Ph.D. Comprehensives Policy

Ph.D. Comprehensives Policy


The majority of doctoral programs at McGill require candidates to pass a comprehensive examination or set of examinations or equivalent, such as qualifying examinations, preliminary examinations, candidacy papers, comprehensive evaluations, thesis proposals, etc. The results of this examination determine whether or not students will be permitted to continue in their programs. The methods adopted for examination and evaluation and the areas to be examined are specified by departmental regulations and approved by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. It is the responsibility of students to inform themselves of these details.

Objectives and Content

The purpose of comprehensive examinations is to determine whether the student demonstrates the necessary research skills and academic achievements to continue in the Ph.D. program. Objectives may include assessing one or more of the following:

  • knowledge of the discipline
  • understanding of the proposed field of research
  • ability to conduct independent and original research
  • ability to present and defend material orally
  • professional skills

The content of the comprehensive must be consistent with the stated objectives and should be appropriately circumscribed. Students must be given an indication of the range of material that may be covered in the examination and suggestions as to how to cover this material (e.g., via reading lists, courses, etc.).


Units must provide doctoral students with a written description of the Ph.D. comprehensive process, detailing objectives and content, format, timing, assessment, grading and reporting, failures (and procedures for repeats).

The format of the comprehensive must be consistent for all students within a given program. The following list gives some of the more common formats, which are often combined:

  • written examination
  • take-home examination
  • extended research paper(s)
  • written research proposal
  • oral examination (which may include or consist of a defence of a research paper or research proposal)


Units must clearly specify when the comprehensive must be taken and how this fits into the program milestones, e.g. whether all coursework must have been completed prior to undertaking the comprehensive and/or whether the comprehensive is the final step before thesis research and writing.

Scheduling of the comprehensive must be specified by the unit, including the earliest and latest dates by which it is to be completed. Students must be informed of the specific dates of the exam with sufficient time to prepare for it, at least 12 months in advance.


Evaluation parameters must be made clear, including information about who sets the exam questions and who evaluates the student. If performance is assessed by a committee, it must be made clear how the committee is appointed and who sits on it, and how the evaluation is to be carried out (consensus or vote).

Where there is more than one component to the examination (e.g., an oral exam plus a written exam), it must be made clear how these components are factored into the final grade. For example, it must be clearly specified whether each component counts equally, whether the assessment is global, and whether failure of one part of the comprehensive examination (or of one question) results in an overall failure.

All Ph.D. comprehensives must be represented by an administrative course number, usually XXXX 701. Grading of this course can be Pass/Fail or letter grades can be assigned: the same form of grading must be applied to all students in a program. A passing grade is required for students to continue in the program.


The assessment and reasons for the decision, including identifying specific strengths and weaknesses, must be documented and provided to the student in sufficient detail to allow the student to understand the decision.

In the case of oral examinations, the student should also be given feedback on presentation, logical exposition, ability to answer questions, etc. To help ensure that assessments can be put in context, units may choose to make a record of the examination (including audio or video recording) and/or to have a neutral observer, chair, or outside committee member, or to make the oral open to members of the academic unit.


In the event that the student is judged to have failed the comprehensive, units must allow, without prejudice, one repeat of the comprehensive (in whole or in part). After the first failure, a grade of HH (which designates “continuing”) will be recorded on the student’s transcript. The student must be informed in writing by the department that he/she has failed the comprehensive and must be informed of conditions relating to a repeat of the examination, including the nature of the re-examination and committee membership, as well as the deadline for retaking the exam. Units have the right to specify further requirements in the event of failure, e.g., requiring students to take an additional course or courses in areas where they have shown weakness on the comprehensive.

If the student does not repeat the exam by the deadline specified by the unit, the HH will be converted into F and the student will be withdrawn from the university. In the event that the repeat comprehensive is judged to have failed, the student will receive a grade of F and will be withdrawn from the university.

Approved by Executive of Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) February 17, 1997 and Council of FGSR March 7, 1997; Revised by GPS July 9, 2014 and June 29, 2015

Programs, Courses and University Regulations—2015-2016 (last updated Jul. 24, 2015) (disclaimer)
Programs, Courses and University Regulations—2015-2016 (last updated Jul. 24, 2015) (disclaimer)