PhD Comprehensive Exam Procedures

Students will take a written and oral PhD Comprehensive Examination administered by the supervisory committee between June of year one and no later than December of year two. The examination requirements are slightly different for human geographers than they are for physical geographers reflecting the different needs of the discipline. The purpose of the exam is to ascertain whether a student has obtained an adequate knowledge base to continue in the PhD program; to ascertain any knowledge gaps and suggest remedial action; and to provide a student with the opportunity to get a broad perspective on their chosen field of study. The scope and three (human geography and planning) or four (physical geography) areas of concentration of the examination are to be jointly determined by the supervisory committee and the student. They are to be laid out in the draft comprehensive reading list and are to be confirmed in the first progress meeting. It is the responsibility of the supervisory committee to review and approve the draft reading list by a deadline established jointly by the supervisor and student. The scope of the exam cannot be changed after this stage.

The student should seek the advice of all committee members in preparing for the comprehensive examination. In consultation with the supervisor, the student should compile an appropriate draft reading list for each area of concentration by June of year one. The draft reading list should be circulated to all committee members for their comments and should form the basis of the examination. Normally, the total number of readings is approximately 100, but may be shorter or longer depending on the number of books included in the list. Students may wish to consider sub-dividing each area of concentration into 2-4 themes and should include a summary of what they see as the major issues covered in each area.

The supervisor is responsible for preparing the examination paper on the basis of input received from the committee members. The detailed instructions should be finalized in consultation with the student and committee members.

Exam Request Form

To confirm exam details, students must submit the Exam Request Form to notify the graduate office of the exam details prior starting the written exam. The graduate office will prepare the examination file that can be collected just before the exam and returned immediately following the exam.

To book a room/AV for the exam, please contact prior to submitting the exam request form. The exam should be booked for up to 2 hours.

Internal Timelines/Steps

Dates Tasks
Jan-April (Year 1) Assemble supervisory committee
Jan-June (Year 1) Identify areas of concentration and prepare draft reading list to be presented to the supervisory committee at the first progress review meeting.
2 months prior to the exam Establish a date for supervisory committee approval of the final reading list
2 weeks prior to the exam Student to schedule the exam and submit the Exam Request Form to inform the department of the exam details
Day of the written exam Supervisor to send the written exam instructions and questions to the student, with cc to the department
Variable (1-5 days, depending on exam format) The student will submit their written exam to their supervisory committee, with cc to the department.
Within 2 weeks of the written exam The oral exam must take place. This should be booked for 2 hours.
Within 1-3 months after the exam Any conditions set by the committee for a conditional pass must be satisfied
Within 6 months after the exam If the exam was not passed, the exam must be repeated

Exam Format

For human geographers, the exam will cover three areas of concentration and will have three questions in each area. For physical geographers, the exam will have four areas of concentration with two questions in each area. In both cases, the student must answer one question from each area of concentration. The questions will be based on the reading list and may not extend into material not covered by the reading list. The PhD examination is comprised of a written section and an oral section.

One-Day Examination: The student writes the exam over eight hours in a closed room on campus. The examination is open book and internet access is not permitted. Citations should be included from the comprehensive exam reading list, where relevant. These can be cited in text, i.e. (Harvey, 2008). The expected length of each of the three answers for human geographers and planners is 2000-2500 words and the expected length of each of the four answers for physical geographers is 1500-2000 words.

(Physical Geography only) Two-Day Examination: The student writes the examination over two periods, amounting to eight hours in total, at least one day apart. Student receives questions for two areas on day 1, and two areas on day 2. All other conditions for the exam are the same as the one-day examination.

Five-Day Examination: The student writes the exam over a five day period (including weekend days if the exam period includes a weekend) either on or off-campus. The examination is due at the same time of day it is collected by the student (e.g. an exam that starts at 9am on a Thursday will be due at 9am on the following Tuesday). It is expected that students will cite their work, citations will be drawn exclusively or primarily from the reading list. There is no need to attach a list of references for books or articles included in the examination reading list. The few, if any, additional references to works cited that are not on the reading list can be attached to the end of each answer. Responses will be more in-depth than the one day exam. The expected length of each response is 3500-4500 words for human geographers and planners and 2500-3500 words for physical geographers (not including the list of references/bibliography).

Exam Results

At the time of the oral examination, the committee should base its evaluation of the student on the following criteria:

  • The quality of the written responses: mastery, coverage, and communicative clarity for all questions on the examination;
  • The quality of the oral defense of written responses and to questions not answered in writing: in terms of capturing the essence of the questions posed; ability to address the concerns raised and to deliver reasoned answers to legitimate criticisms;
  • Oral responses to any questions related to the scope of the exam.

The supervisor should ensure that each committee member is satisfied with the answers to questions that he or she submitted for the examination. The outcome of the comprehensive exam is one of the following:

  • Pass
  • Conditional Pass. Student must satisfy conditions specified by the exam committee within one month, subject to final approval of the committee or a subset of the committee, which must include the supervisor(s). Failure to satisfy conditions by this date shall result in a failure of the exam. Conditions typically imposed for a conditional pass can include re-writing one or more questions or clarifying all or part of an oral answer in writing.
  • Fail. If this is the first failure, the student can repeat the exam within six months. The department will recommend termination of a student’s graduate program if the student fails the repeat exam.

Exam Tips

In 2015, PhD students in the department produced a compilation of tips and information, Demystifying the Comps Process.