Qualifying Exam (QE)

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.

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.

Qualifying Exam Guidelines

Before the Exam

  1. At the Supervisory Committee (SC) meeting prior to scheduling the QE, the committee should indicate on their report that the candidate is ready to proceed to the QE.
  2. Supervisor and SC members should provide candidate with guidance on preparing for the QE.
  3. An external examiner (from outside the Department of Human Genetics) should be identified.
  4. Student registers for HGEN 701 on Minerva.
  5. Student/supervisor should schedule an exam date and time when all committee members (see below) are available. Note: minimally, a two and a half hour block should be scheduled.
  6. Once the date is set, a Chair will be assigned by the Department. Note that the student is responsible to contact and advise the Department of the exam date and time, one month prior to the secured date.
  7. The student is expected to submit a written description of their project to all QE committee members and the Chair, one week prior to the exam.

Composition of the Committee

  • Supervisor
  • Co-Supervisor (if applicable)
  • All other members of the Supervisory Committee (minimum two and at least one of those two MUST be a member of the Department of Human Genetics; as per SC guidelines on committee composition)
  • External Examiner (from outside the Department of Human Genetics and in addition to any current external member which may be on the student's SC)
  • Chair of the QE committee (assigned by the Department; usually a member of the Department of Human Genetics Graduate Training Committee)

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

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 (no more than 10 double-spaced pages) ONE WEEK 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 seven 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 CV and an unofficial transcript to all members of the committee so they can assess productivity and performance in course work.

The Examination

  1. Student will present a 20-minute overview of their project that includes an appropriate Introduction to justify their hypothesis, outline the scientific objectives of their research and which provides an update of their progress-to-date.
  2. Members of the QE Committee are reminded that this is an exam and not a supervisory committee meeting. The purpose is to test the limits of the student’s knowledge and understanding of their project, the scientific foundation of the project, and implications of their research. Initial round of questions should test general knowledge with a focus on the project and address suitability of hypothesis and objectives. Subsequent rounds of questions should explore more peripheral topics.
  3. Supervisor should refrain from answering questions. Too many answers from the supervisor will be viewed as a ‘negative’. In certain situations where the student does not understand the question being asked, it may be appropriate for the supervisor to provide guidance to the student.
  4. At the end of the oral examination, students will be asked to leave the room. 
  5. The Chair will request that each member EXCEPT the Chair, rate the student’s performance in each of the three categories: written report, oral presentation, oral examination. The evaluation will be based according to the rating criteria provided below (excellent, very good, satisfactory, unsatisfactory). Note: Initial rating will be anonymous. The Chair will read the votes. The committee will discuss the rankings and then come to a decision. If necessary, the Chair will cast the deciding vote.
  6. The student will be called back into the room and the Chair will relay the overall ranking and provide constructive feedback to the student.
  7. The QE will be accepted as a substitution for an SC meeting ONLY when the student’s overall performance is rated as 'excellent'. In all other cases, students will be expected to have a SC within the next 6-9 months.


Criteria to Consider for Rating QE Performance

Written Report

  • well-written using appropriate scientific language to describe the project and progress
  • contains a succinct Introduction that provides appropriate background information
  • hypothesis is sound and testable
  • objectives are relevant with respect to the hypothesis
  • proposed experiments are clear and designed to address objectives
  • does not exceed 10 double-spaced page limit (plus figures and references)
  • appropriately referenced

Oral Presentation

  • organized
  • clear and concise overview of the project and progress
  • text and graphics are appropriate
  • student is prepared
  • meets the 20 minute time limit

Oral Examination

  • student is able to defend hypothesis and objectives
  • student is able to answer all questions directly pertaining to their project
  • student is able to answer general knowledge questions pertaining to their field of research
  • student displays critical scientific thinking
  • student can logically discuss ideas and reason through questions they do not immediately know the answer


Ratings for Qualifying Exam:


Student meets all criteria outlined under criteria for rating QE performance.

Very Good

The student meets most of the criteria outlined under criteria for rating QE performance in all parts of the QE. The committee should have ONLY MINOR concerns about the project, the student’s knowledge, or their ability to achieve the objectives.


The overall performance of the student was weak but the committee has NO MAJOR concerns about the ability of the student to complete the project and acquire the missing knowledge. These students MUST have a Supervisory Committee meeting within the 4-6 months following the QE to ensure that the student is making appropriate progress. 

If the written report does not have a logical hypothesis and/or the proposed objectives do not test the hypothesis but otherwise the student’s performance was good, they should be rated as Satisfactory. The proposal will need to be rewritten. It is expected that the student will submit a modified report to the committee within a 2-month period and that the committee will review the re-submission and render a decision within 2-weeks. This can be done electronically and will be coordinated by the QE Chair. 


The student cannot defend the hypothesis and objectives OR is unable to answer a majority of the questions related to their project or that address general knowledge/background that is critical for the project.

Note:  When a decision of ‘Unsatisfactory’ is reached, the student will be asked to repeat the oral examination and if necessary rewrite their proposal.

In instances where the student needs to repeat the oral examination component (with or without an updated written report), it is expected that the QE exam will be repeated 4-6 months following the first exam. The timeline should be established at the time of the first exam.  Ideally, all members of the first QE should attend the second QE oral examination.

In the event of a second failure, the student will be asked to withdraw from the Ph.D. program.


Qualifying Examination Form:

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