PhD Comprehensive Exam


Normally, the examination will be held after the completion of all required course work. The comprehensive examination is in addition to any course examinations and is intended to test the student’s understanding of the chosen field of study as a whole and the student’s preparation for the thesis research to follow. A PhD student must satisfy all the course work requirements and pass the comprehensive examination before being admitted to PhD candidacy. MASc students who are preparing to transfer to the PhD program may have their comprehensive exam prior to completing their courses. More details can be found here: SBME Transfer from MASc to PhD.

It is recommended that the Comprehensive Examination be held within 18-24 months of a student’s program start date. If the comprehensive exam has not been held within 24 months after the program start date, the student will prepare a status report for the supervisory committee and the School, to be reviewed by a (Graduate Advisor) with a detailed plan for how to prepare for the examination and why the 24 month timeline has not been met. Based on the report, the supervisory committee and the graduate advisor will determine further deadlines for the student.

Prior to the comprehensive exam

1. Within 18-24 months of registering, a PhD candidate must take the PhD comprehensive Examination.

2. The purpose of the examination is to ascertain whether the proposed topic is suitable for a PhD thesis and whether the candidate is capable of carrying out the work required to successfully complete the PhD degree. Suitability relates largely to the possibility of making original and significant contributions. Capability relates largely to knowledge and understanding of material in the subject area of the proposal as well as areas related to it that affect the proposed research. Additionally, the proposal must meet the SBME guidelines for a project that is sufficiently grounded in biomedical engineering.

3. The examination consists of the presentation of the proposal for the thesis work, followed by questions from the examining committee. The questions are to address both the specific research topic and topics related to the general subject area of the proposal.

4. The Supervisory Committee for a PhD student should be set up in advance of the Comprehensive Exam. This is normally done within 8 months of a student’s start date in the program. Non-G + PS members on the Committee must be approved by G + PS, requiring additional time for review and processing. It is important to budget time for this step well in advance of a Comprehensive Exam. More information about the Committee is here.

Scheduling the comprehensive exam

To schedule the examination (a 2.5 hour period), the candidate must:

  • A minimum of 3 weeks in advance, inform SBME Student Services ( that you are preparing for the exam, by filling in the “Comprehensive Exam Request Form”. This notice allows SBME Student Services to review course requirements, prepare forms, and review Committee details. Without 3 weeks notice, and without the required information and forms, Student Services cannot guarantee a timely response.
  • Students must submit a completed and updated program checklist so Student Services can review course requirements.
  • Students must book an appropriate room for the examination.

The SBME office will confirm that the candidate has met program requirements and can sit the comprehensive exam. They will email documents required for the exam (Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy and Departmental Exam Form) to the chairperson.

Preparation of the written proposal

At least one week before the examination, the candidate must give a copy of the proposal to each member of the examining committee.

The written proposal should have 3 chapters, as outlined below. It should not exceed 10 pages, plus 2 pages for figures, 1 page for the list of references, and 1 page for the summary. Formatting: 12-point font, single spaced with approximately 52 lines per page, 6.5-inch line length).

1. Introduction and Overview: In which the background to, and motivation for, the proposed topic is succinctly discussed. This work must be clearly and properly referenced.

2. Accomplished: In which the original work that the candidate has done on advancing the state-of-knowledge on the proposed topic is described. What makes the research novel? What has the candidate done thus far? The candidate is expected to show evidence, commensurate with the period since registering in the PhD program, and demonstrates the viability of the thesis proposal.

3. Work Planned: In which the procedures to be implemented in carrying out the remaining and probably major part of the work are outlined. A tentative time schedule for completion is also to be included in this chapter.

The Examining Committee

The examining committee is composed of the candidate’s supervisory committee (supervisor plus three other members), of which one committee member (not the supervisor) is designated as the chairperson.

The chairperson ensures that the committee uses good judgement about questions on related topics. As an examiner, they will participate in the questioning and will also clear up misunderstandings by the other members of the committee, to expose possible important weaknesses.

During the Examination

The first 25 minutes of the examination are devoted to the presentation of the proposal. Under no circumstances will the presentation be allowed to exceed 30 minutes. The remainder is devoted to committee questions and deliberation. The committee should ask both specific questions about the proposal as well as general questions about the research area.

The supervisor may attend the proposal presentation and question period. During deliberation, the committee may ask the supervisor to answer some questions or give feedback, but they will be asked to leave the room while the committee discusses the outcome of the examination.

After the Examination

The examining committee may make one of the following recommendations.

A. The candidate continue in the PhD program.

B. The candidate be given a conditional pass.

C. The candidate be re-examined within 3 months’ time.

D. The candidate’s case be reviewed by an arbitration committee.

E. The candidate be asked to withdraw from the PhD program but permitted to complete requirements for the MASc degree.

F. The candidate be withdrawn from the University.

All recommendations of the examining committee must be submitted in writing to the School office and be signed by all members of the committee.

• If the vote of the examining committee is unanimous, the recommendation stands.

• In the event of recommendation B, the pass is subject to satisfactory correction of specified deficiencies of a minor nature. Assessment of these corrections is to be the sole subject of a meeting of the committee and the candidate. The outcome of this assessment cannot be again category B.

• In the event of recommendation C, the re-examination is a completely new examination. The outcome of this examination cannot be again category C.

• In the event of recommendation E, the student may need courses to fulfill MASc course requirements, will need to write a thesis, and will then be examined on their thesis in order to graduate.

• If the vote of the examining committee is not unanimous, the case will be referred to the program office.

After the examination, the committee must relay the outcome to the department by submitting the signed “Comprehensive Examination Form” with the outcome/recommendation included. Should the committee decide that the candidate continue on to the PhD program, they must also submit the “Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy Form”.

The forms should be emailed to the program staff at