Reclassification/Qualification Exam

Reclassification exams are for students who wish to transfer directly from the M.Sc. program to the Ph.D. program without completing an M.Sc. thesis.

Qualification Exams ensure that students who have entered the Ph.D. program directly successfully prepare and defend an original research proposal leading to a Ph.D. degree. It also tests a student's general scientific knowledge and technical skills. Students who have successfully defended an M.Sc. in the Department and who have been admitted into the Ph.D. program will generally be exempted from this exam if they are continuing on the same project and if they had an exemplary M.Sc. defence.


Reclassification/qualification exams will be held in the last 3 weeks of May of the 2nd year of studies, for students who started their program in September or the last 3 weeks of October of the 2nd year of studies, for students who started their program in January.

All proposals will be handed in on May 1 (October 1 for January admits). These deadlines are absolute.

In order to proceed with the reclassification/qualification exam a student MUST have either:

  •  Completed and received an acceptable mark in two Course Topics before the time of the reclassification exam OR
  • Completed and received an acceptable mark in one Course Topic before the time of the reclassification exam AND be in the middle of taking the second Course Topic at the time of the exam.

Reclassification/Qualification Exam Procedure

Students are required to prepare a proposal describing the research that they intend to carry out during their Ph.D. program. The proposal text should be a maximum of 12 double-spaced (23 lines per page) pages with 2 cm margins and 12-point font. Figures, tables, and references on additional pages are allowed. The page limit will be strictly enforced. Failure to adhere to the page limits or handing in of the proposal past the due date will result in a failing mark in this part of the exam evaluation.

Proposal Preparation

Proposals must include some background information pertaining to the project and clearly identify the primary objectives of the work. In addition, the experimental methods to be employed and their possible limitations must be described. The recommended organization for the proposal is as follows:

  • Abstract: A 250-word summary of the proposal (not included within the 12 page limit).
  • Introduction (3 pages): The relevant background of the project. What is known about the system, and what is not known? What are the open questions in the field?
  • Relevant experimental progress (3-4 pages): The relevant work completed so far by the student. A brief mention of other relevant work done in the laboratory by others that has led to choosing this particular project may also be required to put the proposal into proper context.
  •  Rationale (1 page): What key question(s) are being addressed? Why has the student chosen to address this question using this particular system? What is the hypothesis or hypotheses to be tested?
  • Specific aims (4-5 pages): The specific experiments that the student intends to carry out during their Ph.D. studies are described. The purpose of the experiments with respect to the general rationale (part 2) should be made clear. Possible pitfalls in the experimental design should be pointed out and alternative approaches should be suggested. Generally two to three distinct aims should be described. Possible outcomes of the experiments, and how to proceed given these outcomes, should be discussed. Convince the Exam Committee that the experiments are feasible and will produce relevant and significant data.
  • Summary & Potential Impact on the Field (~0.5 pages).

 The student is to write the proposal. Supervisors and other members of the supervisory committee may only assist the student in preparing the proposal by giving advice and opinions on its format and clarity. Supervisors should not perform extensive rewriting of students’ proposals (e.g., supervisors should not open the document on their own computers and work on it; comments should instead be written on a print-out of the student’s proposal draft).

It is strongly recommended that students spend at least four weeks away from the lab to prepare the proposal and study for this exam. Supervisors should not pressure students to do experiments during this period.

Reclassification/Qualification Exam Quorum

The composition of the exam committee is as follows (normally 6 members in total):

  1. Executive Committee Member (exam chair) (Organizational Structure). A Supervisory Committee Member who is also on the Executive Committee CANNOT fulfill this role.
  2. Examination Committee Member (Organizational Structure). Assigned by the Department based on the student’s primary research field.
  3. External Committee member (a faculty member from outside or within the Department)
  4. Supervisory Committee members (usually 2)
  5. Supervisor

A minimum of four committee members must be present to meet quorum, including:

  • The supervisor
  • The exam chair
  • The external committee member

The four members must have read the complete proposal before the exam begins and must be at the examination for its entirety, including the student’s oral presentation.  If no supervisory committee member attends the exam (not including the student’s supervisor) due to unforeseen circumstances, the exam can proceed only with the expressed written permission of the student, emailed directly to the Graduate Program Administrator.

Note that all examining committee members (except for supervisory committee members) must have an arm’s length relationship with the student and their work. For example, Professors with whom the student has had collaborations during their graduate studies in our Department are not allowed to serve as an Examination, or External Committee Member for the respective reclassification or qualification exam.

If absolutely necessary due to scheduling problems, a reclassification exam may be scheduled knowing that only one regular Supervisory Committee member is able to attend.

The Examination

  1. The examination will commence with the student’s uninterrupted oral presentation of their proposal (no more than 20 minutes in length).
  2. The Exam Committee then questions the student on their knowledge of technical and theoretical matters related to their proposal, and to their general knowledge of the research area. The examination, including the oral presentation, should not exceed 90 minutes.
  3. The Exam Committee then has a close door discussion and votes on the reclassification/qualification. All committee members including the supervisor must vote. Abstentions are not permitted. Details of the reclassification/qualification exam evaluation can be found below.

Evaluation of the Reclassification/Qualification Candidate

The exam committee will evaluate the student and project in three general areas:

  • Feasibility: If possible, Ph.D. projects should be designed so that any outcome is likely to be of scientific interest and to form the basis of a thesis. In other words, if the results do not turn out as expected, the data might still have sufficient interest to be publishable and constitute the student's Ph.D. thesis. In some cases, a student may wish to start on a risky project where only one outcome would be interesting. In this case, it is important to state why the payoff merits such a high-risk approach. The student should also state how long he/she will pursue this high risk project before dropping it, and what criteria will be used to decide that the project cannot be done. In addition, feasible back-up projects should be proposed.
  • Understanding of the Project: The student is expected to understand all of the concepts associated with their proposed area of research. He/she should also have a thorough understanding of the literature in all aspects related to their proposed area of investigation.
  • Ability to function in a Research Environment: The student must be able to collect interpretable data, understand the importance of controls, and design and execute internally consistent experiments. To this end, it is very important to include in the proposal information about the research that he/she has done during their time in the program. Even if this research is unrelated to what the student proposes to do for their Ph.D. thesis, it nevertheless provides an opportunity for the Exam Committee to evaluate their competence in a research environment.

 Evaluation of students at Reclassification and Qualification examinations has both objective and subjective components. Because of the latter and because the faculty members are evaluating both the student and the project, it is difficult to state unequivocally the weight to be given to each of the above components. The best way to ensure a positive outcome is to ascertain that one's proposal is feasible and to consider as many of the potential pitfalls as possible. Students should also know the literature relevant to the proposed area of research. The best sources of information and help are the student’s supervisory committee and senior students who have successfully defended a research proposal at this type of exam. It is extremely helpful to ask fellow students to hold a mock exam prior to the actual exam.

Specific Procedure for Exam Evaluation

Following the oral defence, the student will leave the room. Prior to any discussion, each examiner will evaluate the student in several different categories. The criteria for which specific marks are given and details of the exam evaluation can be found on the Reclassification/Qualification Exam Evaluation Forms (available on the Departmental website). The committee chair will collate the evaluations, present a summary to the committee and determine the nature of the subsequent discussion. Once a decision has been reached, the student will be invited back and informed of the decision. Copies of the evaluations will be made available to the student.

Failure of a reclassification exam will result in one of the following four outcomes (to be determined by the exam committee):

  • The student is asked to retake the oral exam within 4 to 8 weeks without revising their proposal.
  • The student is asked to submit a revised written proposal and must retake the oral exam within 4 to 8 weeks.
  • The student is asked to complete and defend a M.Sc. thesis.
  • The Department terminates the student’s enrollment in the program.

Failure of a qualification exam will result in one of the following three outcomes (to be determined by the exam committee):

  • The student is asked to retake the oral exam within 4 to 8 weeks without revision of the proposal.
  • The student is asked to submit a revised written proposal and must retake the oral exam within 4 to 8 weeks.
  • The Department terminates the student’s enrollment in the program.
  • In cases where the student does not have an M.Sc. in a field that is directly related to their current area of research, the committee may consider recommending to the student that they reclassify into the M.Sc. program.

Transferring to the Ph.D. Program

(For reclassifying students)

  • The Exam chair submits the evaluation forms to the Graduate Program Administrator to be kept in the student’s file.
  • A copy of the forms is forwarded to the student for their information. The student must bring the evaluation forms to the next supervisory committee meeting.
  • If a student passes, he/she will be asked by the Graduate Program Administrator to sign a “Program Transfer”, which is then forwarded to the School of Graduate Studies for approval.
  • The School of Graduate Studies notifies the student of a successful transfer in writing.