Comprehensive exams

Prepare for the comps by reviewing past exams and practicing

Students in a PhD program will need to pass a comprehensive exam, or “comps” milestone to become a PhD candidate. The comprehensive examination (or its equivalents, such as qualifying examination, candidacy paper, thesis proposal, etc.) is program-specific in terms of the time, format, and evaluation.


Supervisors can help students to prepare by setting up a clear timeline, sharing examples of past exam questions or formats, and organizing a practice or a dry-run. Students working on similar topics may help each other by sharing knowledge (e.g., literature, theories) and providing feedback. Recommended study strategies and past exams should also be outlined by your program in an online preparation document as recommended by GPS Comprehensives Guidelines.

Review the PhD Comprehensives Policy as well as your department’s guidelines

Students and supervisors should take time to review the PhD Comprehensives Policy as well as guidelines posted on the GPS website and their department’s website. Be sure to take note of the following when preparing:

  • Format (written examination, written proposal, oral examination, etc.)
  • Timing (when the milestone has to be completed: no later than end of PhD3)
  • Evaluation (who evaluates, what is the evaluation scheme, etc.)
  • Feedback (deadline for committee to provide feedback, etc.)
  • Protocol if a student is judged to have failed the comprehensive (e.g., retake policy)

For students: Review past exams, read widely, and anticipate likely questions


For supervisors: Provide structure, support, and opportunities for feedback ahead of the evaluation

Establish clear timelines to help structure the comps process

Setting up a clear timeline that includes all steps required to successfully complete the comps helps both students and supervisors better organize their time. Such timelines could include deadlines for completing reading lists, preparing paper outlines, or when practice oral presentations should be held.

Each department should have a comps guideline document that outlines effective preparation and test-taking strategies and refers students to samples of prior exams (if relevant). This document should also clearly describe critical exam protocols (e.g., committee composition, review times), any accommodations that might be available (e.g., extensions for English as second language students), as well as recourse options in case of failure (e.g., retaking within 4-6 months).

Set up opportunities to practice and receive feedback ahead of oral examinations

If the comprehensives have an oral presentation or defence component, supervisors may also organize practice sessions and invite fellow students to attend and provide feedback. Practice sessions provide students an opportunity to receive feedback and build confidence, especially if they have not participated in an oral exam before. It should not be assumed that a student will provide a satisfactory presentation based solely on the student’s written component; allowing the student to practice the talk is critical to successfully completing the oral component.

Preparing for comprehensives can be an isolating experience for students

Students who have completed the coursework stage of a doctoral program are commonly found to experience isolation and stress when completing comprehensive exams due to their often ill-structured and high-stakes nature (Sverdlik & Hall, 2020).


How can students reduce isolation during comps?

  • Are there other students in your program or working with your supervisor who are also preparing for comps? Consider forming a group that meets regularly to study, write, or practice comps components.
  • Connect with peers through the Wellness Hub, myPath’s Peer Pathways Program, or PGSS to find others who understand what you’re going through.
  • If your comps has a written component, like a paper or a proposal, try joining a Writing Commons session through Graphos.

How can supervisors support students during comps?

Supervisors and students should discuss how the comprehensive exam can support the student’s academic and professional goals and help students work towards those goals by considering the following issues:

  • How does the comprehensive exam align with the student’s proposed dissertation research and long-term professional goals?
  • Will there be opportunities to use the knowledge or skills the student develops through the comps process to publish, present, or share research? If so, how?
  • What skills or competencies does the student need to complete their doctoral research? How can the comprehensives stage help to develop those skills?


Sverdlik, A., & Hall, N. C. (2020). Not just a phase: Exploring the role of program stage on well-being and motivation in doctoral students. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 26(1), 97–124.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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