Comprehensive Exams

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This section contains information on the comprehensive exams. This includes current procedures, organizers, examples of questions from previous years, and what to expect during and leading up to the exam.

General Information

The comprehensive examination is an oral examination which lasts approximately two hours, and will normally take place within 24 months after a student first registers in the Ph. D. program. The examinations for all the candidates in a given academic year will occur within a week or two, at the end of February or beginning of March. The examining committee will consist of three faculty members, with one designated as chair. The supervisor of the student will also be present, but wont be participating in the examination procedure.

The student will be given approximately 30 minutes before the committee members arrive to review the exam questions. These question (roughly 4 or 5) would be the starting point for follow up questions and discussion during the exam. The student may take this 30 minutes to write down ideas and formulate solutions.

Once the members arrive, the student will give a fifteen minute presentation about his/her research at the beginning of the examination. The presentation should explain the context and motivation of his/her intended thesis topic, plus progress he/she has made.

After the presentation, the examiners may ask the student about his/her research before diving into the exam. The exam will start by the committee members asking you about the questions which provided to the student earlier and further extending them by asking follow up questions. As a student, you are expected to be able to communicate your idea for how to solve a set of question with other physicists (the examiners in this case). The back and forth discussion (examination) will continue for about two hours after which you will be asked to leave the room and go home without discussing the outcome of the exam with others.

Following each examination, the examining committee will discuss and evaluate the performance of the candidate. As soon as possible following the last examination, the committee will present its recommendations to the department at a faculty meeting. The possible recommendations are: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Fail. At this time the performance of all the candidates will be discussed and a final decision regarding student standings will be taken by the department as a whole. The academic record and research progress of candidates who receive a failing grade will undergo a wider examination, in order to decide whether they will be allowed to repeat the exam the following year, or be asked to withdraw from the program. Students will be notified in writing of their grade immediately following this meeting. This information will be the student's to disseminate as he/she sees fit; no information regarding the grades, or distribution of grades, will be released by the department.


The exam format is the same for all students (Astronomy and physics), but details could change. If you have specific questions, you should speak with your supervisor or the comprehensive exam chair. In general, you are expected to be at your comps 30 minutes before the exam, where you will be give a subset of the questions to review. Once the exam members arrive, you have to give 15 minute presentation about your research. After your presentation, the exam will start, where the examiners will begin by asking you about the questions which were provided to you at the beginning. You are expected to be able to communicate your idea for how to solve a set of question with other physicists (the examiners in this case). The back and forth discussion (examination) will continue for about two hours after which you will be asked to leave the room and go home without discussing the outcome of the exam with others.

When and How

You will first hear about comprehensive exam at your committee meeting, which should be sometime during the summer (7-8 months before you actually write your exam). This is the best time to ask any general questions that you may have. Depending on the format of the exam, you may be provided with the reading list. After this, you should receive an email regarding comps sometime early September, this email will provide you with more information about the exam. The time, and location of the exam will be decided by the Graduate Secretary and you will be notified once the details have been confirmed.

Comprehensive Exam Committee Members

Your supervisor and the chair of the comprehensive examination will decide who will be on the exam committee. You will be notified about this information as soon as it has been decided. If you have any major concerns about this decision, you should speak with your supervisor or the comps chair immediately.

Reading List

Your reading list will contain a list of books and research articles that you will be tested on. In general, it contains materials that your supervisor and exam committee members think are essential and that you should know. Depending on the format of the exam, you should be provided your reading list roughly 7 to 8 months before your exam date (optimally during your committee meeting). The exact number of items on the reading list (number of books and articles) will be different for each person. Your supervisor, the comprehensive exam chair and all members of the exam committee will be aware of what is on the reading list and to what depth the student is expected to know the content on the list. If you have any concerns about the material you should speak with your supervisor.

Study Guide

Writing the comprehensive exam is probably one of the more stressful things you would be doing in your second year of PhD, so it is important to plan your study to minimize any unnecessary stress. The following information is meant to be only a guide.

- Forming study groups: You could form study groups with other students, preferably in your field, who are writing the comprehensive exam.
- Practice exams with your supervisor: It is extremely useful to go through few practice exams with your supervisor, preferably in the same room your writing your exam in. Being able to explain the solution to a problem verbally is as important as knowing how to solve a problem.
- Time management: Although you may have TA duties and a demanding research schedule, it is very important to preschedule your comps study in advance. You should try to leave at least one week before your exam date to review the content on your reading list. The exact amount of time you need to study depends on many factors, but you should expect to spend roughly a month studying full time everyday.
-Help: It is extremely helpful to speak with students who have already written comps in the previous years and ask them for tips and tricks.