All first-year Science courses will be delivered virtually for Winter 2021. Due to the COVID-19 provincial lock-down, all students who were expecting in-person labs, should check their McMaster e-mail for important winter announcements..

Comprehensive Exams

The comprehensive examination is designed to foster creative and broad critical thinking. It involves a research proposal, which may be an extension of your present studies, and its discussion in a broader context. Your comprehensive exam is scheduled by your supervisory committee for a mutually convenient time. According to university regulations, it normally takes place within 20 months after the start of your Ph.D. program, with an upper limit of 24 months. In format it resembles a supervisory committee meeting, except that it is based on a written research proposal and that one faculty member will be added to your committee for this event as the chair of the examination.

All comprehensive examinations will be held in February of each year.  Students will be notified of the deadlines for submission of  two different topic outlines to the comprehensive committee. The committee will approve one of the topics, which will be provided to the student on the first day of the examination. About two weeks later, students should submit a draft copy of the proposal to the committee, and receive general feedback through the supervisor. The final proposal is due to the committee exactly three weeks after the topic has been approved.

The examination will normally be scheduled for the following week, where students will be expected to give a 15 minute summary presentation and field questions concerning both the proposal and the general research area. The whole meeting will be completed within 2 hours.  

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

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

With proper practice and preparation students should expect to pass the comprehensive examination. One retake of the oral or of the complete comprehensive is possible if needed, and should take place within 2 months.


How to prepare for the comprehensive exam: 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.

How to find good proposal topics: Ideas for proposals often come from current literature or seminars, or may be extensions of your current research or course work. 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. They should each be less than one page in length, and should include a key reference or two.

Format of the proposal: The written document should be 18-20 pages, Times Roman 12 point font, double-spaced, not including figures and tables, the title page, references, and any table of contents or abstract. The first half of the document should review the relevant literature, and explicitly state the aim of the proposal. The remainder should focus on your proposed research, including key methodology. A carefully written proposal, based on innovative ideas and sound science, will go a long way towards a successful comprehensive.
Go Back
McMaster University - Faculty of Science | Chemistry & Chemical Biology