PhD Qualification Examination

The goal of the exam is to ensure the student is well positioned to be successful in their PhD program. Specifically, the committee will ask the following three sets of questions to assess the chance of success:

  1. Does the student have the capacity, within an appropriate period of time, to advance knowledge – that is answer a deep question or solve an important problem that has not been answered/solved?
  2. Is the proposed research project at the appropriate level of depth for a PhD with clearly-articulated objectives or hypotheses?
  3. Does the supervisor(s) have the capacity to provide appropriate guidance to the student and resources for the project? Are there gaps that could be filled by another faculty member?


All PhD students, except those who have transferred to the PhD, will take the qualifying exam within the first thirteen months of their PhD studies. The transfer exam, is similar to a qualifying exam in terms its goal.

The examination is normally held within the first 13 months of PhD studies, and may only be held up to the 16th month of PhD studies with permission from the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies.

The exam will typically take 1.5 hours, but may take longer as required. A professor will participate in up to three exams on a given day.

Committee Composition

The exam committee consists of at least four members or five members if there is co-supervision:

  • Supervisor(s)
  • 2 faculty members with knowledge in the research field (determined by the supervisor(s) and student)

Of the four/five members, two must be from the ChemEng department. The Graduate Office will assign the role of Chair to one of exam committee members

It is expected that each supervisor will chair at least one exam during the qualifying exam week (QEW). Committee members may participate in the exam remotely.

Scheduling an Examination

Students starting September or January

  • The Graduate Office (GO) will inform all first-year PhD students of the timing of the Qualifying Exam Week at the beginning of their program.
  • The GO will determine and assign the Chair for each exam
  • GO will provide the exam schedule to candidates (normally four months prior to the QEW.)
  • Students submit the qualifying exam proposal, abstracts and a PDF of their academic record from ACORN to their committee at least two weeks before the exam.

Students starting in May

The student must submit an Qualification Examination Request by email to the Graduate Assistant at least two months prior to the proposed exam date, providing the following information:

  • a copy of their Abstract
  • the research cluster they are studying in
  • the name of each Committee member
  • The GO will determine and assign the Chair for each exam
  • GO will provide the exam schedule to candidates (normally four months prior to the QEW.)
  • Students submit the qualifying exam proposal, abstracts and a PDF of their academic record from ACORN to their committee at least two weeks before the exam.

Qualification Exam Proposal

As part of the qualifying exam the student must submit a written proposal two weeks prior to the scheduled exam. This proposal helps the committee answer the three key questions listed above. The main body of the proposal should be within 25 typed pages including figures and tables (1.5-line spacing). It may be supplemented with appendices if appropriate. A typical proposal has following components:

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction (the big-picture motivation and significance of proposed work)
  4. Objective and research questions/hypotheses.
  5. Literature review (the current state of the art in the proposed research area, identification of knowledge gaps)
  6. Research methods (experimental design/strategy, justification and limitations of equipment, tools and facilities to be used)
  7. Results and discussion of preliminary findings
  8. Status of on-going work and plan for future work (including a rough timeline in the form of a Gantt chart)
  9. A list of references

Conducting the Exam

At the start of the oral exam, the candidate will be asked to leave the room while the following procedures are carried out:

  • The Chair briefly reviews the relevant Departmental policies related to the Ph.D. program.
  • The Committee reviews the length of time the candidate has been registered in the Ph.D. program.
  • The committee will review the student’s academic record.

The Chair will then invite the student to re-enter the room.

  • The student will give a 20-minute oral presentation outlining the proposal.
  • The chair will invite committee members to ask the candidate questions. Questions should probe the fundamentals related to the proposed PhD project.
  • Questions may extend to the fundamentals in chemical engineering beyond the main research area of the student.
  • The committee will assess the readiness of the student to carry out the proposed research project based on both the written proposal and the oral examination.

At the end of the question period, the student will be requested to leave the room.

Post-Exam Process

On the basis of the research proposal, presentation and academic standing, the committee may recommend:

  • the student continue in the PhD program
  • the examination be adjourned and reconvened within 3 months
  • the student’s registration in the program be terminated

The committee’s assessment will be summarized and communicated to the student. Students are asked to sign the form in order to confirm that the document accurately reflects the discussion and recommendations made by at the oral examination. Students may also add their own comments to the form after the assessment has been communicated to them. Students may request a copy of the assessment form from the Graduate Office.

Missing the scheduled exam is considered a fail unless there are extenuating conditions (e.g. health-related matters).

The Exam Chair will submit a Qualification Examination Assessment Form to the Graduate Office following the exam.