Planning PhD Program Requirements

PhD students work closely with a faculty supervisor, who is selected by the student in consultation with the Associate Chair, Graduate at the time of admission. The student and the faculty supervisor then select a committee of faculty members (the Supervisory Committee) with related research interests.

Registration and Residence

The PhD program is a full-time program. Students register annually until all degree requirements have been fulfilled. Full SGS registration policies can be found in the SGS Calendar General Regulations.

Students must complete two years in residence at the Department. Residence requires that students must be on campus full-time and consequently in such geographical proximity to be able to participate fully in all activities associated with the program. Residence provides students with an opportunity to become immersed in the intellectual environment of the University. Exceptions to the residence requirement must be approved by the Associate Chair.

Good Academic Standing and Satisfactory Academic Progress

Graduate students are required to remain in good standing in their programs and they are required to continually make satisfactory progress toward the completion of their degree requirements. This includes the requirement of minimum grade performance in course work, the successful passage of written and oral examinations among other degree requirements and the speed and timeliness of progression through degree requirements as assessed by the supervisory committee at the annual progress meeting.

Failure to maintain good academic standing or satisfactory progress may result in various sanctions, including ineligibility for fellowships or termination of registration.

Timeline to Completion

The average time to completion of the PhD program in Geography & Planning as of 2020 was 6.2 years. The School of Graduate Studies requires that the thesis be submitted within six years of initial registration in the program however extensions beyond six years can be requested.

Time taken to complete the PhD varies depending on the time required to complete the various stages of the program, such as ethics approval, conducting interviews or gaining permission to access archival materials, if research involves extensive fieldwork or lengthy experiments. The timeline below is a guide to facilitate timely completion of the 4-year doctoral program subject to the policies, degree requirements and timelines for major milestones (e.g. candidacy, final oral exam) set by the School of Graduate Studies. Students can register beyond 4 years as necessary to continue research and writing activities.

In addition to annual progress meetings, students and their supervisor(s) should remain in regular contact to discuss progress and management of time to completion.

Year 1

  • September to April: Complete coursework
  • January to June: Form supervisory committee; Identify areas of concentration and prepare a draft reading list for the comprehensive exam
  • May to June: Annual progress meeting; Present draft comprehensive exam reading list to the supervisory committee

Year 2

  • June of year 1 to December of year 2: Comprehensive exam
  • Within 12 months of the last meeting: Annual progress meeting
  • Working on a proposal with a view to completing the proposal exam by September of year 3

Year 3

  • By September: Completion of proposal exam, candidacy requirements (see section below)
  • Research, data collection, writing; Annual progress meeting

Year 4

  • Research, data collection, writing: Annual progress meeting; Departmental and SGS defense exams


All students in the PhD program are expected to complete at least six half-credit courses (3.0 FCE) as follows:

  1. PLA2000H Advanced Planning Theory (0.5 FCE)
  2. PLA2001H (CR/NCR) (0.5 FCE)
  3. JPG1120H (or alternate methods course subject to the approval of the supervisor) (0.5 FCE)
  4. An elective course from outside the planning program (0.5 FCE)
  5. Two electives in any subject (1.0 FCE)

Students who do not have a master’s degree in planning or a related discipline may be required by their supervisor to take up to two additional half-credit courses (4.0 FCE total) depending on their background and experience.

Planning PhD students may take any of the PLA or JPG courses listed on the planning timetable. There is no restriction on the type or source of courses that must be taken outside the Program in Planning. The student’s doctoral supervisor will approve outside course requests. Students who have enrolled in collaborative programs must consult the Collaborative Specializations section of this handbook as their coursework requirements may vary from the requirements listed above.

Annual Progress Reports

SGS requires that a progress review meeting is held at least once per academic year (or more often as required). In no case should the supervisory committee go more than 12-14 months without holding a meeting. At the progress review meeting the Supervisory Committee will assess progress (with a primary focus on progress toward completion of degree requirements) and plans for the following year and will provide feedback on the annual progress report form , which must be submitted to the graduate office for review by the Associate Chair no later than July 1. The report is recorded in the student’s departmental and Acorn records.  It is the responsibility of the student to schedule progress report meetings and to prepare the draft progress report in advance, for discussion at the meeting.

For the first progress meeting (normally held between early April to late June in year 1), the student should bring a draft comprehensive reading list for discussion to the meeting. The timeline for writing the comprehensive exam should be established at this meeting. The student should also include 2-3 paragraphs on the proposed thesis area or topic.

Annual reports for each subsequent year should take place within 12-14 months of the last meeting. The annual progress meeting can be combined with other meetings (such as comprehensive, proposal or thesis exams) if the progress report has been completed in addition to any exam forms. The annual report in years 2 and higher should include a summary of progress toward candidacy and dissertation requirements, such as exams, fieldwork and data collection, data analysis, and chapters completed. It may also include a list of other academic activities undertaken in the past year (e.g. publications, conference presentations, teaching, etc.) Progress reports can also be accompanied by materials such as draft questionnaires and interview guides, initial tabulations and analysis of results, and chapter summaries. The student should also construct a timeline for work to be completed and activities to be undertaken in the following year.

If a Supervisory Committee reports that a student’s progress is unsatisfactory in each of two consecutive meetings, the graduate office will follow up with the supervisor to discuss. If a supervisory committee reports unsatisfactory progress over two consecutive meetings, the department may recommend to the School of Graduate Studies the termination of registration of the student. A student who, through their own neglect, fails to have a meeting within 12-14 months of their last meeting will be considered to have received an unsatisfactory progress report from the committee.

The completed progress report form is submitted using the PhD Progress Report Online Submission Tool (link and instructions found within the progress report form).

PhD Comprehensive Exam

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) 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 Timeline

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 1 week 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

The exam will cover three areas of concentration and will have three questions in each area. 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 is 2000-2500 words.
  • Two-Day Examination: The student writes the examination over two periods, amounting to eight hours in total, at least one day apart. 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 (not including the list of references/bibliography).

The written examination should be submitted electronically by the student to all committee members and the graduate office by the due date and time. The student should ask the committee members whether they would also like to receive a paper copy and, if so, the student is responsible for making a copy and providing it to the faculty member as soon as possible.

The oral examination (with the full examination committee) should take place not later than one week following the submission of the written exam. The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. It is the responsibility of the student to arrange for a date, time and room for the oral examination. The student must submit an exam request form at  with the exam details a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the examination date. The graduate office will prepare an examination file which must be returned immediately following the exam.

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.
  • 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.

Research Proposal

The research proposal should be prepared when the student has settled on a research topic; completed a preliminary exploration of the sources; and identified the problem and defined a research strategy. Ideally, the research proposal should take the form of a paper of about twenty to forty pages in length which includes a statement of the problem, research questions, a discussion and literature review of the research context in which it is set, research objectives or hypotheses, a brief outline of the data sources and methods, a draft survey or guiding questions for interviews (where appropriate) and a suggested timetable for completion. There should be a discussion of methods and methodology that makes reference to the literature on methodology. The proposal should provide a rationale for the choice of methods and discuss any ethical issues stemming from the research (if appropriate). The research proposal should be defended prior to extensive research. It should not constitute a draft of the final thesis.

A Research Proposal must be submitted and defended before the supervisory committee at the Research Proposal Examination. The committee will advise the student on the acceptability of the proposal and will decide on any further steps to be taken in shaping the dissertation research project. The outcome of the proposal exam is one of the following:

  • Pass
  • Conditional Pass. Student must satisfy conditions specified by the supervisory committee (within three months) 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 failure of the exam.
  • The student must repeat the exam within six months.

The conditions will be attached to the research proposal examination form and typically include requests for revisions to theory and methodology. Examples of requested revisions might include additional reading on theory, reconceptualization of the theoretical approach, or additional research into the feasibility or appropriateness of the methodology. To keep on track for time-to-completion the department recommends the research proposal be defended by June of year two and no later than September of year three. Normally, all required coursework will have been completed by the time of the research proposal exam but in some cases the research proposal can be presented earlier with the agreement of the supervisory committee.

It is the responsibility of the student to arrange for a date, time and room for the examination and to provide this information to the graduate office. The student must submit an exam request form with the exam details a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the examination date. The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. The graduate office will prepare the examination file that can be collected just before the exam and returned immediately following the exam.

PhD Candidacy

When all requirements, exclusive of the thesis, have been met a student has achieved PhD Candidacy. The department requires students to achieve candidacy by the end of year two. School of Graduate Studies policy requires that candidacy is achieved no later than the end of year three. Students who have not achieved candidacy by the end of year three will not be permitted to register in future sessions unless an extension has been approved.

The Thesis

The thesis shall constitute a significant contribution to the knowledge of the field and must be based on original research conducted while registered for the PhD program. The topic for the thesis will have been approved at the proposal defense.

The thesis may take one of two forms. The traditional form is a manuscript thesis. An alternative form is the paper thesis.

The paper thesis will normally consist of a minimum of three journal articles considered publishable in, or that have been published in, good quality journals. The journal articles must meet four criteria, as determined by the supervisory committee:

  1. The student is listed as the first or sole author of the paper when submitted for publication.
  2. The student has done the following: had a primary or significant role in conceptualizing the paper, designing the methodology, collecting and analyzing data.
  3. The student wrote the first draft, and revised later drafts after feedback from the supervisor, committee members or co-authors.
  4. The paper is truly part of the dissertation project (i.e. it would not have been written if not for the student’s dissertation and cannot count toward anyone else’s dissertation project).

It is recommended that the student and supervisor discuss these criteria and the expectations for authorship of the papers as early as possible and no later than the proposal examination.

Both types of theses should be based on a coherent topic with an introduction presenting the general theme of the research and a conclusion summarizing and integrating the major findings. In the paper thesis, it may be appropriate to pull out common elements of the papers (e.g. methodology or literature review) into a separate chapter. Pagination should be continuous for both types of theses; there should be a common table of contents, appendices as need, and the thesis should have an integrated bibliography.

Information on thesis formatting, copyrighting, etc. is available from the School of Graduate Studies website.

Departmental Thesis Examination

The completed PhD thesis will be examined by the supervisory committee in a Departmental Thesis Examination. The student must submit an exam request form with the exam details a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the examination date. The graduate office will prepare an examination file that can be collected by the supervisor just before the exam, to be returned immediately following the exam.

The thesis must be formatted using the SGS formatting guidelines and must be approved by the supervisor(s) prior to distribution to the examiners. The complete thesis (including all references, appendices, etc.) must be provided to the all examiners and the graduate office a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the exam date (or earlier, up to 4 weeks prior, at the discretion of the exam committee).

The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. The student may give a short presentation of about 15 minutes summarizing the major contributions of the thesis. This presentation will be followed by questions from the committee members. At the end of the examination, the student will leave the room while the committee reaches a decision. The committee will recommend (or not) that the thesis be accepted and may require revisions prior to submission to the department for the SGS Final Oral Examination.

School of Graduate Studies Final Oral Exam

A Final Oral Examination Committee will conduct the Final Oral Examination (FOE). The examination committee may include no more than three members of the Supervisory Committee (including the supervisor/co-supervisor) and at least two examiners who have not been closely involved in the supervision of the thesis. Eligible for inclusion in the latter group are the external appraiser (in person or by audio/video connection), members of the geography graduate faculty who have not read the thesis, and members of the graduate faculty of other departments, centres, or institutes of the University who have not read the thesis. A quorum is four voting members (at least one member of the supervisory committee and two external examiners) are required for the exam to proceed. The departmental recommendation is that the committee include six voting members, including at least three external examiners. The School of Graduate Studies must approve the composition of the FOE committee.

The School of Graduate Studies, on the recommendation of the Associate Chair, Graduate, appoints the external appraiser. The external appraiser must:

  • Be a recognized expert on the subject of the thesis and should be external to the University of Toronto;
  • Be an Associate or Full Professor at their home institution;
  • Have an arms-length relationship with both the candidate and the supervisor;
  • Receive a copy of the thesis (from the graduate office) at least six weeks prior to the exam.

Scheduling the Final Oral Examination begins a minimum of seven weeks prior to the proposed examination date. Contact the graduate office for information about the process to request this exam. Detailed rules for the submission of the dissertation, the appointment of an external examiner, the exam procedures and steps to be taken after the exam are set out in the SGS Guidelines for the PhD Final Oral Examination.

Once any final revisions or modifications have been made, the final thesis must be submitted to SGS. Information on formatting, electronic submission, and copyright is available from the School of Graduate Studies website.