PhD Program

The School of Communication specializes in critical scholarship on urgent social and political problems affecting contemporary societies, locally and globally. The PhD program provides training at an advanced graduate level that aims to develop and broaden the knowledge, research skills and expertise students already have acquired so they are able to independently design and conduct original research in the field of Communication Studies and also apply Communication methods and theories to other areas beyond the field of Communication.

Learn about the program and requirements below.

The expectation is that students will develop the competency to develop either new theoretical and/or methodological frameworks to design research projects on pressing areas of research that meets the rigour and standards of academic research. Students are expected to further develop their skills to effectively communicate their research in essays, publications, conference presentations and dialogues with academic colleagues, at forums with stakeholders and with live audiences and through other media.

PhD students are required to successfully complete 5 courses, comprehensive exams, a research proposal, original research culminating in a thesis and a thesis defence.

PhD Course Requirements

PhD students must complete 5 graduate courses, taking two courses per term. As a PhD student these courses not only prepare the student for their research project but also assist them in developing competency more broadly in the field of Communication Studies since a PhD requires expertise across the field, not just in one area of specialization. Knowledge about how to design a research project is essential, even if the student plans to focus on theoretical questions in their thesis. Likewise, knowledge of the main theoretical frameworks in Communication Studies is necessary even if a student plans to conduct empirical research, as different theoretical frameworks will have different repercussion for their methodological decisions. Courses are normally completed before taking the comprehensive examinations and developing a thesis proposal. The course requirements are as follows:

Students must complete

  • CMNS 801 - Design and Methodology in Communication Research (5)

and two of

  • CMNS 800 - Contemporary Approaches in Communication Studies (5)
  • CMNS 802 - History of Communication Theory (5)
  • CMNS 804 - Seminar in Advanced Communication Theory (5)
  • one graduate course in CMNS
  • one graduate elective 5 unit course

and a comprehensive exam

  • CMNS 895 – Comprehensive Examination (6)

and a thesis

  • CMNS 899 – PhD Thesis (6)

PhD Program Length

Students are expected to complete the program in 18 terms.

PhD Program Schedule

  • Terms 1 & 2 – coursework; confirm senior supervisor and committee
  • Terms 3 & 4 – coursework and comprehensive preparation
  • Terms 5 & 6 – comprehensive examination
  • Terms 6-8 – PhD proposal, research*
  • Terms 8-11 – research and writing
  • Terms 11-14 – writing
  • Terms 14-15 – revisions
  • Term 15-17 – defence

*If research involves human subjects, after their research proposal is approved, students are required to submit an ethics applications to the Office of Research Ethics.

PhD Comprehensive Examination Guidelines

Students are expected to demonstrate their “comprehension” of Communication Studies in their comprehensive exams. In particular, they must show their understanding of Communication as a field of knowledge defined by its epistemological and methodological approaches. Students are required to identify two fields or areas of research in Communication Studies for their comprehensive examinations. These areas should complement their research project and/or provide the opportunity for students to gain a preliminary level of expertise in the fields. Given the fact that Communication is a relatively new and interdisciplinary field in contrast to Sociology, Political Science, History or English, comprehensive exams can be challenging. Thus it is important to work closely with the Supervisory Committee to identify and define the parameters of each field.

The student should be able to identify what distinguishes the field as an area of research, tracing the genealogy of a field’s development and identifying the main scholars in the field, the key concerns, debates, controversies and frameworks. Competence requires a more extensive than intensive treatment of the defined fields. The ability to effectively delineate the fields and synthesize the main ideas in each field rather than originality is the goal. Originality is expected in the thesis, not in demonstrating comprehension of the fields, which is an important skill in and of itself. Historically, comprehensive exams have been intended to prepare doctoral students for developing fields of competence in teaching and research, as well as the foundations of the dissertation itself.

As explained below there are three components in the comprehensive exams: (1) definition of two separate fields in the form of two concise field essays; (2) written responses to four examination questions (two per field); and (3) an oral examination. The preparing the field essays and writing the exams and the oral examination should not take more than three semesters and ideally two.

Composition of the Comprehensive Exam Committee

The Senior Supervisor lays out the procedures the student will follow in bringing the essays to fruition, identifies deadlines and expectations for student progress, and coordinates meetings of the committee.  The committee is established by the Senior Supervisor in consultation with the student no later than one term in advance of the intended examination. The Committee will normally be comprised of two faculty members, at least one selected on the basis of expertise in the examination fields. Typically, one professor will take the lead in each field area; this may or may not be the senior supervisor. The student is responsible for delineating the field and consulting especially with the professor with expertise in the area who is leading the area. Again, though, it is important for the Senior Supervisor to oversee the process and ensure that, for instance, the committee members and student remember that a demonstration of comprehension rather than originality is required and the exams are finished within two and a maximum of three semesters.

The members of the Comprehensive Exam Committee will usually, but not always, serve on the student’s Supervisory Committee to maintain continuity of supervision from the early stages of the development of the dissertation proposal.

Number of Fields

Students are required to complete examinations in two distinct comprehensive fields. Fields may be related to the dissertation topic itself or carved out of an area of potential teaching competence. At least one examination should survey theoretical or methodological frameworks in a field that pertains to the students’ dissertation research. The other may relate to other substantive aspects of the student’s research or teaching. The Comprehensive Exam Committee must ensure that the two areas are distinct from each other; neither too broad (too difficult delineate as a field and identify the key problems and debates that define the area) nor too narrow (which won’t give the students sufficient insight into the larger field or discipline); and appropriate both to the students’ needs and the committee’s competence.

Preparation for the Comprehensive Exams

Preparation for the comprehensive exams often begins far in advance with the selection of particular courses that give overviews of the fields. Introductory readers and research journals on specific research areas (technology studies, media studies etc.) are also useful resources. Many students have notebooks or journals to record comprehensive ideas starting with their first course, continually refining them. Students often use a directed studies course to help begin preparations for their comprehensive exams, and may audit additional courses related to their fields of research where appropriate.

Preparing for comprehensive exams normally includes the following steps:

  • Meeting with the Senior Supervisor in which the student presents ideas for the definition of the two areas.
  • Preparing draft definitions or “field essays” and reading lists on the topics agreed upon with the supervisor and committee.
  • Meeting with each of the committee members to discuss the definitions and then collectively meeting with all the committee members  to agree on the parameters of the fields and the readings. To ensure that all committee members and the student are in agreement, committee meetings are helpful.
  • Additional feedback and revisions as required by the committee.
  • Final approval by the Senior Supervisor and committee.
  • Submission of approved definitional essays and reading lists to the Graduate Program Coordinator.

The design of comprehensive fields and drafting of the field definitions will normally be completed by the 5th term.

Definitions of the Comprehensive Fields: Detailed Overview

The student drafts two field essays that delineate the parameters and scope of each area and synthesize the main ideas and developments. Each statement should not exceed 1,000 words and should make evident the types of questions that frame the student’s choice of readings (for example, rather than just media studies, the field may specify feminist or queer media studies or Asian media studies).

Each definitional essay includes a reading list or bibliography that the student will be responsible to “comprehend” (the relation and differences between the readings) for the exams. Each bibliography contains 30-35 titles, including a mix of books, journal articles and other materials essential that cover the central issues relevant to the field as defined. Most reading lists contain both titles the student has read and others that still need to be read. Many supervisors counsel against reading in a totally new field. The final bibliography is the result of careful negotiation between the student and supervisors.

Students are encouraged to consult the archived definitions to review the scope and type of synthesis required (available on the School’s web site or from the Graduate Program Coordinator). While the definition of the field remains the intellectual property of the student, the definitional essays and bibliographies are available to other School of Communication students and may be used by others in designing their own lists.

Once the student has drafted the field essays, the student than initiates a discussion with their committee, who may suggest revisions, additions or deletions to the readings. If the candidate and the supervisor with expertise in the area cannot agree, they turn to the Senior Supervisor to resolve the scope of the definition. Normally, there should not be more than three Committee meetings regarding revisions to the field essays and reading lists.

The schedule for the comprehensives normally entails on a two-term model. The process of developing the field essays and the final bibliography should take one term. The process of reading, synthesis and writing the comprehensive exams should take place the next term.


The student registers in CMNS 895 during the terms in which the comprehensive exams are prepared and written.

Submission and Scheduling

After the Senior Supervisor receives the Comprehensive Exam Committee’s final approval of the two field essay and reading lists, the student must submit a copy of the definitional essays to the Graduate Coordinator.

The student must submit copies of the two definitions to the Graduate Coordinator by the last working day of the first month of the semester of the examination (September, January or May). The Senior Supervisor provides the coordinator with the examination dates for the written exam and oral defence.

Note that the dates for the written examination and oral defence are set by the Senior Supervisor in consultation with the student and the Comprehensive Committee. Once the examination dates for writing the exam and the oral defence are confirmed, they must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator by the last day of the first month of the semester of the exam and defence. After the Senior Supervisor gives the Coordinator the exam questions two weeks before the written exam, the Coordinator distributes the exam questions to the student on the day and at the time when the exam commences and also books the oral examination room.

Written Examination Procedures

The written examination will occur during a period convenient to the student and agreeable to the committee. Students are given a list of questions and are asked to complete two written answers for each field, for a total of 4 answers. Students should note that the initial comprehensive definition often details the central debates to be addressed, and thereby, helps “set the agenda” for the supervisors’ likely questions.

The Senior Supervisor is responsible for compiling the list of questions. The committee member leading each field area submits two to four examination questions for their respective field based on the approved comprehensive definitional essays and reading lists. The questions test the students’ comprehension of the areas or fields the student has delineated in the field essays. The Senior Supervisor assembles and reviews the final questions for the examination, ensuring that they are sufficiently clear and distinct. The Senior Supervisor sends all of the examination questions to the Graduate Coordinator who is responsible for delivering the questions to the student at the exact time the examination is scheduled to begin.

Students are given seven days to write the two comprehensive examinations. For example, if the questions are delivered Monday at 8 am, the examination is due to the committee by 8 am the following Monday. The answers are expected to range between 2,500-3,000 words for each of the four questions. Students are encouraged to take both exams in a single week (over seven days) so they can develop linkages across areas where possible and sustain the momentum of writing.

Alternatively, students may schedule the two examinations separately in a series, but the exams must be completed within the same term with each exam not exceeding three days, amounting to a six and not a seven-day period.

Students must email the exam questions and answers with full citations to all members of the Comprehensive Exam Committee and to the Graduate Coordinator by the specified time on the day the answers are due. Extensions are not permitted.

Procedures for Oral Examination

After submission of the written component for the comprehensive exams, an oral examination will be held with all the members of the Comprehensive Committee present. The oral component will normally occur within three weeks of submission of the written component. The Senior Supervisor chairs the examination in the presence of the other committee members and the student. The student will answer questions by the committee members regarding the written answers in each field. Committee members will use this opportunity to seek clarification of the student’s answers and engage in dialogue about the student’s interpretation of key debates, ideas, etc.


Assessment of the student’s performance is recorded as pass or fail. The standard for a successful comprehensive exam is, on the one hand, the ability of the student to clearly and systematically demonstrate her or his knowledge of the field, and, on the other hand, the quality of the dialogue about the fields during the oral examination.

The Senior Supervisor will complete and then submit the Comprehensive Exam Completion Form describing the Committee’s assessment of the student's performance on both the oral and written components within 10 days of the exam. This form is copied to the student. Performance is judged to either pass or fail. In the event of failure to pass one or both of the two exams, clear areas for improvement will be identified. Rewriting of the failed examination(s) (which must contain the same questions) will be completed within three months following the initial examination and follow the same procedures.

Failure of Comprehensive Exams and Withdrawal from the Program

Failure to complete the comprehensive exams in a timely fashion – normally during the first two years of the program – may result in an unsatisfactory progress report and initiate the Procedure for the Review of Unsatisfactory Progress indicated in GGR 1.8.2. Failure to pass the comprehensive exams upon the second attempt will normally lead to the student being required to withdraw from the PhD program.

Comprehensive Exam Timeline

  • Term 1-3 – Coursework, preliminary discussions with senior supervisor, refinement of areas of focus
  • Term 3 – Meeting(s) with senior supervisor to confirm topics and committee
  • Term 4 – Student prepares draft definitions and reading lists; registers in 895
  • Term 4 – Review, revision, resubmission of definitions and reading lists
  • Term 4 – Committee approval of definitions and reading lists
  • Term 5 – Student submits approved definitions to Graduate Coordinator + Senior Supervisor provides dates for written and oral exams
  • Term 5 – Senior Supervisor prepares list of exam questions with committee and submits to Coordinator 2 weeks before exam; registers in 895
  • Term 5 – Student reads and synthesizes, preparing for written  exam
  • Term 5 – Student writes the written exam (4 answers in 7 days)
  • Term 5 – Student submits hard and electronic exam answers to committee
  • Term 5 – Oral defence of written exam, within 2 weeks of written exam
  • Term 5 – Senior Supervisor fills in evaluation, pass/fail, and copies to student within 10 days

PhD Thesis

To formally begin the dissertation phase, students must register in CMNS 899.

Dissertation Proposal

Research projects require planning and design. The dissertation proposal explains and justifies why and how the student has designed their project. It is developed in consultation with the student’s committee and is also reviewed and approved by the committee before the student begins full-time dissertation research. While there is no one model for a dissertation proposal, the aim of the proposal is to present the project’s main research question, problem or hypothesis; situate the approach the student plans to take in relation to the key arguments in the pertinent fields; and outline the expected contributions to both academic research and larger society.

Proposal Contents

The proposal must clearly identify the research questions guiding the study and outline how the approach to the research problem draws on or differs from existing scholarship on the topic as well as in relation to the study of communication while identifying the theoretical and methodological approach(es) and steps in the research process, including, for example, a timeline to indicate when the research, interviews or field work will be conducted and, where applicable, how media texts, platforms, interviews, images, etc. will be selected and interpreted. Influential theoretical, methodological and other academic sources need to be identified and the originality of the research should be made evident. Generally, a dissertation proposal is a written document of about 25-30 pages, including the following components:

  • outline of the research question
  • a description of the study's contribution to the field (noting its significance to the field of Communication Studies, and its wider social/ and or political significance)
  • theoretical and methodological approach/es
  • steps in research and timeline for completion
  • whether an ethics application is required
  • chapter outline
  • bibliography

Preparation of the full proposal is normally completed by term 6 or 7, and should be completed and approved no later than term 8. When the Senior Supervisor considers the thesis proposal ready for assessment and feedback, it is circulated to all committee members for comments. The Senior Supervisor should schedule a meeting with the Supervisory Committee where the students has the opportunity to present the proposal (like the oral exam for the comprehensives this is a rehearsal for the thesis defence) and can answer questions from the Committee; the Committee can then discuss and come to an agreement on any revisions.

Thesis Scope

PhD theses are expected to be between 200 and 300 pages, inclusive of all endnotes and the bibliography. The thesis typically includes an introduction, five chapters and a conclusion but varies according to the research topic and is determined in consultation with the Senior Supervisor and the Supervisory Committee who must approve the scope of the project.

Thesis Examination Committee

The PhD thesis Examination Committee is comprised of

  • the chair – a CMNS faculty member who serves as a non-voting committee member;
  • all members of the student’s supervisory committee;
  • an internal external examiner who a faculty member at SFU who is not a member of the student's supervisory committee;
  • an external examiner who “should be a distinguished scholar with particular research and supervisory experience in the field of the thesis research. The examiner shall be free from potential conflict of interest which may arise, for example, from research collaboration with the student or prospective employment of the student.” (see GGR 1.9.5).

Procedures for Oral Defences

The members of the Supervisory Committee must all agree if the thesis is ready for examination. Once there is agreement that no more revisions are required and once the Dean of Graduate Studies approves the external examiner, the Dean’s office circulates the thesis to the Examining Committee. The defence is chaired by a faculty member in the School who is not on the Committee. The defence involves a brief presentation by the student of the thesis work – normally 20 minutes – followed by an oral examination with questions from each member of the Examining Committee (consisting of at least two rounds) and finally, the floor is opened and members of the audience who can also ask questions.

Evaluation of Thesis

There are four options: pass without revisions, pass with revisions to be approved by the Senior Supervisor, deferred judgment, or failure.

Defence Planning

Please refer to this page for important details regarding planning the defence.