Ph.D. Comprehensives Policy

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Ph.D. Comprehensives Policy


The majority of doctoral programs at McGill require candidates to pass a comprehensive examination or set of examinations or equivalent, such as qualifying examinations, preliminary examinations, candidacy paper, comprehensive evaluation, thesis proposal, etc. The Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Programs, Courses and University Regulations publication includes the following statement:

A comprehensive examination or its equivalent is usually held near the end of Ph.D. 2. The results of this examination determine whether or not students will be permitted to continue in their programs. The methods adopted for examination and evaluation and the areas to be examined are specified by departmental regulations and approved by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. It is the responsibility of students to inform themselves of these details at the commencement of their programs.

It is recognized that expectations for the Ph.D. comprehensive will vary according to the needs of the discipline. It is important to make it clear to doctoral candidates what the expectations and procedures are for their Ph.D. comprehensive, and to maintain consistency within a given program.

General Policy

  1. At the beginning of the relevant academic year, units must provide doctoral students with a written description of the Ph.D. comprehensive, covering the following issues: objectives and content, format, timing, assessment, grading and reporting, failures. (See below for details.)
  2. All units that have a Ph.D. comprehensive must adopt an administrative course number for it, usually XXXX 701. One of the following forms of grading must be adopted and used consistently within the program: Pass/Fail or letter grades. (“Mixed” modes of grading are not permitted, i.e., some students within a program reported on a Pass/Fail basis and others by means of letter grades.)

Specific Issues

Objectives and Content

Units must specify the objectives of the Ph.D. comprehensive. Objectives may include assessing any of the following (or a combination), with a view to determining whether the student demonstrates the necessary research skills and academic achievements to be permitted to continue in the Ph.D. program. (This list is not intended to be exhaustive.)
  • knowledge of the discipline (from the point of view of breadth)
  • understanding of the proposed field of research
  • ability to conduct independent and original research
  • a thesis proposal
  • professional skills
  • ability to present and defend material orally

The content of the comprehensive must be consistent with the objectives and should be appropriately circumscribed. Students must be given an indication of the range of material that may be covered in the examination and suggestions as to how to cover this material (e.g., via reading lists, courses, etc.).


The format of the comprehensive must be clearly stated and must be consistent across students within a particular program. The following list gives some of the more common formats, which are often combined. (This list is not intended to be exhaustive.)
  • written examination of a specific duration
  • take-home examination
  • extended research paper(s)
  • written research proposal
  • oral exam (which may include or consist of a defense of a research paper or research proposal)

If the comprehensive consists of several parts, the relationship (if any) between them must be made clear.


Timing of the comprehensive must be specified, including the earliest and latest dates by which the comprehensive is to be completed. Students must be informed of the specific dates of the exam in sufficient time for them to prepare for it.

Given the importance of the Ph.D. comprehensive and the consequences of failure, the exam should be held reasonably early in the program, so that students do not spend several years preparing for it.

Prerequisites must be specified. For example, clarify whether all coursework must have been completed prior to the comprehensive and whether the comprehensive is the final step before thesis research and writing.

Assessment, Grading and Reporting

Evaluation parameters must be made clear, including information about who sets the exam questions and who evaluates the student. If performance is assessed by a committee, clarify how the committee is appointed and who sits on it. In the case of written examinations, clarify whether the grading is done by one or more people.

Where there is more than one component to the examination (e.g., an oral exam plus a written exam), it must be made clear how these components are factored into the final grade. For example, make it clear whether each component counts equally, whether the assessment is global, and whether failure on one part of the comprehensive examination (or on one question) results in an overall failure.


The assessment and reasons for the decision must be documented and provided to the student in sufficient detail to allow the student to understand the decision, including identifying strengths and weaknesses. (A number of units have developed short forms specifically for this purpose.) In the case of oral examinations, the student should also be given feedback on presentation, logical exposition, ability to answer questions, etc.

In the case of oral exams, units may wish to consider the following: ensure that there is a reasonably detailed written assessment of the student's performance; tape the oral examination; allow the student to select a faculty member to act as a neutral observer; have one faculty member serve as a neutral chair (equivalent to a Pro-Dean); have an “outside” committee member; have the oral examination open to other students and faculty members.


McGill University values academic integrity, which is fundamental to achieving our mission of the advancement of learning. Therefore, all students must understand the issues associated with academic integrity (see for more information).

Plagiarism in a Ph.D. comprehensive examination contravenes McGill University's academic goals and standards. Consequently, any student found guilty of plagiarism under the Code of Student conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see the Handbook on Students Rights and Responsibilities available at in a Ph.D. comprehensive examination may face very serious penalties, even expulsion from the University without the degree.


i. Repeats

In the event of a failure, units must allow, without prejudice, one repeat of the comprehensive (in whole or in part). The first time a student fails, the student must be informed in writing by the department that he/she has failed the comprehensive and must be informed of conditions relating to a repeat of the examination. In such circumstances, the grade of HH (continuing) will be used. In the event of a second failure, the student will receive a grade of F and must withdraw from the Ph.D. program.

Conditions for retaking the examination must be clearly stated, including the time frame, potential dates, nature of the re-examination, committee membership, etc.

Units have the right to specify further requirements in the event of failure (e.g., requiring students to take an additional course or courses in areas where they have shown weakness on the comprehensive).

ii. Plagiarism

If plagiarism is suspected, the case will be referred directly to the committee on Student Discipline in accordance with the code of Student Conduct, Part III (article 15) and Part V (A). If plagiarism is established by due University process, the student is considered to have failed the examination, with no possibility of repeat.

iii. Review and Reassessment

Rereads: in the case of written comprehensives, the Graduate Studies Reread Policy applies.

A student who fails an oral examination may request a review. In such cases, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies will conduct a review of the examination process and procedures.

Other Relevant Policies/Offices
  • Charter of Student Rights
  • Graduate Studies Reread Policy
  • Office for Students with Disabilities

Approved by Executive of Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) February 17, 1997 and Council of FGSR March 7, 1997

—2013-2014 (last updated Jul. 16, 2013) (disclaimer)
Programs, Courses and University Regulations—2013-2014 (last updated Jul. 16, 2013) (disclaimer)