Candidacy Exam Guidelines




The candidacy examination determines whether the student has adequate knowledge of the discipline and of the subject matter relevant to the thesis, and whether the student has the ability to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level.

That is, the goal is to determine if the applicant is ready to BEGIN research in a specific area; it is NOT meant to deal with the research that the student has already completed. An integral part of the candidacy examination is a thesis proposal that is distributed to the examining committee at least two weeks before the examination.


The timing of the candidacy examination will depend upon the individual student's progress. The candidacy is to be held after the student has completed all of the required course work and no less than 6 months before a Ph.D. thesis defence. The candidacy exam must be held within 3 years after the start of the degree program.

Passing the candidacy within the first 3 years of a Ph.D. program is a program requirement. Applications for extensions to the time limit for the candidacy have to be signed off by the supervisor and Associate Dean Graduate.

Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal is a well-written statement outlining the student's intended research program. A candidacy proposal should be limited to 30 pages in thesis format (i.e., double-spaced). Appendices, authored by the student and in any format, are allowed but are not integral part of the proposal.

This thesis proposal itself will include:

  • A brief statement of the topic or problem addressed in the dissertation (i.e., a well formed "thesis statement")
  • An outline of how the student plans to tackle this problem, including a timeline, identifying when the student will achieve various milestones
    • This document suggests a particular trajectory, which the student should attempt to follow. However, even if the committee approves of this path, the student is not permanently committed to it; this student can modify his/her trajectory, with input from his/her supervisor and supervisory committee.
  • The key component of the proposal is a statement of what the student plans to achieve in the thesis research and how these results contribute to our knowledge
    • This statement defines the range of the thesis and the criteria that will be used to judge whether the student has done sufficient work, and whether this work meets the requirements of the Ph.D. degree
    • It is in the student's best interest to make this statement as complete and specific as possible. No original research is expected to be included in the candidacy document
  • The proposal must also contain a review of the previous research that is relevant to the thesis topic, which should show a mastery of the required background material
    • The review cannot be a simple list of relevant papers, but should instead be a synthesis of the material in these papers

Examination Chair

Every examining committee must have a chair who is not the supervisor and is a faculty member with experience supervising graduate students. The chair should have sufficient experience of graduate examinations to be able to allow the examination to be conducted in a fair manner. The chair is responsible for moderating the discussion and directing questions. It is the chair's responsibility to ensure that departmental and FGSR regulations relating to the final examination are followed.

Currently, experienced members of the department are asked to serve as Exam Chair. The Exam Chair does not ask questions of the student, vote or sign the thesis. The chair should not have real or apparent conflict of interest with the student or any of the examiners. The Exam Chair, student, and all examiners should each have copies of the thesis at the examination. A copy of the thesis will also be in the student's file.

See Size and Composition of Examining Committees for the requirements for each examination.

Attendance at Examination

Non-committee faculty members may attend only with the permission of the Dean, FGSR or the chair of the examining committee, but these visitors may not participate in the committee's discussion concerning the decision of the student's performance. The only exception here is that the FGSR Dean (or Associate Dean or Dean's designate) may participate fully in the examination.

Making Arrangements for a Candidacy Exam

⇨ Action item

9 Weeks (45 business days) prior to Candidacy

Choose Examining Committee

For information regarding the requirements of an examining committee, please review Size and Composition of Examining Committees in the U of A Calendar.

Supervisor must complete the form via Grad DB to select the examining committee members.

4-6 Weeks (20-30 business days) prior to Candidacy

Supervisor must book a room for the candidacy, schedule the exam and enter appropriate information into Grad DB.

  • Scheduling the candidacy exam via Grad DB triggers the process for submitting the appropriate forms to FGSR.
  • Note: ATH 4-45 is reserved for defenses & candidacy exams but does not appear in the room booking system. To request this room for the candidacy, please send an email to the Graduate Administrator.

At least 2 Weeks (10 business days) prior to Candidacy

⇨ Supervisor sends the thesis proposal document to the Graduate Administrator and examining committee once it has been has been reviewed and approved by the supervisor.


1. Introductions & Procedure

Once the committee has assembled and been introduced, the procedure should be explained to the committee and the student. With everyone's agreement, the student should be asked to leave the room briefly. The Exam Chair will ask everyone to turn off cell phones, etc.

2. Review

At this time the student's progress to date should be quickly reviewed by the Exam Chair and the student's file be made available for review.

3. Presentation

The normal procedure is to have a presentation by the student (20 minute maximum) which includes a brief background review and the student's thesis proposal. During the candidacy examination, only minor attention should be given to the work done on the thesis.

A good presentation will cover the following points:

  • Research problem
  • Anticipated contributions
  • Evaluation methodology
  • Timeline

4. Examination

The examiners will then have the opportunity to question the candidate. The student must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the examining committee that s/he possesses:

  • An adequate knowledge of the discipline and of the subject matter relevant to the thesis; and
  • The ability to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level

Examinations usually take from two to three hours.

5. Adjudication

After the questioning, the student is asked to leave the room while the committee makes a decision on the candidacy. Normally, if all but one member of the committee agree on a favourable decision, the decision shall be that of the majority; if two or more dissenting votes are recorded, the case must be referred to the Associate Dean of FGSR who will determine an appropriate course of action. The candidate will be kept informed in writing of the action taken by the Dean.

The committee must decide on one of the following outcomes*:

  1. Pass
  2. Conditional pass
  3. Adjourned
  4. Fail

*Candidacy Exam outcome details (FGSR, see "Decision")

6. Feedback

  • Before exam: Students can see this material, to help them prepare
  • During exam: After the student has left the room (after the questioning), Exam Chair uses a laptop to complete the online Candidacy Examination Results Form, based on real-time comments from the committee
  • After exam: Once submitted, the results are sent to the Graduate Administrator (who will forward them to the candidate and others as necessary) and copied to the Exam Chair.