, and proposal)

Following the oral examination, the student withdraws and the Chair oversees a discussion of the oral and written components of the comprehensives and the research proposal. Assessments apply separately to the comprehensive exam and to the research proposal. The examiners complete the PhD comprehensive examination and proposal evaluation form and submit it to the chair. A majority (3) has to approve a pass on the exam (written together with oral). The thesis proposal may pass or fail independently of the comprehensive exam.

Possible outcomes for the Comprehensive Examination are:
Distinction: In (rare) cases when the Comprehensive Examination Committee agrees that the candidate’s performance was exceptional, a "pass with distinction" may be awarded. Distinction is a rare designation that requires an outstanding performance on both the written material and oral examination, and a unanimous vote by the Examination Committee.
Satisfactory: If the student passes, then the result is documented on the Examination Report form filed with the Graduate Administrator by the Oral Examination Chair. If gaps are identified, a candidate may be advised by the Committee to complete additional work before continuing their program of study. In addition, Committee Members are strongly encouraged to provide written comments to the candidate to assist them in their ongoing studies. Completion of the Comprehensive Examination milestone is noted on the record.
Unsatisfactory (resulting in a re-sit): If a majority of the Examination Committee does not pass the candidate the first time, then the candidate is afforded one re-sit. The latter is comprised of whatever components and schedule the Examination Committee, together with the Examination Committee Oral Examination Chair deem reasonable (Graduate Chair may also be consulted). They have to explicitly discuss with the student the basis for their decision and the recommended course of action. The Oral Examination Chair provides a brief written summary of these points to the candidate, supervisor and Graduate Chair. It is expected that further committee and/or individual meetings will be necessary in order to provide structure and guidance to the student. The student will have a maximum of three months to complete the re-sit process.

Possible outcomes for the Proposal are:
Pass with no revisions: If the student passes, then the result is documented on the Examination Report form filed with the Graduate Administrator by the Oral Examination Chair. Pass with no revisions requires a unanimous vote by the Examination Committee. Completion of the Proposal milestone is noted on the record.
Pass with revisions: If gaps are identified, a candidate may be advised by the Committee to complete additional/revise their work before continuing their program of study. Committee Members are strongly encouraged to provide written comments to the candidate to assist them in their revisions. Once the revisions are complete, the candidate resubmits the proposal to the supervisor and/or committee, if applicable. Once the revisions are approved, the Examination form is completed and submitted to the Graduate Administrator. Completion of the Proposal milestone is noted on the record.  The student will have a maximum of four weeks to complete and submit revisions.
Unsatisfactory: If there is no majority 'pass' of the proposal, then the student is afforded one chance to resubmit an improved proposal. The improved proposal has to be submitted within three months.

There are a few possibilities for scheduling, more so for the oral than the written. The main requirements are: i) a block must consist of two consecutive days; ii) a minimum one day break is required between blocks; iii) the written must be completed within five working days; and iv) the oral must happen within approximately one week of the written.
Ultimately, scheduling of the oral, in particular, will depend on Examination Committee’s availability. Scheduling of the exam should be set soon after the first meeting

sample calendars


Please contact the Graduate Administrator with any questions regarding the graduate program.

Phone: 519-661-2111, Ext. 85033;