When should they happen?
The Graduate Calendar says that QEs should occur “as early as possible and in no case later than the final semester of the minimum duration requirement”. For almost everyone, this means by the end of the 5th semester. (However, if later works better for the student or their examining committee, the system is quite forgiving).
What do they assess?
The Graduate Calendar says that QEs are “to assess [the student’s] knowledge of the subject area and related fields”. More broadly, “consideration is to be given not only (1) to the student's knowledge of the subject matter and ability to integrate the material derived from his or her studies, but also (2) to the student's ability and promise in research. The examining committee, therefore, will receive from the advisory committee a written evaluation of the quality of the student's research performance to date and of the student's potential as a researcher. The examining committee will determine the relative importance to be given to these two major components of the qualifying examination.”
Historically our own department’s guidelines have merely added this: “the QE prep time is considered an opportunity to learn material that will be important for the student's research and future employment.” This gives us quite a lot of flexibility, and so the student and their advisory committee should assess ahead of time what would be most beneficial for them and their work.
Who examines the QEs and how is this organized?
There are four examiners. Two are members of the advisory committee (Our department has had the tradition that the advisor should not be a QE examiner. However, this is not university policy, so if you can make a case for the advisor being a QE examiner, e.g. because no-one else is available, then this will be acceptable). The two other examiners are regular or associated graduate faculty who are not members of the advisory committee.
Two examiners cover the “major topic” (see below), while two cover “minor topics” (see below).
The examiners will typically be chosen by the student and their advisory committee, and then it is the the advisor who should approach them to find out their willingness and availability, to arrange the exam, and to discuss the scope of the topics set.
Since it can be challenging to find a time and date to suit all four examiners, a chair, the student and their advisor, the oral exam should be organised well in advance: at least 2-3 months ahead of time if written material has to be completed first.
Once the advisor has successfully found examiners and an exam date and time that works, then the Graduate Secretary will find a room and a Chair for the exam, and she will also submit the 'Request for a QE' form to the Office of Grad Studies.
What do QEs involve in our dept.?
The student chooses either just an oral exam, or a combination of written and oral exams. The oral exam typically take c. 3 hours, and it involves all examiners together at one time.
When the written option has been selected, each of the four examiner sets a written topic. Each is given the flexibility to choose the format of the exam, and different examiners can request different things. Some may choose to administer a timed sit-down exam, for example, while others may choose to provide a take-home question that is completed over a few days or even weeks.
The Graduate Calendar says the QE “should be completed within a two-week period if possible”, and historically our own guidelines have added “all written portions are scheduled to be completed a week before the oral exam”. But in reality the research, writing and QEs themselves may well take 2-3 months (thus realistically preparing for and taking QEs takes most of a semester, during which time the student will not conduct research for their thesis). This long period is because our QEs involve setting four separate assignments (not true across all UoG departments).
Although the effort spent on each topic may be tailored in the planning stages to best meet the student’s needs, as a rule, examiners should recognize that this means a student cannot realistically spend more than 2-3 weeks of full-time work on the topic that each of them have chosen.
Two examiners cover what is known as “the major subject area”. This means a topic that the student should understand with graduate level expertise. This topic can be broad or narrow, and the two examiners ideally set complementary questions that together will generally take about 5-6 weeks full-time study to address well.
The “minor subjects” are to be examined at the level of a senior undergraduate (not graduate level). Again this topic can be broad or narrow, but the preparation for each one should generally not take more than 2-3 weeks.
During the preparation period, the student should meet regularly (e.g. weekly) with each examiner, to be guided by them through readings and discussions.
In this department we like to do more than merely pass/fail. We give students feedback on how well they are doing, using rubrics for the major examiners, the minor examiners and the advisor themselves. These rubrics have been designed around the OCAV Learning Expectations for graduate students."
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