Oral Comprehensive Exam


NOTE: The requirements for the Oral Comprehensive Exam have been updated and the changes will apply to those students who start their studies in Fall 2022.

For students enrolled PRIOR to Fall 2022, please see the Guidelines on Thesis Committees and Oral Comprehensive Exams.

Overview of the Oral Comprehensive Exam for Students Admitted to the Division of Experimental Medicine in Fall 2022 and onwards

  • Complete details are included in the file PDF icon ExMed Oral Comprehensive Exam – Detailed Information
  • Please see Appendices at the bottom of the page for more information. Appendix 3 includes responsibilities and timelines of Division, academic advisor (AA), supervisor, and student.
  • MSc students who wish to fast-track to PhD must plan well in advance, which includes notifying the Experimental Medicine Division well in advance, in order to ensure sufficient time to complete all requirements/documents for the oral comprehensive exam. See Appendix 3.

Overall Summary

The oral comprehensive exam has been designed to accomplish several goals:

  • to evaluate student’s knowledge beyond that of their research project
  • to evaluate the student through both written and oral components
  • to evaluate all students in Experimental Medicine similarly

The oral comprehensive exam is a mix of a critical evaluation of a research article in combination with questions related directly and more broadly to the research project of the student.

The oral comprehensive exam replaces the annual thesis committee meeting and is comprised of the same members, with an additional committee member from outside the Department of Medicine.

Students are evaluated on the written components, the oral components, as well as their ability to answer questions. The combination of these determines the outcome for the oral comprehensive exam.

The length of the oral comprehensive exam should be 2.5-3 hours.

Scheduling the Oral Comprehensive Exam

Students are responsible for scheduling their oral comprehensive exam. For PhD students, this exam is normally held in the fourth semester of the PhD. For MSc students who wish to fast-track, this exam should be held in semester 3 or 4 of their MSc degree but cannot be held after the completion of 4 semesters. The Division of Experimental Medicine contacts the student and supervisor 4 months prior to their assigned month, to schedule the meeting. Students are responsible to contact the committee members and book a room and to confirm date, time, & location with all committee members and ExMed.

Documents to be Completed by the Student (see timelines in Appendix 3)

  • Page 1 of the Graduate Student Research Progress Tracking Form
  • Research Article Critique (Details are in Appendix 1)
  • Research Project Summary. This summary should be written by the student, formatted as a manuscript, and include the following sections: Introduction (including a rationale and hypothesis), methods, results, and discussion. The student should include information on experimental challenges encountered. Following the discussion section, the student should include future directions of the project to demonstrate how their research accomplished to date can be integrated into a doctoral thesis. The project summary should be no longer than 8 single-spaced pages and should be written by the student with help from the supervisor. Figures are optional.

Letter provided by Supervisor: A confidential letter from the supervisor assessing the student’s performance should be sent to the committee members and the Experimental Medicine Division one week PRIOR to the oral comprehensive exam.

General Procedure of the Oral Comprehensive Exam

The oral comprehensive exam is comprised of 5 discrete sections:

  1. The supervisor(s) provides information to committee on student background, academic performance, and current performance in their research lab. The student is not present.
  2. Student presentation & critique of research article followed by questions. Duration: 60 minutes.
  3. Student presentation of their research project followed by two rounds of questions from committee members – both general knowledge and project related. Duration: approximately 90 minutes.
  4. A follow-up private meeting in which both the student and supervisor(s) leave the room. Committee members provide AA with their marks using the grids in Appendix 2. AA compiles marks and discusses with committee members, to arrive at a consensus for whether the student receives a Pass, a Fail, or a Conditional Pass. AA provides comments explaining overall ratings of committee using Form 2 of the GPS research tracking form.
  5. The student and supervisor(s) are invited back in, and the AA explains the outcome of the meeting.

Student Presentations and Question Periods

The first presentation (approximately 25 minutes) is an oral critique of the research article. The student should summarize - in point form - the rationale of the study and present the most important data from the paper as well as the conclusions of the authors. The student should present a plan for follow up experiments/studies that can be done to move the project forward and to address questions that arise from data presented in the paper. The student should be prepared to explain the methodology used as well as to discuss the statistical analyses and whether it is appropriate or not. This is followed by a question period and discussion of the paper, to ensure that the student understands the findings and can critically evaluate the data and conclusions of the authors.

The second presentation (approximately 25 minutes) is a summary of the PhD project of the student. This should include an introduction placing the PhD proposal in the context of field as well as methods, results and conclusions. The student is expected to present a clear hypothesis and objectives. This is followed by two rounds of questions. In the first round, committee members ask questions that are related to the project and in the second round, committee members ask general knowledge questions.

Student Evaluation (see Appendix 2)

Committee members scoring the student include the two regular members as well as the external member, but not the supervisor/co-supervisor or AA. Potential outcomes include:

PASS: The student meets or exceeds expectations in each area from the three voting committee members. If there is a discrepancy in scoring that affects the outcome, the AA discusses with committee members in order to reach a consensus.

CONDITIONAL PASS: (This is only for students admitted as PhD students.) The student meets or exceeds expectations in most areas but fails to do so in a minority of others. In this case, only the failed components - clearly defined in the minutes of the oral comprehensive exam - need to be repeated, no earlier than four and no later than six months. If student fails a 2nd attempt, they receive an F and will be asked to withdraw from the program. NOTE: MSc students must PASS the oral comprehensive exam in order to formally fast-track to the PhD. If they do not meet or exceed expectations in each area, they are not eligible to receive a CONDITIONAL PASS. Instead, they complete their MSc degree.

FAIL: The student fails to meet expectations in the majority of areas. PhD students have the option to repeat the oral comprehensive exam no earlier than four and no later than six months. If the student fails a 2nd attempt, they receive an F on their transcript and will be asked to withdraw from the program.


PDF icon Appendix 1: Journal Article Critique

PDF icon Appendix 2: Student Evaluation

PDF icon Appendix 3: Oral Comprehensive Exam Timeline

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