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Comprehensive Exam

UBC requires that a comprehensive exam be taken before moving to candidacy for PhD. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to assess whether the student has developed strong thinking abilities, required knowledge of the discipline, required academic background for the research and ability to communicate knowledge of the discipline. Below are the guidelines for the exam. They apply to registered PhD students or to students transferring from a Master’s to the PhD program. In either case, the comprehensive exam should be taken within 30 months of initial registration and MUST be completed by 36 months of initial registration.


MSc Student to PhD Student transfer: complete within 24 months

Students wishing to transfer from the MSc to PhD program must have support from their supervisor and complete the required paperwork by 24 months following initial registration. In addition, students must obtain written approval of their thesis topic by their supervisor and thesis committee. This is typically done at a supervisory committee meeting, and it is the student’s responsibility to ensure they have a supervisory committee meeting to 1) approve their thesis topic and 2) approve their transfer prior to submitting the paperwork. Once these requirements are complete and the transfer has been approved, the MSc student will become a PhD student (but not yet a PhD candidate).

Advancing to PhD candidacy: complete within 36 months

  • To advance to candidacy, PhD students should have completed their course work (except ONCO 510). Course work is typically completed within the first 12 months of the program.

  • In addition, the student must obtain written approval of their thesis topic by their supervisor and thesis committee. For students who transferred from the MSc to the PhD program, this will have been completed within the first 24 months of the program.

  • Students must complete and pass the comprehensive examination (details below).


The comprehensive examination:

The comprehensive exam must be completed by all PhD students prior to being admitted to PhD candidacy. The comprehensive examination is meant to test the depth and breadth of knowledge of the student on their research topic, allowing the examiners to assess the potential of the student wishing to complete a PhD.



Although it can be completed earlier, it is recommended to schedule the comprehensive examination between 24-30 months of the graduate program start date. The comprehensive examination MUST be successfully passed before the student has been in the program for 36 months, and planning an earlier exam allows for a 6-month buffer prior to the 36 month hard deadline set by UBC. Students should work with their supervisor to identify appropriate examiners, and must submit their proposed examiners for IOP approval before booking the examination date. Students then identify a Chair for the exam, and it is the student's responsibility to arrange the date, time, examiners and location of the examination. Generally, the schedule should be planned 4 to 6 weeks prior to the exam and communicated to the IOP Coordinator at least 3 weeks before the exam. The entire exam should normally not take more than 2.5 hours, but a 3 hour time slot should be scheduled.

Material needed for the examination:

  • 5-page research proposal (written component)

    • A 5-page research proposal (not including references, tables, and figures) must be circulated to examiners a minimum of 3-weeks prior to the examination. The proposal should include background on the proposed research, the goals and rationale of the project, primary hypothesis and specific aims, preliminary results (including data figures/tables), discussion on the potential impact of the work, and future directions the student intends to pursue.

  • 20-minute presentation (oral component)

    • The student will prepare slides and provide a 20 minute presentation of the proposal before answering questions.

    • Please note: students will not be permitted to use supplemental slides beyond those used in the presentation to answer questions from the committee.

  • Comprehensive examination form (see below - Comp Exam Form)


Structure of the comprehensive examination:

  • The examination takes place over ~2-2.5 hours, with the time broken down as following:

    • Oral component: 20 minutes

      • Student presents research proposal

    • Question period: ~2 hours

      • Examiners will take 20-minute turns asking questions about background knowledge and experimental design (see below for examination material)

    • Deliberation period

      • Student leaves the room, and the committee deliberates



The examination committee will be made up of:

  • A chair person (normally one of the following: Dr. Wan Lam, Dr. Kevin Bennewith, or Dr. Marcel Bally)

  • The student’s supervisor

  • A member of the student's research committee

  • Another IOP faculty member not on the student's research committee.

Additional members may be added at the discretion of the chair person. Please send your list of proposed examiners to the IOP Director for approval.

Examination Material:

The comprehensive examination is meant to test the student’s breadth and depth of knowledge on their research topic. For this reason, the material can be quite varied and case-specific. Accordingly, the examination should focus around background material and the experimental design pertaining to the student’s thesis proposal. More specifically, the examination will focus on:

  • The student's ability to defend his/her proposed research. This could include background knowledge, ability to think through potential pitfalls of the proposed approach, consideration of alternative approaches and more.

    • This section is the main focus of the examination.

  • Program-specific questions

    • The student's ability to integrate knowledge from course work taken (e.g. ONCO 502, ONCO 510, and ONCO 548) or their equivalent.

      • Note: Though the students will not be tested directly on the course material, it is expected of them to know the general concepts discussed. In the context of ONCO 510, the expectation for students is to be broadly aware of the work of other individuals within the program.

    • General questions about working in a laboratory

This section of the examination should only cover a few questions.

Comprehensive Examination Results:

There are three possible outcomes to the comprehensive examination:

  • Unconditional pass: Student advances to candidacy

  • Conditional pass: Evaluation committee identified deficiencies that need to be addressed before the student can advance to candidacy. The student will be asked to complete additional requirements at the examination committee’s discretion. The student will NOT be admitted to candidacy until after these additional requirements have been completed and documented with the IOP. Once the IOP receives confirmation the requirements are complete, the paperwork will then be submitted to UBC to request the student be admitted to candidacy.

  • Repeat Examination/Unsuccessful: Evaluation committee identified multiple deficiencies and require the student to re-take all or part of the examination before advancing to candidacy. Students not passing the comprehensive exam in the first attempt may be allowed to repeat the exam (one time only) based on the recommendation of the examination committee. The re-examination must be taken as soon as possible, but normally not more than ~2 months after the first exam.  Students registered in a PhD program will be asked to leave the program if they fail to pass the comprehensive exam after two attempts.


Upon completion of the Comprehensive Examination, the following form (Comp Exam Form) needs to be filled out by the Chair and the committee.

Please note: students are not permitted to audio or video record any portion of the comprehensive exam. Those students that are found recording any portion of the examination will be subject to disciplinary action that may include withdrawal of the student from the program.



  • How much data is needed to take the comprehensive examination?

    • There is no “minimum data requirement” to take the comprehensive examination, though preliminary data based on the student’s project is expected.

  • When should I start preparing for the Comps?

    • The earlier, the better! Try to start working on the proposal at least 2 months in advance.

  • How should I prepare for the exam?

    • Get familiar with the literature

      • Review articles are a good starting point

      • Landmark papers in field will inevitably come up

      • Methods relevant to project

    • Practice

      • Mock comprehensive exam with lab

      • Answer questions out loud

    • Ask friends/family/co-workers to read proposal

      • Talk to people in the program - ask about their experience, learn about different approaches that you can apply to your own approach

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