Comprehensive Examinations

The Comprehensive Exam Form can be found here.

What is the Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam is a required milestone, rather than a graded course, although its completion is indicated on the student's transcript. The goal of the comprehensive examination is to provide breadth and depth. Students complete an in-depth exam that is outside their specific thesis topic but in their subfield of psychology.  Like all scholarly work, the exam should be a novel contribution that, in particular, does not unduly overlap with previous scholarly outputs made by the student.

Comprehensive Exam Advisory Committee

Each student’s examination is supervised by a committee of three faculty members. At least one member should be a full-time member of the Psychology Department. Committee make-up is determined by mutual agreement between the student and supervisor. The student’s supervisor does not participate in the exam other than guiding the student in forming the committee. Co-supervisors cannot serve as committee members. Although students benefit from diversity of intellectual input in their graduate training, comprehensive exam committee members may also serve (or have served) on other committees of the same student.

In almost all cases, the committee should appoint a lead examiner who is a full-time member of the Psychology Department to (1) collate committee members’ ratings of the exam, (2) organize any committee discussion prior to submission of the final decision, and (3) bear responsibility for informing the student and graduate office of the exam outcome.

Role of the Supervisor in the Comprehensive Exam

The supervisor provides guidance to the student in selecting committee members and may suggest potential topics for the student to bring to the comps committee. The supervisor may also direct the student to relevant research literatures and is encouraged to check in with the student periodically to monitor progress. However, once the exam is underway, the supervisor should not be involved in the exam process. In particular, the student’s supervisor should not read, edit, review, or provide feedback on the student’s comprehensive exam, nor should they discuss the student’s performance with comprehensive exam committee members or attempt to influence the exam outcome.


The examination is to be completed in a single term during the first or second year of the Ph.D. program (although students are encouraged to approach potential committee members in advance to discuss their availability to serve on the examination committee in a future term). Early in the term in which the exam will be completed, the student should schedule an initial meeting of the committee to determine the format of the exam, any intermediate due dates (e.g., first draft due dates; oral exam dates), and to clarify the general process as a group.  Plan any intermediate due dates such that a committee decision regarding the final comprehensive exam can be made by the due date noted below.

The committee’s consensus decision regarding the exam is due by the 21st of August, December or April, depending on the semester during which the comprehensive exam is being conducted. The student should make sure committee members are aware of this date.

Overview of Timeline and Registration Process




The Graduate Assistant emails PhD 1 & 2 students who’ve not yet completed their milestone.

A student response is required, indicating the term in which they plan to initiate and complete the milestone. This is non-binding and can be postponed up until the last term in Year 2.


 How to "register"


Prior to the beginning of each term, the Graduate Assistant will direct students to the Comps form in the email about enrolling in classes. Students who intend to register for Comps will notify the Grad Assistant by email.



First month of exam term


Student organizes a group meeting with their committee to discuss the exam format and any other details concerning their exam.

After this meeting, the student circulates the Comps form to all committee members describing the agreed-upon exam format, noting any intermediate due dates, obtains committee members’ signatures and submits Sections 1 & 2 to the Graduate Office.


Last month of exam term


The committee’s consensus decision regarding the exam is due by the 21st of August, December or April, depending on the semester during which the comprehensive exam is being conducted.

The lead examiner notifies the student and Graduate Office of the outcome and can collect committee member signatures themselves or ask the student to do so and then submit Section 3 of the Comps form to the Graduate Office.


Recording the milestone


After receiving the passing grade on the submitted Comps form, the Graduate Assistant will process the milestone as complete, which will be immediately reflected on the student transcript.

General Examination Process

The content and format of the comprehensive exam are highly flexible, and are to be determined at an initial meeting between the student and committee members early in the term in which the comprehensive examination is to be completed. Committee members may request that the student provide a short document describing a proposed comprehensive exam in advance of this meeting.

Because the exam format is flexible, it is crucial for the committee and student to have a mutual understanding of the required work. Thus, following the initial meeting, the student should send a brief document to the committee in which the agreed-upon exam content and process are described, including any intermediate due dates prior to the end of the term (e.g., due dates for initial drafts; a date for an oral exam). Committee members must approve this written plan (see attached form).

Any intermediate dates should be scheduled to permit a committee consensus decision regarding the final comprehensive exam to be made by the 21st of August, December or April, depending on the semester during which the comprehensive exam is being conducted. Any such due dates will depend on the form of the exam and committee members’ schedules, so specific details should be discussed in the initial committee meeting[1].

Once the format is determined and documented, the relevant work occurs over the course of the term with the committee providing ongoing consultation and guidance as needed. Additional committee meetings may be held as needed. An oral defense may be included if the committee decides one would be useful; such an exam may be part of the initially determined exam format or required if the committee feels that follow-up examination is needed after any written work is evaluated. The lead examiner will be responsible for setting up such an exam.

Once all components of the exam are completed, the student or lead examiner submits the relevant form, signed by all committee members, the student, and the student's supervisor(s), to the graduate office.

[1] As an example, submitting what is intended to be a final (or close-to-final) version of a written exam component 2-3 weeks prior to the committee’s decision due date will oftentimes give committee members enough time to provide feedback to the student, and for the student to revise accordingly, prior to the deadline. However, this is just an example.

Exam Format

The format of the comprehensive examination is meant to be highly flexible, designed to address the needs of the student in terms of scholarly development as well as meeting any didactic goals the committee feels are important. As previously noted, it is important for the committee and student to develop a clear plan of the required work, avoiding confusion and miscommunication. Following the initial organizational meeting, the exam format and content are to be described by the student in a brief written document to be reviewed, corrected if necessary, and approved by the committee.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of potential formats:

  • A grant proposal that includes all components of a typical grant submission to the relevant agency (e.g., NSERC, CIHR, NIH).
  • A synthetic review paper in the style of a major journal in the relevant field (e.g., Psych Bull).
  • A detailed critique of an experimental method that discusses the assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses of the method.
  • A critical review paper written on a classic book or other major work in a field of psychological science.
  • A registered report; the appropriate scope for the comprehensive exam will generally entail the student completing the “Stage 1” component (see and Chambers, Feredoes, Muthukumaraswamy, & Etchells, 2014 for more details).
  • Multiple short answers or longer essays in response to relevant topics formulated by committee members.
  • An oral exam may be required in addition to any of the aforementioned written work.

Intermediate Deadlines and Due Date

It is strongly suggested that the student and committee plan ahead in terms of setting intermediate deadlines as relevant.  For example, if the committee is requiring a more extensive written document as part of the exam (e.g., a synthetic review; a meta-analysis), members should consider whether they may want revisions made prior to making a final decision regarding the exam outcome.  If so, the committee should set a due date for an initial draft that will allow the student to make reasonable revisions in advance of the overall due date.

The committee’s consensus decision regarding the exam is due by the 21st of August, December or April, depending on the semester during which the comprehensive exam is being conducted. Committee members should communicate their decision to the lead examiner, who will inform the student and the graduate administrator.

Examination Outcomes

The exam outcome is pass/fail, and is based on the committee’s consensus decision regarding the quality of the exam. The outcome is to be documented on page two of the relevant form, to be submitted to the graduate administrator by either the student or the lead examiner.

If an extension is requested, the lead examiner should inform the graduate office of this request, provide a date of anticipated completion, and give a brief explanation.

In the case of an examination with multiple written and/or oral components, the student must pass all components to have passed the exam. If any components are judged to have failed, the student is given one opportunity to repeat the component(s) deemed insufficient.  The committee may also require a follow-up oral examination to address any concerns.  The committee should inform the Graduate Chair of failing outcomes, and the Chair may be involved in mediating any final decisions or remediation efforts the committee deems necessary.

Please note that any written components of the comprehensive exam may be submitted to TurnItIn if the committee has concerns about plagiarism.