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Ph.D. Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination (QE) is a formal evaluation of the student's ability to proceed to the Ph.D. level. The examination will focus on the student's proposed research subject. The student should show adequate knowledge of relevant background information, as well as in allied areas. Students preparing for the examination should become familiar with all areas of science that might be relevant to an effective pursuit of the proposed research. Questioning can cover technical and strategic issues as well as substantive knowledge. Although the QE is not intended as an assessment of the student's research accomplishment, those students who have accumulated useful results should present them. Questions arising from these results may then form part of the examination. It is not necessary for the student to take one month off prior to the QE to study.


Evaluation Criteria

     Originality of ideas (within reason)

     Practicality of approach to the research problem

     Depth of understanding of the research field

     Grasp of relevant related research areas

     Potential for scholarship


All Ph.D. students must successfully complete the QE within the first 18-24 months of study. M.Sc. students currently enrolled in the Department of Human Genetics at McGill must pass the QE exam as a prerequisite to transferring to the Ph.D. program.

The Examining Committee consists of the Supervisor, other SC members, and an additional external member suggested by the Supervisor and approved by the GTC. This member must be external to the department and must be in addition to any external member of the student's SC. The chair of the committee is a member of the GTC (or delegate). The role of the GTC Chair is to ensure fairness to the student and to uphold the standards of the Department. The Chair can ask questions and has a vote. Should you have any questions regarding the composition of your committee, please contact the Graduate Program Coordinator.

* The examination MUST be postponed in the event that the external member, the chair, or two members of the committee are absent.


The Thesis Proposal

The purpose of the thesis proposal is to demonstrate to the examination committee that your project has the potential to develop into a full PhD thesis.  As a general rule, students should outline goals that will (hopefully) result in 3 first author papers. These three papers would then become "three chapters" and thus form the crux of your thesis.  Obviously it is impossible to know exactly how those three chapters will turn out and they could change along the way.  However, the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that you and your supervisor have thought about your project, and that you have planned out sufficient experiments to develop into a Ph.D. thesis.  In general, the three chapters should build on one another and not be 3 random unrelated topics - which might reflect 3 M.Sc. thesis projects rather than 1 Ph.D. At the end you want to write one unifying introduction and final discussion section to link the three chapters. It should be clear to the committee how each element of your project will develop and how it will relate back to your hypothesis.

Students must submit (by email) a thesis proposal (approximately 10 double-spaced pages) in advance of the examination. The student must provide each member of the Examining Committee, as well as the Graduate Student Coordinator, with an electronic copy of the proposal 7 days prior to the examination. The proposal will be reviewed by the committee prior to the examination and it should be written with care, addressing the relevant background, the specific aims of the thesis, their significance, the approach and methods, results already obtained and the anticipated schedule of the objectives remaining to be completed. In additional to the proposal, the student must include a 2 page (approx.) CV and an unofficial transcript to all members of the committee so they can assess productivity and performance in course work.


The Examination

The QE begins with a brief presentation of the research proposal by the student (15-20 minutes). This should cover background, hypothesis, objectives, summary of work completed and future directions and the methodology used to complete them.

The question period will follow the oral presentation and interruptions during the presentation kept to a minimum.  Unlike regular SC meetings the QE is an exam (where the student is monitored for the length of the presentation).


Questioning then proceeds with each examiner usually asking questions in turn. The order of questions generally proceeds from most external (QE external member) to most familiar (supervisor). After the questioning, the student leaves the room and the committee discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s abilities.

The Chair should keep brief notes summarizing the range and scope of the questions, and these notes are to be forwarded to the GPC with the signature page.

A copy of the Committee Report, which will contain a brief summary of the strength and weaknesses of the performance, will be given to the candidate to sign. This should be sent to the Departmental office; please keep an electronic copy for your own records.

There are three possible evaluations - satisfactory, unsatisfactory, or decision deferred until supplementary examination. It is also possible for the committee to grant a Conditional Satisfactory evaluation. In such cases the committee will deem that the student has passed the exam, but must revise aspects of the thesis proposal and resubmit to the committee for final approval. This resubmission will not require another meeting of the exam committee. The proposal will be circulated by email and the Committee Chair will be responsible for obtaining the approval confirmation from committee members, and relaying this information to the Graduate Program Coordinator. The Chair will also communicate the approval of the revisions to the student, and include any additional feedback from the committee members. The decision should be reached by a consensus of the committee whenever possible. When no consensus is apparent, the Chair will call for a vote to be taken by secret ballot. A vote of 4 members is required for pass. However, the Chair reserves the right to defer any decision if he/she believes that either fairness to the student or the standards of the Department are being compromised. The Chair will then bring the case to the GTC for discussion.

The committee should decide the outcome of the exam, and to convey some comments to the chair and the student directly. The chair then copies the comments down, creates some synthesis of all of the comments, circulates the draft report by email to all committee members for final approval and then sends back to the student and the Graduate Program Coordinator. The final examination report must be sent to the student within 1 week of the exam. If appropriate and mutually agreeable, the Chair may have the supervisor prepare the written synthesis. However, it is the chair’s responsibility to ensure the student receives the feedback in a timely fashion.


Supplementary Examination

A supplementary may be required if the student has demonstrated weakness in one or two limited areas, if there are extenuating circumstances, or for any other reason that the Committee finds compelling. The supplementary examination can be written or oral, at the discretion of the Examining Committee. It may cover the same material as the original examination or it may be limited to certain subject areas. The student may be asked to write a review on a specified subject or to revise the thesis proposal. The Chair of the QE is responsible for conducting the supplementary examination. The exact nature of the supplementary examination, the procedures to be followed, and the methods of evaluation must be communicated, in writing, to the student as well as to all committee members, on the Committee Report form. The supplementary examination must be completed within 3 months of the original QE.


Unsatisfactory Performance

In the event of a failure (unsatisfactory performance) the student is permitted to repeat the examination. The student must be informed in writing that he/she has failed and must be informed to the exact nature of the repeat exam. The repeat examination is a written exam and a new proposal may also be required. Under no circumstances will an oral or take-home exam be permitted. It is written at a time, date, and place mutually convenient to the student and the Chair of the GTC (not the QE Chair), and must take place no later than 4 weeks after the date of the original exam. In advance of the exam, each committee member, except the QE Chair, submits one or more questions to the Chair of the GTC. These questions focus on the weaknesses of the student's previous performance as described in the Committee's Report. To ensure fairness to the student, another member replaces the additional member with expertise in the student's field of study, to be selected by the GTC Chair. The student is allowed 4 hours to answer the questions. After the repeat examination, each committee member evaluates the student's responses and provides written comments on the student's performance. No later than two weeks after the repeat exam, the GTC Chair calls a meeting of all committee members where the Chair will derive a consensus Pass or Fail based on these comments. In the event of a second failure, the student will be asked to withdraw from the Ph.D. program.

For some students, it may be appropriate the QE serve in place of a meeting of the Supervisory Committee (SC). The Supervisory and the SC members should decide, at the end of the examination, whether the QE might usefully serve as a meeting of the SC. If the student and the SC members agree, then the report form for the SC meeting should be completed (along with the QE report) and both forms submitted the Graduate Program Coordinator.


Qualifying Examination Form

The current version can be found at: