PhD Comprehensive Exams & Candidacy

Comprehensive Examinations

“A comprehensive examination is normally held after completion of all required course work, and intended to test the student’s grasp of the chosen field of study as a whole. The Candidate’s Committee will set and judge this examination in a manner compatible with the policy of the department concerned. A department may require a formal examination of the thesis before it is transmitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for Final Oral Examination.”

— Required Examinations Ph.D., UBC Calendar.

Comprehensive examinations are mandatory for all Ph.D. programs. In order to advance to candidacy, students must also defend a thesis proposal.

PhD students must have completed ALL their coursework (24 months into their program) before taking their comprehensive exams.

You must fill out the ISGP Comprehensive Examination Guidelines and submit it to prior to completing your comprehensive exam. You may consult with Grad Studies’ recommendations for help in filling out the form.

Examples of Exam Formats:

  • 2-4 formal written examinations, 3-4 hours each, followed by an oral exam
  • 1-2 longer examinations, 4-5 hours, open book or closed, along with oral exam
  • 1-3 papers, followed by oral submission of article or articles
  • More creative formats are possible

Comprehensive Exam Advice:

  • Use the administration of the examination and the preparation to promote and extend the interdisciplinary nature of your program
  • Urge your committee to meet face-to-face to discuss the format of the exam(s), in particular, how they can be created and administered to enhance the transcending of disciplinary boundaries
  • Resist any inclination to have the exams formatted along disciplinary lines (i.e. one paper on Physics, one on Fine Arts); similarly, resist the tendency to have each member of the committee prepare a discrete exam in her/his own area
  • Ask for an oral examination, and use the opportunity to encourage your committee members (once again) to exchange ideas.

Thesis Proposal Defense

An oral defense is required after your successful comprehensive examination. While the thesis proposal defense is more informal than the comprehensive examination, it should be developed in consultation with your supervisor and committee. Usually, a thesis proposal includes:

  • an introduction/contextualization
  • an extensive literature report showing how your proposal speaks to a gap in the literature
  • a methodology section or theoretical framework
  • if applicable, a vision for your analysis
  • a bibliography

If your thesis will be presented in an alternate format (such as performance), be sure to include this in your proposal and give a theoretical and conceptual justification.

Once you have successfully defended your thesis proposal – receiving its unanimous approval from your committee – you may now proceed to PhD candidacy.


Only after the Comprehensive Exams are completed and the prospectus is approved by the student’s Committee, their Supervisor is required to complete the Faculty of Graduate Studies Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy Form provided on the Faculty of Graduate Studies website. The form should then be sent to the ISGP Office for the ISGP Chair’s review and signature, prior to being submitted to Graduate Studies for processing.