Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination
The Comprehensive Exam should not be used primarily as a screening process to check on a Ph.D. candidate's current understanding of physiology. Those students who have taken physiology courses and obtained passing grades have satisfied this requirement. If we are unable to evaluate the transcript of an entering student, ad hoc oral examinations are the best device instead of a formal Comprehensive with its serious consequences of failure. The Comprehensive should be administered at a relatively late stage in the Ph.D. program, to determine whether the student has acquired those characteristics which we believe should be exhibited by a candidate for the Ph.D. degree: that the student has, as stipulated in the "Guidelines for Graduate Programs in Physiology" "a sound background in broad aspects of Physiology, [and] specialized training in their chosen field of research." In effect, we are asking: "Is this student ready to prepare and defend a Ph.D. thesis?"
The candidate should demonstrate the following skills:
• ability to write clearly and concisely
• ability to seek out primary and secondary sources of information to support an argument
• ability to defend, logically and clearly, his or her reasoning
• an understanding of the principles of scientific enquiry
• an awareness of what constitutes ethical behaviour in scientific research
and possess the following knowledge:
• a detailed knowledge of the historical basis and current organizing concepts in the subdiscipline which encompasses the thesis topic, and
• a working knowledge of physiological concepts which facilitate the detailed exposition of any particular area of physiology
This last item requires some explanation. We do not expect even professors of physiology to discuss areas of physiology outside their own area of expertise. A respiratory physiologist, for example, could easily be embarrassed answering detailed questions about gastrointestinal physiology. But what we do expect is that, with a week or so of preparation, a respiratory physiologist could apply a working knowledge of physiological principles to the details of the GI system, and provide a comprehensible response to questions about GI physiology. Because no professor carries the contents of a standard textbook in his or her short-term memory, we cannot expect graduate students to do so for any longer than the few days prior to the Comprehensive.
On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable to expect that the Ph.D. student should have a detailed knowledge of the background to the subdiscipline in which the thesis project is based. Such knowledge is essential for critical reading of the literature, for discussion of data with peers, and to provide the rationale for the thesis project.
II. The Comprehensive
A. The objectives of the Comprehensive Exam are to ensure that candidates for the Ph.D. degree have:
• A general knowledge of physiological principles which can be applied to areas outside that of the Ph.D. project;
• A detailed knowledge of the history and basic concepts within the sub-discipline in which their thesis is based;
• A knowledge of the philosophical and ethical principles of scientific enquiry;
• The ability to express themselves clearly and concisely in both written and oral argument; and
• The skills necessary to seek out sources of information necessary to support their arguments.
The comprehensive examination shall normally be administered within 28 months of entering the Ph.D. program after required course work has been completed, but (in accordance with the regulations of the School of Graduate Studies) at least 12 months prior to the anticipated date of the Ph.D. defence. The timing shall be determined by the Supervisory Committee. Because it is difficult to ensure that all committee members are present during the summer, comprehensive examinations should be avoided at this time. Committee members must be available when the written answers are submitted and for the oral part of the examination.
Approximately six weeks prior to the exam, the Supervisor shall convene a meeting of the Comprehensive Examining Committee which shall consist of at least 4 members, of whom one shall be from another Division I program, plus the designate (e.g., Coordinator of Graduate Studies) who shall chair the examining committee. The Chair is impartial throughout the entire process, and may not vote on any matter, even to break a tie. Normally, the members of the committee will include the members of the supervisory committee. Notice of the meeting of the examiners will also be provided to the candidate who may challenge the composition of the committee, for cause. The Committee Chair will determine the validity of the challenge and, if necessary, appoint a replacement member.
At this meeting, four written questions shall be prepared for the candidate:
• one question must deal with the sub-discipline in which the thesis project is based
• a second with the philosophy, history, sociology or ethics of scientific enquiry
• a third with several disciplines within physiology (i.e., an "integrative" type question ?? for example, a question on acid-base balance involving respiratory, renal, and gastrointestinal physiology)
• The fourth question can be on any area of physiology chosen by the committee.
The committee must also set the date of submission of the written questions and the date and location of the oral examination.
Not later than five weeks prior to the date of the oral component of the comprehensive exam, the candidate shall receive the written questions. S/He shall prepare written answers, each not to exceed 20 double-spaced typewritten single-sided pages (excluding figures and bibliography).
Written answers must be given to the Chair of the Examination Committee, typically four weeks after their receipt, and 2-5 working days before the date of the oral examination. This allows distribution of copies of the answers to members of the Committee, who then have adequate opportunity to read all the written answers.
In preparing their written answers, candidates may draw on any sources customarily used in scholarly writing, including discussions with colleagues and faculty. However, they are cautioned to be meticulous in documenting sources of information and ideas. Plagiarism will disqualify candidates from passing the exam, and may lead to disciplinary actions. Candidates are referred to "Writing Essays: a short guide", published by the program of English for guidance on this matter.
Questions related to areas of Physiology outside the sub-discipline of the thesis project can best be answered using textbooks, monographs and reviews as primary sources, and should be written at a level appropriate for an introductory course. In evaluating the answer, emphasis should be placed on the student's ability to present the subject material in a concise and coherent manner, demonstrating comprehension and the ability to integrate information from different sources. Questions on the subdiscipline in which the thesis project is based will require the candidate to consult primary sources, and to write an answer at a level appropriate for a graduate level course. The answer should focus on controversies in the field and should identify the origins of those controversies.
The oral component of the Comprehensive shall proceed only if the student's performance on the written part of the Comprehensive is satisfactory. Failure is set at a 65% level according to the School of Graduate Studies; the overall average on all four questions must be at least 65% with no more than one failure.
The Oral examination should not normally exceed two hours in duration. The format is similar to that used for a thesis defence. The Chair reviews the procedures to be followed to the student and the committee. The candidate is then asked to withdraw and the Chair reviews the student's performance on the written part of the Comprehensive. Each examiner is asked to comment briefly on the written responses in order to focus the subsequent oral questioning on perceived areas of weakness or controversy. Examiners shall confine their questioning to issues which have arisen from the written answers. Questions should be used to assess the student's understanding of concepts rather than details. (However, because we expect students to have "a general knowledge of physiological principles", questioning may be broadened from the particular to the general. For example, if a student has provided a written answer about sodium transport in the proximal renal tubule, it is reasonable to broaden the oral questioning to general concepts of solute transport across cell membranes. What is not reasonable would be to proceed from these broad concepts to specific knowledge outside the scope of the written question. In this case, the student would not be expected to recall details of chloride transport in the ileum, for example.) As occurs in a thesis defence, the "external" member of the committee asks questions first; the last person should be the candidate's supervisor. The oral examination offers the student an opportunity to expand upon material dealt with in the written examination. As in a thesis defence, the Chair offers members of the examination committee the opportunity to ask follow-up questions in a brief second round of questioning.
The Examining Committee should judge the candidate's performance as either "Pass" (unconditional) or "Repeat", meaning that the student is not yet sufficiently prepared, and should have another opportunity within 12 months to demonstrate his or her ability. Immediately after the conclusion of the post-examination examiners' meeting, the Chair will inform the candidate orally of the outcome. The committee may exercise discretion in determining the timing and nature of a repeat examination; it may require the student to repeat the entire examination, including revisions to written questions already asked or answers to one or more new written questions. The committee may also decide to repeat just the oral component. The objective is to assist the student in his or her preparation for the repeat examination and, by extension, for his or her thesis defence. Thus, in the event that a repeat examination is necessary, the Chair must provide the candidate, in writing and within a week, detailed information from the examiners about perceived deficiencies and recommendations for improvement. Students are encouraged to consult with faculty members. Questions in a repeat oral examination must address these deficiencies, not unrelated material.
The purpose of the exam is not to fail students, but to assist in their preparation for the Ph.D. defence. A student given a "Repeat" assessment at the first attempt may continue with the Ph.D. project while preparing for the second attempt.
On the repeat examination, the decision shall normally be "Pass" or "Withdraw"; in the latter case, examiners must provide to the supervisor and Chair in writing, within 24 hours, the reasons for judging the candidate unfit to proceed to the Ph.D. thesis defence.
In arriving at a decision, the Chair will seek a consensus. When, after discussion, it is apparent that this is not possible, a vote will be taken. The supervisor may vote.
The examining committee for the second attempt need not be identical to the first examining committee but must have the same overall composition.
At the first attempt, a candidate may appeal the result of the examination only on procedural grounds. All students judged "repeat" have essentially an automatic right of appeal against the academic judgement, which is the opportunity to repeat the examination.
At the repeat examination, a candidate may appeal the outcome on procedural or academic grounds.
Appeals must be made in writing to the Chair of the examining committee within 5 working days of the examination. The Chair will reconvene the examining committee within 10 days of receiving notice of appeal, and the committee will consider the written arguments contained in the notice of appeal. The committee's decision will be conveyed to the candidate in writing, along with reasons for the decision. The academic decision of the committee cannot be overturned. If the candidate's appeal is based on procedural grounds, the candidate should next appeal through the general Grievance procedures of the University.