Ph.D. Qualifying Exams - Preparation and Standards


When should they happen?

The Graduate Calendar says that the QE should occur “as early as possible and in no case later than the final semester of the minimum duration requirement”; for everyone, including student transfers from M.Sc. to Ph.D., this means the QE should occur by the end of the 5th semester of your Ph.D. studies.

What do they assess?

The Graduate Calendar says that QEs are “to assess the student’s knowledge of the subject area and related fields”. More broadly, “consideration is to be given not only to the Student's knowledge of the subject matter and ability to integrate the material derived from their studies, but also to the Student's ability and promise in research. The examining committee, therefore, will receive from the advisory committee a written evaluation of the quality of the Student's research performance to date and of the student's potential as a researcher” (i.e. Advisor’s assessment sheet). “The examining committee will determine the relative importance to be given to these two major components of the QE.”

In our department, we believe that the QE prep time is an opportunity to learn material that will not only be important for the Student's research, but also future employment. This gives us a lot of flexibility in the topics and format of the QE, and so the Student and their advisory committee should assess ahead of time what would be most beneficial for the Student and their career development.

Who are the QE examiners and how is the QE organized?

The QE exam committee is made up of four Examiners; two members from your advisory committee, and two U of Guelph regular or associated graduate faculty who are not on your advisory committee. Two Examiners will collectively assess one Major topic area (see below), and two Examiners will individually assess two Minor topic areas (see below). The Advisor may be one of the members of the QE examination committee, especially if no other suitable examiner can be identified.   

The Student and their advisory committee choose the Major and Minor topic areas and the Examiners, and then it is the Advisor who should approach them to find out their willingness and availability. Once the Advisor has successfully found Examiners and an exam date and time that works for the oral QE, then the Graduate Secretary will find a room and a Chair for the exam, and they will also submit the 'Request for a QE' form to the Office of Graduate Studies.

What do QEs involve in our department?

The Student and advisory committee members choose the format of the QE (i.e. oral exam only, or a combination of written and oral exam). The oral QE component typically takes 3 hours, and it involves participation of all four examiners on the assigned date and time of the QE.

The Student and Advisor are responsible documenting the QE format and scope of the set topics with members of the exam committee using the QE topics, expectations and scheduling form. This documented information is to be made available to the exam committee and the assigned Chair of the QE.

 When a written + oral component has been selected, and Student and Examiner mutually agree on the format of the written exam and details of the written exam also need be documented using the QE topics, expectations and scheduling form. Some Students and Examiners prefer a timed sit-down exam, while others may choose a   take-home exam, assignment, literature review or a research proposal that is completed over a few days or weeks. Although not mandatory, it is recommended that a written component be included in the QE process as it serves as a back-up in case of a “bad day” for the oral exam, provides different options for students with special accessibility needs and helps to build writing skills that are viewed as a weakness for some students.  

The Graduate Calendar says the QE “should be completed within a two-week period if possible”. But in reality, the QE preparation, writing, and QEs may well take 2-3 months because our QEs involve separate assignments from each of the four exam committee members. Thus, realistically preparing for and taking QEs take most of a semester, during which time the Student may have little time to conduct thesis-related research. Although the effort spent on each topic may be tailored in the planning stages to best meet the Student’s needs, as a rule, this means Examiners should recognize that a Student cannot really spend more than 2-3 weeks of full-time work on the topic that each of them has chosen.

The Major topic of the QE can be broad or narrow, and ideally, the two Examiners should set complementary questions that together will generally take about 5-6 weeks of full-time study to thoroughly address. It is expected that the Student should have graduate-level expertise in the Major topic area.

The two separate Minor topics are to be examined at the level of a senior undergraduate. Again, these topics can be broad or narrow, but the preparation for each Examiner should generally not take more than 2-3 weeks. During the preparation period, the Student is encouraged to meet regularly with each Examiner to be guided by them through readings and discussions.

QE Passing/Failing

In this department, we like to do more than just pass/fail the Student following the QE. We give Students feedback on their performance using score sheets that have been filled out by the Major topic Examiners (Major topic score sheet) and Minor topic Examiners (Minor topic score sheet). If a score of <1 is attained for any one of the assessment areas on these score sheets, then Student is deemed to have failed this Examiner’s QE. If this occurs on a written component of the QE, the Student is allowed a second attempt, which may require delaying the oral portion of the QE.