Guidelines for the Comprehensive Examination in the PhD Program in Quantitative Life Sciences at McGill University
- General objectives
- Timelines for the process of preparing for and taking the exam
- Thesis advisory committee [TAC] selection
- Developing a background reading list
- Forming an examination committee and selecting a date for the exam
- Written thesis proposal
- Procedures during the exam including the oral questioning
- What happens after the exam
1. General Objectives:
The comprehensive examination at McGill is designed to assess whether a student is likely to be able to complete a doctoral degree to the standards of the University. In Quantitative Life Sciences, this goal is assessed through an examination process that looks at the student’s grasp of the background theory, relevant biology, and techniques related to the topic of their proposed thesis, and also evaluates the thesis proposal for potential to lead to a defensible thesis with novel research elements. This examination provides an opportunity for the student to learn how to write a proposal, think carefully about feasibility of their ideas, obtain feedback on the proposal, as well as having an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in the proposed thesis domain.
Therefore, the examination contains 4 elements and includes both breadth and depth components. There is a written thesis proposal, an oral presentation of this protocol, and oral examination on both the specific research in the protocol (depth) and the relevant domain knowledge that underlies the proposed thesis (breadth).
- The breadth of knowledge should be interpreted as applying to the broad domain to which the proposed thesis topic belongs, for example epigenetics mechanisms or fMRI imaging in neuroscience.
- Depth of knowledge should be sufficient to demonstrate understanding or current knowledge boundaries for the thesis topic.
Importantly, the examination shall cover in roughly equal parts the quantitative (methodological) and life science aspects of the work. Students are thus expected to not only demonstrate proficiency in the technical aspects of their research area, but also of the biological phenomena that relate to and motivate their work.
2. Timelines for the process of preparing for and taking the exam
The timelines and milestones provided below are given for students entering the program in September of an academic year. For students who start in January, these dates should be altered by 4 months. Explanations are provided in more detail for each element, in later sections of this document.
Important: It is the student’s responsibility to ensure that every step is completed by the appropriate deadlines. Failure to do so may result in failing the comprehensive exam. If desired, students can ask their thesis advisory committee or the QLS GPD for more information as needed.
By September 30 of year 2
Selection of thesis advisory committee [TAC] and first thesis advisory committee meeting
By December 1st of year 2
Development of reading list, and approval of reading list by GPD
By July 30 of year 2
Supervisor(s) & student propose four possible examiners, two for each of the life sciences and quantitative aspects of the thesis.
By August 31 of year 2
Selection of potential examiners and approval by GPD.
By September 31 of year 3
Student schedules the examination, ensuring that all members (except GPD representative) of the examination committee are available, and communicates date/time to GPC.
At least 2 weeks before the examination
Student submits their report and reading list to GPC, who distributes it to members of examination committee and selected GPD representative.
By December 31st of year 3
Examination to take place
3. Thesis advisory committee selection
All McGill students must have a TAC; this is not specifically related to the comprehensive exam. Committees should be selected and approved by the GPD or Associate GPD by the end of September of the 2nd year of each student’s program. The role of the approval by the GPD or Associate GPD is to ensure that the TAC contains a good balance of quantitative and life sciences research knowledge.
4. Developing a background reading list
The student, together with their TAC, should develop/assemble a list of key knowledge that the student should understand well at the time of the comprehensive exam. Since thesis domains are very heterogeneous, and since students come into QLS from different backgrounds, the primary responsibility of defining what knowledge is important rests with the TAC.
QLS suggests that an appropriate reading list be prepared containing background references from the relevant life sciences and quantitative domains involved. The list will be provided to examiners prior to the comprehensive exam, so that the examiners have an idea of the knowledge that they can expect from the student, and this may focus some of their questions. However, the reading list should be considered to be a starting point. The student is responsible for acquiring a solid understanding of the material covered in the reading list, including, as necessary, fundamental notions not introduced in the reading list but necessary to understand the material it contains.
QLS has proposed a rough guideline for the reading list of 20 key papers in a field. However, this should not be taken literally. For some students, key knowledge may be in a few textbooks, for other it may be necessary to acquire knowledge from dozens of papers. The approved and agreed-on material should not be substantially modified between the approval of the reading list and the examination, unless the student explicitly approves the change.
5. Forming an examination committee and selecting a date
An examination committee consists of the TAC, two external examiners (one from a life sciences domain and one from a quantitative domain), and a Chair. The Chair is the GPD of QLS, or a representative appointed by the GPD.
We ask that the supervisor(s) & student propose four possible examiners, including two for each of the life sciences and quantitative aspects of the thesis. Proposing two individuals may facilitate organization of the date for the exam. These examiners should not have collaborated with the supervisor(s) or student in the last 5 years. The GPD/Associate GPD will approve the selection to ensure the balance of quantitative and life sciences expertise. We ask that the examiner names be proposed by the end of July in the student’s year 2.
Once approval is obtained from QLS, one examiner from each domain should be contacted by the student or by the supervisor(s) to ask whether they agree to serve on the comprehensive exam committee, and to organize a date for the exam where the TAC and examiners are all available. The examination should be held before the end of December in academic year 3. Note that the exams can be held much earlier than this if the student is ready. When a date and time have been selected, the student must inform the QLS Coordinator who will find a room, and organize a Chair for the examination.
6. Written thesis proposal
During year 2 of the PhD program, the student and supervisor(s) should work towards developing the thesis objectives, with the advising of the TAC,. The written thesis proposal should describe these objectives and the work done to date toward them, as described below.
In contrast to the reading list that delineates required background knowledge, the written thesis proposal should describe the actual research to be undertaken by the student. This proposal should make it clear that novel findings will arise that are of sufficient caliber for a McGill thesis.
The proposal should be 15-20 pages long (single spaced, 12pt font, including figures and references). Some Appendices can be attached but examiners are not required to look at this material. It should contain the following elements:
- [2-5 pages] A short introduction or background.
- [1 page] A general hypothesis or primary research question, as well as several testable specific objectives.
- [3-6 pages] A brief review of relevant literature, explaining how the proposed research differs from and adds to what has been previously known.
- [6-10 pages] For each objective:
- Methods that will be used to achieve each specific objective, including how success or achievement can be measured and compared to previous work.
- Preliminary results and initial findings supporting the proposed project.
- [1-2 pages] A discussion of new findings and knowledge to be gained, and how this research will advance science and/or health.
- [1 page] A work plan including timelines, potential limiting factors, contingency plans and alternatives. Note that a QLS thesis can be either a traditional thesis format or a thesis-by-manuscript format. Format choice should be discussed with the supervisor(s).
- [1-2 pages] References
Note: Page count suggestions given above do not need to be strictly followed.
The proposal should be sent to the GPC two weeks prior to the date of the comprehensive exam, together with the reading list. The GPC will send both documents to the examiner and to the Chair for review prior to the exam. If the report is not submitted two weeks prior to the exam, the exam will not be allowed to proceed.
7. Procedures during the exam including the oral questioning
- All examination committee members should try their best to be present in person. Occasionally, with permission from the GPD, it may be acceptable to have one examiner attend via teleconference or videoconference.
- The exam is closed – i.e. only the student and examination committee can attend.
- The Chair introduces everyone, explains that the student will give a 20-minute presentation followed by 2 rounds of questioning from the 4 examiners. The Chair will establish the order of questioning. The two external examiners normally go first, followed by members of the TAC who are not supervisors.
- The student will give their 20-minute presentation, which should follow a similar structure as the thesis proposal document.
- Each examiner will have approximately 10 minutes for questioning in each round. The first round of questions should focus on the general knowledge – i.e. derived from the reading list, and background knowledge required to do the thesis research. The second round of questions should focus on the feasibility of the thesis proposal and the plans for the work.
- After two rounds of questioning, the student will be asked to leave the room and the examination committee will discuss results. For components need to be evaluated:
- Written proposal
- Oral presentation
- Questioning on background knowledge
- Questioning on thesis proposal and feasibility/potential
The voting members of the examination committee will secretly vote Pass or Fail for each component. Supervisors do not vote, but take part in the discussion that precedes the vote. If needed, the GPD representative casts a vote to break the tie.
To pass their exam, a student needs to receive a Pass on all four components.
8. What happens afterwards
After the committee The Chair will inform the student of the result, record the result on the comprehensive examination form, and obtain signatures from all members of the examination committee.
If all elements are “Pass” then the comprehensive exam element of the QLS PhD is complete. In this situation, the examination can be also considered to count as a TAC meeting, if desired. If the examination is to be considered as the annual TAC meeting, the annual progress form should also be filled out and signed, and the next TAC meeting should be held within one year.
A Fail may result from Failing any element.
- If a student passes the comprehensive knowledge part of the exam, submits a clearly written proposal and does a good oral presentation, but the examination committee feels the proposal is unlikely to result in new research appropriate for a doctoral degree at McGill, the student may have to develop a new proposal. This requires an assessment of the new proposal (including a written proposal and also oral questioning of the proposal), but does not require a new oral examination of background knowledge. The student will have one year to develop and present a new proposal.
- If a student passes the comprehensive knowledge part of the exam, but presents an unclear proposal such that the examination committee has difficulty assessing the potential, the examination committee may ask for a clarified and improved written proposal, within three months.
- If the student demonstrates poor knowledge of background knowledge and poor understanding of the research required for the thesis proposal, the comprehensive examination will need to be completely retaken within 6 months.
For any of the above fail situations, failing a second time implies that the student must withdraw from McGill.