Comprehensive Examination: General Policies and Procedures

a)      Purpose and Fields Offered:

Each PhD candidate must pass a comprehensive examination, which involves a written exam in the student’s major field of study followed by an oral examination.

The purpose of comprehensive examinations is to provide all students receiving a UBC PhD with a broad understanding of literatures and issues in the discipline.  This prepares students to enter the community of political scientists, so that they can communicate with colleagues who do not work in the same specialized field as themselves. The examinations are thus generalist in orientation, in contrast with the specialist emphasis of the PhD dissertation, of reading courses, and of certain graduate seminars.

Successful exams will provide evidence that the student has developed strong analytical, theoretical, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities; the required breadth and depth of knowledge within the discipline; the background for the specific doctoral research to follow; the potential ability to conduct independent and original research; and the ability to communicate knowledge of the discipline.

The department offers examinations in five major fields of political science:

  • Canadian Politics
  • Political Theory
  • Comparative Politics
  • International Relations
  • US Politics

Three of these – international relations, comparative politics, and political theory – are core fields at every major department in the world. The fourth – Canadian politics – reflects our commitment to understanding the politics of the country in which we live and work as well as the fact that the study of Canadian politics has long been one of this Department’s core strengths.  The fifth, US politics, reflects the considerable concentration of expertise in this area among Department faculty as well as the important role that the study of US politics has played in the development of the discipline in North America.


b)      Timing:

Students must take their comprehensive exams within six months of the completion of their coursework. Under exceptional circumstances students may petition the Director of the Graduate Program to extend this time limit. Comprehensive exams will be offered in the fall of each year, normally in late September or early October. Comprehensive exams will also be offered as required by students in the spring of each year, with the written exam normally taking place in late April or early May.

The Director of the Graduate Program will announce the dates of written exams by the end of May for the fall exam period and by the end of November for the spring exam period.


c)      Examination Procedures

  1. In the written comprehensive examination, the student must provide written answers to three questions relating to the student’s major field.
  2. The written comprehensive examination is to be taken without books, notes of any kind, or internet access.
  3. PhD candidates will typically have the option of writing a qualifying paper (details below) in place of one of three exam answers. In this instance, the “sit down” exam would consist of just two answers, and the qualifying paper constitutes the third section of the exam.  For practical reasons, the availability of the qualifying-paper option is contingent on an appropriate faculty member being able and willing to assess and examine such a paper (e.g., not on leave and unable or unwilling to do it).
  4. For the sit down part of the exam, students will have two hours per question. Therefore, if a student does not write a qualifying paper, that student will have 6 hours to answer three questions; if a student does write a qualifying paper, that student will have 4 hours to answer two questions in the “sit down” portion of the comprehensive exam.
  5. All students wishing to be examined in a given exam period will take the exam on the same day and at the same time unless there are extenuating circumstances as approved by the Director of the Graduate Program (such as a request for accommodations by the Centre for Accessibility or previously approved amendments to a student’s program).
  6. The oral examination will normally follow the written examination by approximately one to two weeks. During the oral examination, which is two hours in length, students will be asked questions relating to the questions that they answered during the sit-down examination; students may also be asked questions about their qualifying papers. Students may bring to the oral exam a copy of their written exam answers and qualifying paper, with notes in the margins of these answers if desired. No other books or notes may be used.


d)      Qualifying Paper Guidelines

Objective and requirements

The qualifying paper should consist of a critical review of key literatures on a specific topic. The topic is to be specified by the student in dialogue with the expected dissertation supervisor. The supervisor and student should also generate an initial reading list of key past contributions on the topic. Students may also seek initial guidance from other faculty members. Following these initial consultations, the student should write the qualifying paper on their own (as with the sit-down exam questions), without further input from faculty.

Note: The literatures addressed and analyzed in a Qualifying Paper must not have substantial overlap with the reading lists for either of the sit-down exam questions.

Qualifying papers are not intended to meet the standard of publishable essays. The standard for a successful (passing) paper is that the paper exhibits a level of theoretical knowledge, analytical rigor, and clarity of expression to indicate that the student is ready to undertake dissertation research. Specifically, a passing qualifying paper must, minimally:

  1. make significant contact with literatures relevant to the chosen topic.
  2. explain the importance of the topic and locate that topic within a broader field of inquiry (such as within the relevant subfield).
  3. clearly and accurately articulate key theoretical logics, arguments, and (where relevant) empirical findings in the relevant literatures.
  4. critically evaluate key theoretical approaches or empirical claims in the literature
  5. be clearly written.

Qualifying papers must be 4000-6000 words in length, including footnotes or endnotes but not including a list of references at the end.



When a student writes a qualifying paper, the paper is due before the start of the sit-down written exam. Students should submit their qualifying papers via email to BOTH the current field chair of their major field and the Graduate Secretary.

e) Assessment of Exam (with or without Qualifying Paper)

1. Overall Exam Assessment. The examination will be evaluated by the members of a three-person examination committee. The examination committee will be chosen by the appropriate field chair in consultation with the student’s supervisor. The examination committee will normally consist of at least two members from the student’s major field, usually including the student’s supervisor (unless she or he is on leave). Copies of the student’s written exam answers will be provided to all members of the examination committee. The examination committee will also administer the oral exam. The exam committee will assess the student’s overall performance in the written components of the exam, including the Qualifying Paper (where one has been written), and in the oral exams. The exam committee thus makes a single evaluation of the entire exam as a “Pass” or a “Fail.” To receive a passing mark, an exam must, taken as a whole, provide evidence:

    1.  that the student has developed strong analytical, theoretical, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities;
    2. of the required breadth and depth of knowledge in the discipline, including sufficient background knowledge for undertaking the planned doctoral research;
    3. of the potential ability to conduct independent and original research; and the ability to communicate knowledge of the discipline.

Pass-fail decisions are taken by consensus or a majority vote on the exam committee. The committee will normally inform the student of the decision at the conclusion of the oral exam.

2. Qualifying paper assessment. The qualifying paper (where applicable) forms part of the comprehensive exam, and it is the assessment of the exam as a whole (as described above) that determines the student’s advancement in the program. While a weak qualifying paper will reduce a student’s chances of passing the exam, the exam committee may give an exam a passing mark despite a weak qualifying paper if the other components of the exam (the “sit-down” written answers and the oral exam) are sufficiently strong that the exam in its totality meets the standards described above.


f) Exam Failure and Retake

Students must pass their comprehensive exam in order to continue in the PhD program. If a student fails the comprehensive exam, the student may retake the exam once. The exam retake will take place approximately two months following the initial oral examination.

Neither the exam field nor the subfield/specialization/special topic/leading theorist for the second or third sit-down questions may be changed between the initial exam and the retake.

The examination committee for the retake will normally be the same as the examination committee for the first exam. A change to the exam committee may occur if faculty members become unavailable between the first exam and the retake (e.g., because of a leave). Exam committees will not be changed between first exam and retake at the request of the student, absent credible evidence of faculty bias or inappropriate behavior.

The exam committee may deem only one portion of the exam as in need of retake or revision. In particular, if the exam committee deems the Qualifying Paper to be satisfactory but the sit-down and oral portions of the exam to be unsatisfactory, the committee may issue a decision of “fail” but stipulate that the Qualifying Paper need not be revised. The retake would then consist only of a retake of the sit-down and oral portions of the exam. If the exam committee determines the Qualifying Paper to be unsatisfactory but the rest of the exam to be satisfactory, the committee may require revisions to the Qualifying Paper without requiring a retake of the sit-down and oral portions of the exam.

For students writing a Qualifying Paper, the paper topic may not be changed between first exam and the retake without explicit agreement of the examination committee and the Director of the Graduate Program. Any such change must be motivated by the goal of addressing the paper more effectively to the student’s expected dissertation topic.

If the student fails both the first exam and the retake, then the student is not permitted to continue in the program. There is no appeal of a second exam-failure decision.


g) Notification of intent to take comprehensive exams.

Students must inform the Graduate Program Coordinator and the relevant field chair by the end of April if they plan to take their comprehensive exam in the following academic year, indicating (a) which field they plan to take the exam in and (b) whether they plan to take it in the fall or in the spring.

Students taking exams in the fall must notify the Graduate Program Coordinator and the relevant field chair by the end of April which subfield(s) they wish to be examined in and whether or not they will be writing a Qualifying Paper. They must also at this point identify the faculty member whom they expect to be their dissertation supervisor. Students taking exams in the spring must provide these notifications by the end of October.

Meeting with field chair. In May, the chair of each examination field will meet with all students presenting themselves for examination in the field in the following academic year (fall or spring) to answer student questions and hear their suggestions for amendments to the core reading list.