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Guidelines for Chairs of Comprehensive Examinations

The chair represents the Graduate Program of Neuroscience on the examining committee, and serves the functions of monitoring and reporting.

At the preliminary meeting: The chair's primary responsibility is to insure that the Examining Committee and the student mutually agree upon the guidelines, scope and level of understanding required to complete the written and oral components of the examination satisfactorily. Among the issues which should be clarified at this point is whether or not the examination will begin with a brief oral presentation by the student; although this may increase the duration of the examination, many students find that it provides an excellent mechanism for easing their considerable performance anxiety. The due date for the research proposal will be set at this meeting and will be no later than three months following the preliminary examination meeting. The student should be reminded that as with MRC grants, if they fail to meet the deadline for submission of the research proposal, the comprehensive examination will be automatically postponed for six months. The date of the oral component of the comprehensive examination will also be determined at the preliminary meeting, and in all cases will be within 14 days of the student submitting a copy of the completed grant application to each member of the Examining Committee

At the comprehensive exam: The chair has the prerogative of asking questions, but is primarily responsible for ensuring that the examination is fair. The chair calls the meeting to order, assures that each member of the committee has had sufficient opportunity to read the proposal (normally two weeks), and reminds all members of the committee of the scope and purpose of the examination:

"In the oral examination the student may be questioned on any aspect of the grant application and will be asked to elaborate upon or defend issues arising from the literature review and the research plan contained in the application. The range of questioning may include topics that are not discussed directly in the application but that are deemed relevant by individual members of the Examining Committee. The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to have the student demonstrate to the Examining Committee that he/she has a solid understanding of those areas of neuroscience relevant to the research proposal, can expand upon and defend those ideas verbally, and has attained sufficient intellectual understanding of the subject matter to proceed with primary research likely to lead to submission of a competent Ph.D. thesis.

The chair then assigns an order to the questioning, allowing each member of the examining committee ~20 minutes to question the student. After this initial round of questioning, the chair may ask questions [optional], and then each member of the committee is asked whether they have any further questions for the student. Such questioning continues until all members of the committee have satisfactorily arrived at a conclusion regarding the suitability of the candidate for progressing to candidacy for the Ph.D. Throughout, the chair should insure that questioning is fair and relevant, and that the student has adequate opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the field. At the conclusion of the exam, the student (and supervisor, if present) is then excused from the room, and the committee discusses the performance of the candidate. The examination is pass/fail: each examiner (including the chair) is asked to rate the student's performance, and the grade is based upon a majority vote."

If all members of the committee rate the student's performance as passing, the student is called back to the room and informed of the committee's decision. At this time, the student should also be given constructive feedback on specific areas of strength and weaknesses. If a minority of members of the examining committee rate the student's performance as failing, the student should be informed that they have attained a conditional pass, and that further examination on a subset of the topics covered is required - since these situations are rare, the committee is given considerable latitude in designing such remedial work as it sees fit. If the student has failed the first sitting of the comprehensive examination, they must be re-examined within six months time. If the student fails the second sitting of the comprehensive examination, they must withdraw from the program immediately.

Although the thesis proposal is used as a vehicle for the comprehensive examination, passing the exam does not necessarily indicate acceptance of the theis proposal. The key criterion to be applied is whether the student has a viable and well-considered research program, likely to lead to generation of high quality Ph.D. thesis [the committee should not necessarily expect that the research proposal as is would be funded by MRC]. If the research program is sufficiently well designed, the research proposal is accepted and the chair should so indicate in their letter to the GPN office. If it is not sufficient, then the examining committee may suggest re-evaluation of the thesis proposal by the supervisory committee. The student is admitted to candidacy following obtaining a passing grade in the comprehensive examination and acceptance of the thesis proposal by either the examining or supervisory committees.

The chair should send a brief memo to the Graduate Program in Neuroscience indicating the outcome of the comprehensive examination.



Learn more:

Handbook of
Graduate Supervision








Also see:





(Living in Vancouver)

Lifestyle/ Housing


Guide for Chairs of


(PhD thesis approval)

also to
download (rtf)



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