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Chemistry PhD. Direct-Entry

Degree Requirements

  • SGS 101 and 201 (non-credit)
  • CHEM 700
  • 2 courses / 3 units of additional coursework
  • Research Colloquium
  • Comprehensive Exam
  • Departmental Seminar
  • Thesis embodying original research

Course Requirements

  • All direct-entry PhD students must sign up to take CHEM 700 at the first opporunity; it is offered every September.
  • Beyond this, you should plan to take two additional CHEM courses at the 700-level in the first year of their program.
  • Be sure to consult with your supervisor about which additional courses to take.
  • It is possible to get permission to count courses outside of the CHEM program toward your degree.  You will need to fill in a Request for In-Program Course Adjustments Form and obtain signatures from your supervisor and the Graduate Chair. Return the completed form to
  • For graduate students, the minimum passing grade for any module or course is B-.
  • In all cases, additional courses beyond the minimum requirement may be recommended by the supervisory committee.

The Colloquium

All graduate students are expected to attend departmental seminars and colloquia regularly.

MSc and direct-entry PhD students are required to present a departmental colloquium on their research progress in their second year of study. Chemistry Graduate Colloquium Day is typically held at the end of Winter term each year (in exceptional cases, there may also be an opportunity to deliver your colloquium presentation in the Fall term).  Talks are usually 25 minutes including time for questions. The Colloquium Coordinator will communicate with students earlier in the term to request a title and abstract and will let you know the schedule of presenters.  For examples of past colloquium talks and abstracts see the program from Spring 2021 and Fall 2021.

How To Have A PhD Supervisory Committee Meeting

Note: this is an email-based process; there are no paper/pdf forms or signatures required.

    1. Confirm the date and time of your committee meeting with your advisory committee members. Please note: if the committee meeting will take place virtually, it is the student’s responsibility to set up the videoconference.
    2. Email the grad admin ( to let them know that you want to have a committee meeting at least one week before your scheduled meeting.
    3. You will receive an email link for an online committee report – fill in the top portion of this form and submit one week before your meeting.
    4. Your supervisor and committee members will all receive an email link in order to access this form during the committee meeting.
    5. Once your supervisor and committee members submit their portion of the form, you will receive an email link asking you to review the report.
    6. Once you approve it, the system will send it to the graduate chair for approval.
    7. Once they submit their approval, the process is complete – you have had a committee meeting!

Expandable List

The PhD supervisory committee consists of the supervisor and two other faculty members. For students who transferred into the PhD program from the MSc program, this committee is typically the same as the examining committee from the transfer exam. These faculty members are usually, but not necessarily, from within the Department, and additional members may be added at the discretion of the Department.

The guidelines for supervision can be found in Section 3.31 of the Graduate Calendar.  In general, the role of the the PhD supervisory committee will be:

  • to assist in planning and to approve the student’s program of courses and research;
  • to approve the thesis proposal;
  • to decide, within departmental regulations, on the timing of the comprehensive examination and, where applicable, of the language and other examinations;
  • to maintain knowledge of the student’s research activities and progress;
  • to give advice on research, usually through the student’s supervisor;
  • to provide the student with regular appraisals of progress or lack of it;
  • to perform such other duties as may be required by the department;
  • to report on the above matters annually, in writing, on the approved form to the department, which in turn will report to the Faculty Graduate Committee on Admissions and Study;
  • to initiate appropriate action if the student’s progress is unsatisfactory (indicated by a grade of marginal or unsatisfactory in a committee meeting), including any recommendation that the student withdraw, for approval by the department and the Faculty Committee on Graduate Admissions and Study;
  • to decide when the student is to write the thesis and give advice during this process;
  • to act as internal examiners for the student’s thesis;
  • to act as members of the examination committee for the final oral when so appointed.

The PhD supervisory committee must meet at least once per year, before November 30th, to review the student’s progress. It is the joint responsibility of both the supervisor and student to ensure that supervisory committee meetings take place at the proper times. With respect to the timing of PhD committee meetings, important points are:

  • For students with a January or May start date, a PhD committee meeting must be completed before November 30th of the same year (even if you had an M.Sc. committee meeting and/or transfer exam within this time period – this is a regulation from graduate studies).
  • For students with a September start date, a PhD meeting must be completed before November 30th of the following year, but an earlier meeting is strongly encouraged.
  • Please note that ~$8,000 of your PhD funding will not be transferred from grad studies to our department if your PhD committee meeting does not happen before the end of November each year, so it is very important that students and supervisors ensure that this happens!More frequent meetings may be held at the student’s or committee’s request.

All PhD committee meetings will involve an oral presentation detailing progress and results since the last meeting (or transfer meeting), accompanied by questions from committee members and discussion of the results and future directions.

The exact format of reports or documentation required for a meeting may vary between research groups. Check with your supervisor before your first PhD meeting. Most committees will require a written report of progress, results, and future work. This must be delivered to the committee members at least one week before the meeting. Some committees may only require a hard copy of the slides from the oral presentation, also delivered to the committee members one week before the meeting. In all cases, any publications or drafts of publications since the last meeting should be appended to the report. Students are strongly encouraged to write up completed work continuously throughout their studies rather than waiting to write everything in the thesis at the end of their studies. Please include a summary page at the beginning of your report.

On the report, each committee member must indicate whether the progress made by the student has been excellent, good, satisfactory, marginal or unsatisfactory. If an unsatisfactory grade is given by any member of the supervisory committee, another committee meeting must be held within three to six months to re-assess the student’s progress. A specific course of action will be recommended to help ensure a satisfactory result at the next meeting. The Associate Chair may be invited to attend this meeting (as a non-voting member) at the invitation of either the student or the supervisor.

If progress is deemed to be unsatisfactory (based on a rating of unsatisfactory or marginal by all committee members in a committee meeting), the supervisor will confer with the Associate Chair (Graduate Chemistry) and/or the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies (Science) to decide what further course of action to take, which could include asking the student to withdraw from the program. In all cases, a student will be asked to withdraw from the program if progress is deemed to be unsatisfactory (as determined by unanimous unsatisfactory or marginal supervisory committee ratings) at two consecutive supervisory committee meetings.

The comprehensive examination provides practice in developing and defending new research ideas and is designed to foster creative and broad critical thinking. It involves a literature review and research proposal, and its discussion in a broader context. All comprehensive examinations are required to occur by the end of the second year of PhD studies. Fall term comprehensive exams will take advantage of McMaster Reading Week in October (no classes or TAing) while Winter term exams take advantage of McMaster Reading Week in February (no classes or TAing).

Choosing A Topic

The scope of proposal must be significantly different from the immediate research project being carried out by the student but can be within the same general field. For example, a student in an organic synthetic group can propose to do a synthesis of a natural product. However, the methodology required should be different than what the student is using in their research.

Graduate students learn to discuss new research ideas throughout their studies. For example, your supervisory committee meetings are good places to learn how to generate and discuss ideas, and to become familiar with the fundamental concepts in your area of research. The “comp” is just one more opportunity to do this, and also provides good practice for your thesis defense.

Ideas for proposals often come from current literature or seminars, or may be extensions of your current research or course work (but not too closely related). Sometimes it helps to ask yourself what you might like to work on in a new post-doctoral, industrial or faculty position. Proposals may involve the preparation of new compounds, the study of reaction mechanisms, or the design of new ways to measure or predict compositions and properties. Your supervisor will work with you to identify and define two suitable proposal topics. Your two topic outlines should convey the scientific questions, and your excitement about pursuing them.

You should strive to challenge yourself by choosing a topic that you are interested in but know little about:

  • this enhances your learning experience
  • if your topic is too close to your research, the supervisory committee will be familiar with it and will ask harder questions!

Topic Proposal

In consultation with your supervisor, you must come up with 2 viable topics for your comprehensive exam. The 2 topics should be provided to your committee 2 weeks prior to the start of the exam. Topic outlines are 1-page documents that provide 1-2 paragraphs about the topic, as well as a brief description of the direction the proposal will take. Each outline should include ~5 leading references.

The examining committee (PhD supervisory committee) will look at the two topics and will choose one for you to do.

Timing Of The Comprehensive Exam Process

  • On the first day of the exam (5 weeks before the scheduled oral exam date), you will receive an email from the Grad Chair letting you know which topic the committee has chosen.
  • You have 2 weeks to provide a rough draft of the document, which will be reviewed by the committee. Within a week, the committee will provide recommendations about things to focus on in the final document.
  • You will have 1 more week to complete and polish the document (sometimes an extension of 1-3 days is given if extensive revisions are needed).
  • The final document must be submitted 1 week before the scheduled oral exam date.

Sample Timetable

Topics Provided to Committee Monday, September 20
Topic Assigned Monday, October 4
Draft Due Monday, October 18
Final Paper Due Monday, November 1
Oral Exam Monday, November 8

The Document

A 20-page document (double spaced, not including figures, references, or title page) will be submitted at the end of the 4-week exam period. This document should contain the following:

  1. A 10-page review of the field that provides an overview of what has been done, and what are the problems that remain unsolved, the central questions that are still outstanding or the areas that remain unexplored.
  2. A 10-page proposal that details the original research you want to do in the proposed field.

Your proposal should include a clear statement of the driving hypothesis that you plan to test, the aims of the proposal, and a discussion of the experimental plan designed to test your hypothesis.  In terms of the scope of the proposal, you should pretend that you are a starting professor or a new employee at a company and need to employ 1-3 people for ~5 years with your ideas, e. g. include a Gantt table outlining who does what and when.  The experimental plan should include an explanation of the key methodologies as well as positive and negative controls and problem mitigation plans.

You need to propose a hypothesis or an idea that is:

  • Novel (has not been done before)
  • Justifiable (you should be able to convince your committee that the research is worthy of taxpayer’s or company’s money – i.e. it will yield results of scientific interest/value)
  • Feasible (you are qualified to carry out the research, you are familiar with what is needed to succeed, and the research has a reasonable chance of success)

You should expect to read dozens of papers on the topic (much of the literature review should be done as part of initial preparation of the two topics).

The document should be on 8.5″ × 11″ pages, double-spaced, using 12 pt. font (Times New Roman is preferable), with margins set at a minimum of ¾ inches (1.87 cm), and pages numbered sequentially.

The Oral Exam

The actual exam consists of a 15-20 minute presentation by the student, giving an overview of the field and a description of the proposed research. The presentation is followed by two rounds of questioning by the committee. Questions can be very broad in scope and will assume a sound understanding of undergraduate-level concepts. Typically, questions start with something related to the comprehensive topic and submitted document but can then extend to fundamental concepts that the student is expected to know.

At the end of the oral examination: the committee will deliberate briefly, and then provide the student with their decision and feedback. The possible outcomes are:

  1. Comprehensive exam passed
  2. Comprehensive exam passed, with some required course work or readings
  3. Retake oral part only, within 2 months
  4. Retake entire comprehensive exam, within 2 months.

All graduate students are expected to attend departmental seminars and colloquia regularly.

PhD students must present their research in a departmental seminar (50 minutes including questions) during their final year of study before defending their thesis.  The timing of this seminar is up to you and your supervisor, whether that’s weeks or months before you defend.

The department seminar slot is currently Thursdays 1:30-2:30pm.  When you know which date you would like to present, contact the Grad Admin ( to reserve your slot.  This slot is also used for seminars presented by department faculty and external speakers, so be sure to book a date well in advance to ensure you get the one you want. You can see which dates are available by checking the calendar linked below.  To book your seminar on a different date or at a different time, contract the Grad Admin (

Seminar Calendar

Students should consult the Guide for the Preparation of Masters and Doctoral Theses and the helpful guidance on the Completing your Doctoral Degree – Thesis site. These explain the style and format preferred by the School of Graduate Studies.  An archive of MSc and PhD theses from McMaster is available for download in PDF format on MacSphere. You can also access a list of MSc and PhD theses from our department in reverse chronological order going back all the way to 1946.

Process For Completion Of The Doctoral Defence

  • The student asks the supervisor for “permission to write” the thesis. This request is considered formally at a Supervisory Committee meeting, usually after the student has summarized his/her research. The majority of the committee must agree with the request. Permission to write indicates that the student has conducted sufficient research to justify preparation of a thesis. The Supervisory Committee may give conditional permission to write (i.e., permission to write after a defined list of experiments are complete).
  • Drafts of chapters of the thesis should be provided to the supervisor for review and comments/corrections as thesis writing progresses. A first complete draft of the thesis document is also submitted to the supervisor for review and critical comments.
  • Once the thesis is complete, the defence process must be initiated by the student electronically in Mosaic. After logging into Mosaic, navigate to your Student Centre and under the “My Academics” tab select ‘other academics’ and then select ‘Thesis IntentDefend my Thesis’ to initiate the process. At this point, you and your supervisor will be asked to select either the Standard Process (where SGS organizes all aspects of your defence; you must give at least 8 weeks notice for this process) or the Accelerated Process (your supervisor organizes all aspects of your defence and the timing is left up to you).
  • If you have chosen the Standard Process, within the following week, your supervisor will suggest 3 possible external examiners, and your supervisory committee will have to approve this selection. From this list of recommended external examiners, SGS will contact one examiner and secure their agreement to read the thesis and provide a written report. If you have chosen the Accelerated Process, your supervisor completes all of these steps.
  • After approximately 2 weeks, the candidate is required to submit an electronic copy of their thesis (pre-defence version) and to suggest a date for the thesis defence (in consultation with his/her committee members). In the remaining time before the defence, the examining committee will read the thesis and prepare questions and comments. The external examiner will also report back to the Dean of Graduate Studies whether or not the thesis is acceptable for defence. If it is acceptable, the School of Graduate Studies will confirm the date and time, and will arrange the location for the examination.
  • In the Standard Process, the PhD defence is organized by the Thesis Coordinator in the School of Graduate Studies (if Accelerated, by your supervisor). The Examination Committee will consist of the supervisor, the Supervisory Committee members, the external examiner (if they wish to attend in person or virtually; if not, an internal external examiner – a McMaster faculty member from outside of the department – will typically take their place) and the Examination Chair.
  • A PhD Examination Chair, representing the Dean of Graduate Studies, will oversee the PhD defence; the Examination Chair does not read or evaluate the thesis and does not have voting privileges. The examination is open to the public. The chair will usually start the defence by asking all persons except the Examination Committee to leave the room, in order to discuss the format of the examination and the responsibilities of the examiners. The examination will consist of an oral presentation (15 – 20 minutes) by the student, followed by a series of questions asked by the members of the Examination Committee in turn. Any questions posed by an external examiner unable to attend the examination will be asked by either the supervisor or the Chair in proxy. The defence should not normally exceed two hours in duration. At the end of the defence, the Examination Committee will consider their verdict in closed session. The Chair will then call the student into the room to give the committee’s decision.
  • As the final step, the student submits the corrected thesis to the School of Graduate Studies by uploading to MacSphere (instructions on how to do so can be found here). The PhD degree will be awarded on receipt of the thesis; students are considered to have completed their degrees as of the date of upload to MacSphere (this is the same date that McMaster stops charging tuition).

Timelines For Degree Completion: Chemistry PhD, Direct-Entry

Fall Entry

Download a printable copy

September – December January – April May – August
Year 1 Take SGS-101+SGS-201

Take Chem 700

Apply for major scholarships for your 2nd year.

Year 2 1st committee meeting
(September – October)Apply for major scholarships for your 3rd year.
Comprehensive Exam

Colloquium (April)

Year 3 2nd committee meeting
(September – October)Apply for major scholarships for your 4rd year.
Year 4 3rd committee meeting
(September – October)
Departmental Seminar

Submit PhD thesis to SGS Defence

Year 5 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 6 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 7 OUT OF TIME!! – You can only continue with special permission

Winter Entry

Download a printable copy

January – April May – August September – December
Year 1 Take SGS-101+SGS-201 Take Chem 700

1st committee meeting
(September – October)

Apply for major scholarships for your 2nd/3rd year.

Year 2 Comprehensive Exam

Colloquium (April)

2nd committee meeting
(September – October)Apply for major scholarships for your 3rd/4th year.
Year 3 3rd committee meeting
(September – October)
Year 4 4th committee meeting
(September – October)Departmental SeminarSubmit PhD thesis to SGS Defence
Year 5 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 6 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 7 OUT OF TIME!! – You can only continue with special permission.

Spring Entry

Download a printable copy

May – August September – December January – April
Year 1 Take SGS-101+SGS-201 Take Chem 700

1st committee meeting
(September – October)

Apply for major scholarships for your 2nd year.

Year 2 2nd committee meeting
(September – October)Apply for major scholarships for your 3rd year.
Comprehensive Exam

Colloquium (April)

Year 3 3rd committee meeting
(September – October)Apply for major scholarships for your 4th year.
Year 4 4th committee meeting
(September – October)
Departmental Seminar

Submit PhD thesis to SGS Defence

Year 5 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 6 OVERTIME!! – You can no longer TA. You cannot hold scholarships. Pay by your supervisor is optional. [exceptions apply for COVID-19]
Year 7 OUT OF TIME!! – You can only continue with special permission.