The Comprehensive Examination

The comprehensive examination (also called the “comp,” “prequalifying” exam, and sometimes “orals”) is generally completed in the fall of the second year. This is a two-part examination, written and oral, the goal of which is to examine the student’s breadth and depth of knowledge of evolution, ecology, organismal biology (including physiology and behavior), and general biology. In both the written and oral exams, the expected level of knowledge of basic biology ranges from introductory level in fields most removed from the student’s focus area to a more substantial and advanced level in fields closer to the student’s focus area.

A committee is comprised of four examiners selected by students and their advisor. Each student’s area of research, together with the stated goal of the exam, should guide the composition of their committee. However, in all cases the makeup of the committee is expected to follow these guidelines:

  • All committees are expected to represent expertise in all of the following three areas: organismal biology (including physiology and behavior), evolution, and ecology, plus a fourth member who focuses on a conceptual area/s chosen by the student and advisor.
  • No committee should be made up entirely of faculty whose primary taxonomic expertise is in a single area (e.g. all plants, all invertebrates, all vertebrates).
  • All members of the committee are responsible for ensuring coverage of general biology questions (up to ~25% of the material)

Based on these criteria, the composition of the committee is such that breadth of knowledge in the biological sciences in general, and the student’s focal area of interest in particular, should be tested.

The Committee

The Chair of the committee must be a regular faculty member from within the department; committee members from outside the department are allowed but not required. A student’s supervisor will usually be part of the committee but may not be Chair. The Comprehensive Exam Committee Nomination form (see Forms & Print Materials) must be completed and submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator no later than the quarter before the intended exam (spring quarter of the first year). Department approval is automatic as long as the departmental rules have been followed.

The Examination Process

In both the written and oral exams, the expected level of knowledge of basic biology ranges from introductory textbook level in fields most removed from the student’s focus area to a more substantial and advanced level in fields closer to the student’s focus area.

The written exam is comprised of questions posed by the four examiners. Students will have 4 days to complete the exam.  The content and format of their question(s) is up to each committee member. The Chair compiles the questions and checks them for redundancy and reasonable workload.  During the exam, the student may communicate with the committee about questions or problems. Within one week of completing the written exam, the student will go on to take the oral portion of the Comprehensive Examination.  The three-hour oral exam explores the student's answers to the written exam, as well as a broader sample of relevant scientific areas. The committee as a whole deliberates and decides on the merits of the student's performance. If a student passes the written portion of the exam but fails the oral portion, the committee immediately assigns appropriate remedial work and asks the student to schedule the oral re-examination. Even in cases where the student passes the exam, the committee may suggest or require additional coursework to make up for deficiencies noted during the exam.

Reports on the outcome of the Comprehensive Examination are to be sent by the committee chair to the Graduate Program Coordinator upon completion of the oral exam.

If the student fails the written portion of the exam, they are not allowed to take the oral exam until the deficiencies of the written exam are remedied. Ordinarily, the rescheduled exam must be passed by the end of Term 5 (winter quarter of the second year).  A second failure will result in the student being dismissed from the program.  All dismissals will be reviewed by EEB-GAC.

A student may choose to take the comprehensive exam earlier (e.g. spring quarter of the first year), but if a student wishes to delay the exam to a later term, the request, including justification from both the student and advisor, must be made in writing to EEB-GAC via the Graduate Program Coordinator.