PhD Candidacy Exam Regulations


The candidacy exam is designed to provide standardized criteria for the assessment of PhD candidates and is a requirement for successful completion of the PhD program. The exam combines a written component with an oral presentation and defence. The written component is a research proposal on a topic not directly related to the candidate’s research or their advisor’s area of research, prepared in the general format of an NSERC Discovery Grant proposal. This format will encourage students to read rigorously in the scientific literature, to identify and elaborate on current research directions, and to prepare and defend a document describing a reasonable research goal.

Timing of Exam

Students entering the PhD program with an MSc Degree

Students who enter the PhD program with an MSc must pass the candidacy exam before the end of the student’s third year in the program.

Students transferring to the PhD program from the MSc Program

Students may also be permitted to enter the PhD after successfully completing a minimum of one year in the Brock Chemistry MSc program. Approval to enter the PhD program may be given by the Chair after having received a favourable written report from the student’s supervisory committee. Typically, the acceptable candidate would have achieved the following: the successful completion of at least one full credit towards the degree with an average above 75%; presentation of one 50 min seminar as part of the seminar course CHEM 5P95. Some accommodation may be given in particular instances.

After transfer to the PhD program candidates must complete the PhD candidacy exam by the end of the third year of their enrollment in the PhD program. All candidates must notify the Department Chair and Departmental Graduate Officer at least 8 weeks prior to the end of their third year of registration in the PhD program of their intent to write the candidacy exam.

Failure to meet the deadlines

Students who fail to meet the above deadlines will be considered to have failed the candidacy exam. In exceptional circumstances such students may appeal the failing grade using the procedures outlined at the end of this document.

Examination Procedures

Composition of the Examination Committee

The Examination Committee will be composed of the following members:

  1. The Chair of the examination committee who will be appointed by the Chemistry Department Chair in consultation with the Departmental Graduate officer. The Chair of the examination committee does not vote.
  2. The examination committee is comprised of the student’s supervisory committee minus the student’s supervisor plus an additional faculty member assigned by the graduate program director who may be from the Department of Chemistry or any other department within the Faculty of Maths and Science.
  3. One other faculty member suggested by the student’s supervisory committee who may be from the Department of Chemistry or any other department within the Faculty of Mathematics and Sciences.
  4. The written proposal will be delivered to the examining committee no later than two weeks prior to the scheduled examination. Each examiner will evaluate the written proposal, complete the evaluation form and deliver it to the Graduate Officer no later than 48 hours prior to the examination.
  5. If the proposal is deemed to be acceptable the examination will proceed as scheduled. If the examining committee find the proposal to be unacceptable, the examination will be postponed and the student will be asked to re-write it.
  6. During the examination, the student’s direct supervisor may also participate in the questions but is not required to do so. The supervisor will be allowed to address the examination committee prior to the vote on the student’s performance but will not vote. In no way can the supervisor help the student either before or during the examination.

Format of the Written Research Proposal

The exam will test the candidate’s ability to put forward a research plan, defend its rationale and anticipate its outcomes. It provides a forum to view the candidate’s ability to describe a research goal based on literature precedent, to defend that goal and the methods by which the goal will be achieved. As such the exam should also serve as a barometer of the candidate’s capacity for independent thought. The proposal should be realistic such that a single research supervisor and his/her students could make significant progress on the topic in five years effort.

The proposal will have the general format of an NSERC Discovery Grant proposal and will include:

  1. A plain language summary of 250 words or less.
  2. A budget and justification for personnel, equipment, materials, and any other necessary costs.
  3. An introduction and background information that situates the topic in the literature.
  4. A proposal describing new work. This should include the objectives of the research program. The essential design of any experiments to be performed and a description of the experimental and/or theoretical methods that will be used to achieve the objectives.

Please use the forms and guidelines located on the Brock Chemistry website accessible via the links below to prepare your proposal. Pay strict attention to the requirements regarding number of pages, font size, page margins, etc.

  1. NSERC style application form
  2. Guidelines for preparing your proposal

Students should be prepared to supply an electronic copy of the proposal upon request. Normally a proposal would include no more than two or three figures or tables. Figures should clarify, and not serve as a place for additional text. A copy for each member of the committee should be submitted to the Graduate Officer two weeks prior to the examination.

Choice of Topic

Understanding that the choice of suitable topic places an inordinate amount of responsibility on the candidate, the topic of the research proposal may be arrived at as follows: Once the candidate has announced his/her intention to take the examination, the supervisory committee will solicit topics from the candidate and vet them, rejecting grandiose or trivial topics, as well as those deemed too similar to the candidate’s thesis research. On behalf of the supervisory committee, the student’s immediate supervisor will notify the Departmental Chair and the Graduate Officer once a suitable topic has been chosen. No student should proceed with preparation of a research proposal without having received permission to do so from the Examination Committee.

Format of the Oral Presentation

The candidate will give a brief oral presentation of the research plan, its rationale and expected outcomes. This presentation may be no longer than 25 minutes. Presentations longer than 25 minutes will be stopped by the Chair of the Examination Committee.

Format of the Questioning

There will be two rounds of questions by the examiners. The Chair may also participate in the questions but is not required to do so. Questions must relate to the proposal, but can cover any aspect of the proposal and the background to it. They are expected to be wide-ranging, but if questions stray too far from the topic or serve no obvious assessment purpose, then the opinion of the Chair will determine whether the discussion shall continue.

Assessment Procedures

The examination is to assess whether the candidate has the ability to synthesize a coherent, potentially achievable research proposal, and to defend that topic and the chosen methods. The candidate’s performance will be based on the following criteria:

  1. The understanding of basic principles, including (but not limited to) principles behind the methodology and the background to the phenomenon or topic being investigated.
  2. The feasibility of the project and the approach chosen by the candidate.
  3. The clarity of communication, both in the written research proposal and during the oral presentation and questioning.
  4. The adequacy of the introduction and the literature review.

Method of Assessment

The candidate will be asked to leave immediately following the questioning and wait at some location removed from the examination room. The supervisor(s) will be invited to make comments on the candidate’s performance and on the appropriateness of the direction of questioning. The supervisor(s) will be asked to leave prior to the discussion of the candidate’s performance. The Examination Committee will discuss the candidate’s performance taking into consideration the supervisor’s comments. The members of the committee will vote and the results of the vote will indicate in the first instance whether the candidate will be allowed to proceed in the PhD program. If the vote does not favour continuance in the PhD program the committee will recommend whether the student will be invited to write an M.Sc. thesis or will be asked to leave the program.

The vote will be confidential.

The Examination Committee may request that a passing performance for the candidate be recorded only after completion of remedial work, which may include tests, essays or courses, and is at the discretion of the Examining Committee.

The evaluation of the committee will be recorded on the Candidacy Examination Evaluation Form and placed in the student’s file.

Role of the Chair

The Chair of the Examination Committee has the following responsibilities:

  1. To note the areas where the candidate excels or has difficulty, and the supervisor’s comments.
  2. To ensure that the questioning remains on time and on track.
  3. To count the vote of the final assessment.
  4. To note the final results.
  5. To communicate the final result (pass or fail, and whether any remedial work is required) to the student, the supervisor, the Departmental Graduate Officer and the Chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Appeals Procedure

  • To appeal the result of a Candidacy Examination, the candidate must provide a written request to Chair (or Acting Chair) of the Department of Chemistry stating the basis for the action within one week following the exam. Only in exceptional circumstances will an appeal based on arguments of scientific merit be considered. It is not the purpose of the appeals committee to re-do the exam. Should the Department Chair be the student’s immediate supervisor, the Graduate Officer will accept and process the written appeal.
  • The Chair (or Graduate Officer) will then form a three-member Appeals Committee to consider the request. The Graduate Officer will Chair the Appeals Committee. The two remaining members will be chosen from those among the Department of Chemistry who have no direct involvement with the student or other conflict of interest. If it is impossible to find three such individuals, other faculty, from outside the department may be asked to serve.
  • The Graduate Officer, in cooperation with the Examination Committee, will prepare a written report regarding the outcome of the candidacy examination. The candidate’s supervisor may also elect to submit a letter to the committee. Any other relevant documentation, from any party, must be submitted to the Graduate Officer as Chair of the Appeals Committee. At its discretion, the Appeals Committee may also interview the participants; first the examining committee, then the student and supervisor.
  • The appeals committee will meet within one week to arrive at a judgment. A brief report must be written dealing with the acceptability of the grounds for the appeal and whether the appeal is denied or approved. The report is presented to the Chair of the Department.
  • A successful appeal will result in a repeat of the Candidacy exam with the same examination committee (if possible) unless specific circumstances dictate otherwise. The appeal committee report will be provided to all members of the examining committee, the appeals committee, the appellant and the Chair of the Department of Chemistry.
  • Further appeals must be directed to the Dean of Graduate Studies.