Comprehensive Exam

Policy in Catalog:
PhD Degree Requirements in the School of Marine Science Graduate Catalog

Comprehensive Exam (DocuSign | View Sample)
Request for Change in Advisory Committee
General Information:
General Info on Comprehensive Exam

A written comprehensive exam at the Ph.D. level allows a student to demonstrate quantitatively, comprehension and integration of material from the disciplines of marine science that are relevant to the student’s area of specialization. Successful completion of a rigorous comprehensive exam signals that a student is ready to pursue advanced training and original scientific research. The objective of the written comprehensive exam is to ensure that the student has an appropriate general understanding of the field as well as the specific knowledge needed to undertake their research project. The test should be customized to the student’s interests and research goals. The committee is responsible for ensuring that there is balance, breadth of coverage, and depth. Questions that ask the student to integrate knowledge obtained from coursework, independent study, and ongoing research are particularly appropriate. When an area to be examined is not represented by members of the committee, the committee may consult with an outside expert as to the formulation of a question or the correctness of an answer.  Use the link above to access the graduate catalog for additional pertinent information.

Responsibility of the Advisor

The student’s major advisor is responsible for scheduling the exam before the end of summer following completion of the second year of coursework. The Office of Academic Affairs should be informed of the exam date. The advisor will solicit questions from the student’s advisory committee members in advance of the exam. For a student pursuing a M.S. bypass, the advisor will ensure that the examination committee satisfies the requirements for a Ph.D. advisory committee. The advisor will collate the questions, develop a draft exam and circulate the draft exam to the committee at least one week before the exam is to be given. The exam should be given in electronic format. It is the responsibility of the advisor to return the graded exam to the student within two weeks of its completion.

When the student initiates the comprehensive exam milestone form in DocuSign, the advisor will also be required to upload a copy of the questions (for the exam question bank) and the student's answers with committee feedback (to be filed in the student's record). The preferred file format for each of these uploads is a single PDF file.

Responsibility of Members of the Advisory Committee

In consultation with the student, the Advisory Committee will determine which areas are to be examined. The Advisory Committee is responsible for developing an exam of appropriate breadth and that tests the integration of the material pertinent to the student’s Ph.D. project. Exam sections may be open or closed book at the discretion of committee members. All closed book sections should be labeled as such and students are bound by the Honor Code to complete each section according to the guidelines provided. Committee members will submit questions to the advisor and review the draft exam to ensure that it is appropriate is scope and level of integration. Committee members will grade their exam section but will have an opportunity to review the student’s performance on the entire exam.

Length of Exam

Each section of the exam should take approximately 1/2 day (4 hours) to complete. Total exam length should be 3-5 days. The exam must be taken within a single work week, beginning on Monday and ending by 5 pm on Friday.


Each committee member will provide a grade of Pass/Fail for his or her question(s). In order to better resolve student performance, committee members may wish to indicate high pass, pass or low pass on individual sections.  After the initial exam, Ph.D. students are allowed one exam retake for any sections that were not passed. At a minimum, a student must pass all but one of their exam sections to be allowed to proceed in the Ph.D. program to the qualifying exam. Students who fail more than one section will be given an option to enroll in the M.S. degree program. Master's Bypass candidates are provided one opportunity to take the comprehensive exam. If they pass all but one section, they may apply to bypass to the Ph.D. program.

Record of Exam

The advisor will notify the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the outcome of the exam and if any remedial action is needed. Following the exam, a copy of the questions, as well as the graded exam with the questions, student responses, and committee feedback will be submitted to the [[v|registrar, SMS Registrar]]. The graded exam will be maintained in the student's file. A question bank will be maintained electronically in Academic Affairs and is available for students to review in preparation for their exam.

Last Updated on October 20, 2023 by J. Hay