The Comprehensive Exam

In order to be admitted to candidacy and to continue in the Program, you must have your Research Proposal accepted and successfully pass the oral comprehensive examination. Normally this will be completed by the start of the third year of enrolment in the PhD program. The purpose of the exam is to ensure that candidates have comprehensive knowledge in their area of specialization and related fields of neuroscience.

The comprehensive examination has both a written and an oral component. The written exam requires that the student prepare a grant application according to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Operating Grant Application format. The topic of the grant application is decided upon by the student and their supervisor and is normally based on the student’s immediate area of scientific interest. The scopes and levels of the oral exam will be discussed and mutually agreed by the Examining Committee and the student in the preliminary meeting.  Use the Comprehensive Exam checklist to help you prepare.

Steps and Guidelines

A comprehensive examination is held after completion of all required coursework. The student will initiate the process with their supervisor by first establishing an Examining Committee. The Examining Committee consists of all members of the student’s Supervisory Committee, except the student’s supervisor. The final member of the Examining Committee is the External Examiner, who is not a member of the supervisory committee. The External Examiner will be identified by the student and the supervisor. Two meetings will be held: The pre-comprehensive meeting, and the comprehensive exam.

The purpose of the pre-comprehensive meeting of the student and the Examining Committee (including the External Examiner, but not the Chair) is to set up parameters for the exam. The student will submit a title and one-page summary (subject to modification) of the Research Proposal at least one week before this initial meeting. At the meeting, the Examining Committee and the student will discuss and 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 are the particular research topics associated with the Proposal that each Examining Committee member feels the student should concentrate on as they prepare for their exam. The student will act as secretary at the meeting, and will provide each member of the committee and the GPN office with a written summary of the discussion no later than one week following the meeting; any discrepancies in interpretation should be resolved at this time. The due date for the research proposal will be set at this meeting and will be no later than three months following the pre-comprehensive meeting. As with CIHR grants, if the student fails to meet the deadline for submission of the Research Proposal, the comprehensive examination will be automatically postponed for six months. The approximate 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.

The supervisor may provide guidance and feedback to the student in the preparation of the grant application. However, the research proposal and the essential experimental design should be written by the student.

The second meeting is the comprehensive exam. In this 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 as discussed in the pre-comprehensive meeting. The purpose of the oral examination is to have the student demonstrate to the Examining Committee that he/she has a thorough 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. In the event that the student has not achieved a score of first class in both NRSC 500 and 501, the scope of the comprehensive examination will be wider: under such circumstances the examination committee has a mandate to determine whether or not the student has sufficient breadth and depth of understanding of general topics in neuroscience to permit advancement to the candidacy. The examination will normally include a round of 20-minute questioning from each examiner, followed by another round of questioning, as appropriate. A student may be given the opportunity to re-sit either or both components of the examination if he/she is considered inadequately prepared at the first sitting. In the event that re-examination is required, it must take place within 6 months of the first attempt. No student is permitted to sit this examination more than twice.

The chair represents the Graduate Program for Neuroscience on the examining committee, and serves the functions of monitoring and reporting. The comprehensive exam chair will be decided by GPN staff (Graduate students must email at least one month prior to their exam to coordinate). The graduate student will provide a written summary of the pre-comprehensive meeting to the chair and the supervisory committee members. In the event that the student has not achieved a score of first class in both NRSC 500 AND 501, they will be required to answer questions regarding theses core courses at the comprehensive exam. 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.

The chair then assigns an order to the questioning, with the External Examiner usually asked to go first, allowing each member of the examining committee ~20 minutes to question the student. (The External Examiner will be identified by the student and the supervisor and may be a faculty member of any rank.) 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. Throughout, the chair should ensure 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 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.

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 a majority of members rate the student’s performance as failing, the student has failed the first sitting of the comprehensive examination, and they must be re-sit the exam within six months' time. If the student fails the second sitting of the comprehensive examination, they must withdraw from the program.

Although the thesis proposal is used as a vehicle for the comprehensive examination, passing the exam does not necessarily indicate acceptance of the thesis 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 written would be funded by CIHR). 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 needs to fill out the Chair Report for Comprehensive Exams form and email it to