Guidelines for the PhD Candidacy Exam

Students must complete a PhD Candidacy Exam and register in BISC 892 PhD Graduate Candidacy Exam in the semester the exam is to be completed. The exam is normally taken prior to the end of the 4th semester (2nd semester after transfer from MSc).  See candidacy exam information below.

Purposes of a Candidacy Exam

  • To stimulate preparation and defense of the written research proposal
  • To ensure that you have sufficient knowledge of the relevant literature and background information
  • To identify areas of weakness in the discipline or in the subject matter relevant to your general field of research and to permit the examining panel to recommend courses or reading well before the time of the defense
  • To ensure that you are able to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level

Paperwork for the PhD Candidacy Exam must be received by the Graduate Program Assistant 4 weeks before your exam.  Please contact the Graduate Program Assistant for the 'Step-by-step' guidelines. 

Composition of the Examining Panel

The examining panel is composed of the student’s supervisory committee, a faculty member external to the supervisory committee to act as external examiner, and a member of the DGSC to act as chair. The external examiner is chosen by the senior supervisor, in consultation with the student and the supervisory committee. The composition of the examining committee must be approved by the chair of DGSC.

The external examiner should be a practicing academic or research scientist who holds a PhD. The external examiner should

  • have some degree of expertise in the student's general area of research
  • be able to provide an independent assessment of the candidate, and
  • not have attended any previous committee meetings

Format of a Candidacy Exam

The exam is an oral exam that is closed to the public.

The formal exam, consisting of the student presentation and questioning, should last 2 hours. At least 2.5 hours should be scheduled to include breaks, deliberations, and feedback.

The exam is taken prior to end of 4th semester ( for students admitted directly into the PhD program) or prior to the end of the 2nd semester (for students who transfer from a Masters program). This is not early realive to our expected PhD completion times (<15 semesters) but is early compared to some other universities.  Examiners from other universities with different expectations should take timining into consideration.

The examining committee should be provided with an original research proposal foryour intended doctoral research two weeks prior to the exam. The proposal should take the general form and approach of an NSERC Discovery Grant Proposal.  The proposal should be formatted with readability in mind (margins, font size), not to maximize content or word count. In five pages, the proposal should include a discussion of relevant background literature, a clear explanation of the rationale for the proposed research and the research objectives, presentation of methodology to be used, and explanation of how the results of the work will contribute to progress in the field. Progress to date and preliminary results may also be included. References may be included on one or two additional pages.

The proposal should include discussion of relevant background literature, a clear explanation of the rationale for the proposed research, presentation of methodology to be used, and an explanation of how the results of the work should contribute to progress in the field. Progress to date and preliminary results may also be included. A separate one‑page document outlining a research budget may be required at the discretion of the advisory committee.

The proposal should be five pages maximum in length (not including references), with at least a 1 inch margin on all sides, in 12 point font. Any material beyond five pages will be discarded and not considered.

The exam will begin with a short (10-15 min) summary of the proposed research. Questioning by individual members of the examining committee follows. Questions will focus on the student's area of research (it is the role of the Chair to guide te quesitoning toward that focus). During questioning, each examiner is typically given 15-20 minutes for questioning, starting with the external examiner, followed by supervisory committee members, and ending with the senior supervisor.  If time remains following the first round of questioning, an additional round or ad-hoc questions may be permitted at the chair's discretion.  See the section below on "Nature of the Questioning" for more details.  After the questioning, the candidate retires and the committee considers the performance of the candidate and the quality of the proposal.

Potential Outcomes

Under the guidance of the Chair, the committee reaches a consensus and the exam is graded ‘Acceptable’, ‘Acceptable after conditions listed below are met’, ‘Re‑evaluation required’, or ‘Not acceptable’. ‘Not acceptable’ is only used for an unacceptable second exam.

  • Acceptable This grade can include recommendations for some additional work, including course work or directed study.
  • Acceptable after the conditions below are met This grade should be used when the Examining Committee requires additional course work, directed study, revisions to the proposal or other work, but does not require a second candidacy exam.  In this case, the chair of the DGSC will approve the examination result when the senior supervisor indicates that the required work has been completed.
  • Re-evaluationThis grade is to be used when the examining committee identifies substantial problems with the student's background preparation or with the research proposal that show the student is not ready to proceed with the PhD.  A second candidacy exam is required, and it must be held within 6 months of the first exam.
  • Not acceptable This grade isused when the committee concludes, after a second candidacy exam, that the student cannot write and successfully defend a PhD thesiswithin a reasonable time frame.  A student receiving a Not acceptable grade following the second candidacy exam will not be permitted to continue in the PhD program except under extenuating circumstances.

Nature of the Questioning

The examining committee is expected to follow these guidelines for posing questions for evaluating the candidate.

  • Has the student satisfactorily demonstrated how the proposed research logically follows from existing scientific knowledge and previous investigations in the subdiscipline?
  • Has the student satisfactorily demonstrated how the proposed research will contribute to the advancement of science in the particular subdiscipline?
  • Is the student familiar with relevant literature? Does the student have sufficient knowledge of the subdiscipline?
  • Are the objectives of the research clearly defined and achievable?
  • Has thestudent demonstrated sufficient knowledge of experimental design, data collection and methods of analysis to ensure completion of the research?
  • Does the student possess sufficient skills in written and verbal communication to complete the proposed research and meet all of the PhD program requirements?
  • Does the student need improved understanding of subject matter relaed to the general field of research?
  • On the whole, is the student capable of completing original research at the advanced level expected of PhD researchers?

Roles and responsibilities of the examining committee

The chair is responsible for administering the exam and for ensuring that all rules are followed and that the student is treated fairly and respectfully by the examining committee. The chair will begin the exam by introducing the student and the research topic, and will briefly explain the exam format and remind the examiners of the potential outcomes. The chair is responsible for managing the duration of the presentation by the student (this should not exceed 15 minutes). Based on the number of the examiners, the chair will select the appropriate questioning time available for each examiner and will manage the timing of each round of questions. The chair also ensures that questions are on topic and do not deviate too far from topics relevant to the proposal.  After the candidate retires, the chair will lead the deliberations, and is responsible for guiding the examining committee toward a consensus grade. The chair then presents the result of the exam to the student along with a summary of the feedback before additional feedback is provided by the examining committee. The chair is also responsible for completing the exam form and submitting it to the graduate program assistant within 24 hours of the exam.

The external examiner and supervisory committee member(s) are responsible for reading the proposal ahead of the exam and preparing appropriate questions following the guidelines outlined in “Nature of the questioning”. Each examiner is responsible for ensuring that questions contribute to achieving the purposes of the exam. The most useful candidacy exams lead to deeper or broader thinking by the student, and provide the student with new insights into the subdiscipline, the general research field, or its methodologies. Detailed questioning on topics that are tangential to the proposed research should be avoided. During the deliberations, examiners are expected to summarize their thoughts on the written proposal, the student presentation, and the responses to questions for the chair to relay to the student. Each examiner will make a recommendation to the chair on the outcome of the exam.

The senior supervisor serves as an examiner, and takes detailed notes on the subjects covered in the exam and the student’s success or difficulty in responding to questions. The senior supervisor is expected to use those notes to provide detailed feedback to the student after the exam.