๐Ÿ“– Comprehensive Exam#

This page presents a guide to the comprehensive exam at Poly. Comprehensive Exam (CE) is one of the milestones that every doctoral student enrolled at Poly needs to pass before continuing towards the PhD. This guide intends to provide all the details to the CE for students enrolled at the Biomedical Engineering department.

When to give this exam?#

This exam must be completed by the end of 4th semester after the studentโ€™s initial registration at Poly. This turns out to be 1 year after you start your PhD. For example, if your first semester at Poly was in Fall/Automne 2021, then you must complete this exam by the end of Fall 2022.

NOTE: It is better to start thinking early about this exam because there are few important things involved such as, forming a committee, writing the research proposal, preparing for the written exam, and finally defending your proposal. Each of these will be explained in detail below.

What is the first step/Where do I start?#

Start by discussing with your supervisor about whom you would want to include in your committee. The jury should consist of at least 3 members out of which 1 member must be outside the department (not necessarily outside Poly, although this is also accepted). However, if you already have 2 supervisors, then the jury should consist of 4 members.

What is the structure of the exam?#

It has 2 parts: a written exam and an oral presentation.

Written Exam#

Fix a date for the written exam as early as possible. Planning to write your exam in November? Fix a date (and let the jury know) by the end of September (or earlier)!

Structure: At the Biomedical Engineering Department, how it is done is as follows: the graduate student coordinator asks the jury to recommend a few articles 2-3 weeks before the exam. The jury members send the articles to you, and you have to read them thoroughly. You will know the topics on which these articles will be sent beforehand (more on this later).

As the day of the exam approaches, the jury sends the questions to the coordinator (behind-the-scenes). On the exam day, the coordinator will hand you the questions.

Exam Format: The questions can be open-ended, case study-based, problem solving-based, etc. Depends on what you jury members specialize in. Talk to your supervisor about whether the exam is open-book or closed. (Although, it is usually open-book, it is good to confirm this).

Duration: As per the departmentโ€™s rules, you have 8 hours (9am - 5pm) to complete the exam and send your answers to the coordinator.

Evaluation: There are no points for this exam, rather, just a Pass or Fail grade. This will be conveyed to you during the oral presentation.

Thatโ€™s it for the written exam, your job ends here.

Oral Exam/Presentation#

Whatโ€™s more important is that the date for the oral presentation should be fixed even earlier because this involves the availability of all profs on a given day. Everyone is extremely busy so make sure that this date is fixed and ensure that the calendar invites are appropriately sent.

Format: This presentation is essentially you describing your research proposal in 30 minutes. The jury will ask questions and discuss some aspects one-by-one after your presentation. This is also the time when the jury members can decide to go back to the questions on the written exam and get some answers/clarifications if any.

NOTE 1: Some thesis proposal presentations are open-to-all but not all. Confirm with the president of your jury whether this presentation will be open to your lab members (itโ€™s nice to have some support from them!).

The whole presentation + discussion should last about 2 hrs after which the jury deliberates and gives a verdict.

NOTE 2: Schedule your written exam to be 2-3 weeks before the oral exam. This gives you enough time to prepare your presentation and think about the questions you might be asked during the presentation.

The Research Proposal#

It is highly, highly recommended that you start writing your proposal at least 1 semester before your CE is due. This gives a lot of time to think about what you want to write instead of writing to fill some pages. That said, the department does require that your proposal be between 25-50 pages and should contain the following sections:

  1. Introduction: the problem and the general approach

  2. Critical review of the literature

  3. Hypotheses to be tested (or objectives)

  4. Proposed methods

  5. Results (preliminary and/or expected), anticipated problems

  6. Originality and implications of the project

  7. Schedule (there is no budget requested)

  8. References

  9. Short curriculum vitae (previous studies, experience, publications)

A challenge is that you are also required to write about the projects that you will be doing in your PhD, meaning, the things you will be working on 1-2 years from now. While this might seem pointless (because you never know which idea you might find interesting in 1-2 years or what you have proposed now may be irrelevant in 1-2 years (which is quite possible if youโ€™re in machine learning)), know that the jury definitely understands this, they are only looking to see how well you can present your ideas coherently and whether you can considered all the relevant aspects for whichever ideas you are proposing.

When to submit? As per the official guidelines, the research proposal must be submitted at least 2 weeks before the day of your oral exam. But, it is always good to give more time to jury to read your proposal, so a good time to submit it would be just before you give your written exam. This has to be sent to all the jury members includding a cc to the graduate students coordinator.

NOTE: Starting your proposal early also gives you the chance to get the necessary feedback from your supervisor about its structure and content.

Documents to submit#

It is your responsibility to contact the graduate students coordinator for all the required documents. This typically includes a โ€œResearch Topic and Timetable for PhDโ€ document that you submit to start the process of the CE. There is also a document which lists the jury members, the topics they have chosen for your written exam, the dates for your written and oral exam. These things might change without any notice from the department, hence, it is best to get the latest docs from the grad studies coordinator.

The official website for details on CE at Poly can be found here.

Thatโ€™s pretty much it for the comprehensive exam. While it is generally seen as a โ€œformalityโ€, it can be a bit stressful unless this milestone is cleared so that you can focus purely on the research! All the best!