Qualifying Exam

Useful links

Qualifying Exam guidelines.

The examination form.


  • Do it on time, the department and McGill are really enforcing this now (so before 24 months).
  • Your previous SC report should mention that you are ready to take your QE.
  • The report is important (you’ll be marked on it), but your presentation should be a standalone summary of your thesis.
  • You’ll be graded on your ability to do the presentation in the required time (20-25 min).
  • M.Sc. students must pass the QE exam to transfer Ph.D..


Feedback from students that passed it

Any advice for the preparation ?

  • Don’t wait until the last minute.
  • Know the papers you cite.
  • Know the papers from your lab.
  • It also helps to read papers from QE members, to know what to expect.
  • Gradually become the expert by filling the gaps in your knowledge (Google until comfortable).
  • Practice presenting in front of your lab, building, Journal club, friends, pets. You’ll get a sample of the potential questions and will be ready for the presentation.
  • Prepare back slides.
  • Prepare “The Story”. Take time to think about it, from different perspective. Why you’re doing this ? What’s the impact ? What would be the next steps ?
  • Do whatever it takes to feel comfortable : read, think, discuss, re-analyze data.
  • Having slides that are more simple or complement the report are sometimes more appreciated than slides trying to cram the 10-pages report.


What kind of questions did you get ?

  • What’s your next steps and how will you do it.
  • Knowledge questions on the field.
  • A few: summarize this paper you cited.
  • What would be alternatives for this particular analysis/step ?
  • If this doesn’t work out, then what ?
  • Some broad literature questions.
  • After the BioInfo analysis, how do you test/support the results experimentally ?
  • How does the statistical model you are using works ?
  • Why do you have these results ?

More information on the QE process and preparation

For the report. As for overall length, MAX (and I mean MAX) 10 pages double-spaced INCLUDING references and figures. Trust me, I speak from experience when I say that if you are an overly wordy person, make sure to keep yourself in check. Simple. Short. To the Point. In some cases this may mean leaving out data or explanations you may initially think are important. This can play to your advantage though; by giving your Qualifying Exam committee the bare bones, it is likely their questions will center around the information you’ve chosen to exclude. Then, you already know the answers and the time of the exam passes by much quicker. Sounds like cheating I know, but it’s a tried-and-true method.

Now, breathe. This may seem like a huge deal, but it’s never as bad as you think. Don’t listen to the urban legends in your lab about the guy who had the 4-hour exam and left the room crying. Granted though, you will need to be well prepared to give a 20-25 min presentation summarizing your proposal and then 1 ½ to 2 hours of questions/discussion.

The basic process is this: In our department the qualifying exam needs to be registered for, like a course. It is “offered” three times a year: winter, summer and fall. If you plan on having the exam, make sure you check online or with the department secretary as to when the registration deadlines are. This is all McGill administration business, just so they know you’re planning on doing the official switch (for MSc students).

Next, speak with your supervisor about who should be on your committee. There are usually five members: your supervisor, the chair, an internal member of the department, an external who is affiliated with another (usually related) department and one other. Most times two of the people are the same as your supervisory committee, so you only need one external and a chair. There is a form you will need to fill out which is signed by your supervisor and send to the department recommending who should be the extra member and the chair. You will contact the three regular members of your SC to suggest possible dates. The department secretary will then contact all those people who have volunteered to serve as chairs and find one who is willing and available for the dates you’ve suggested. Then comes the endless email and phone negotiation about dates. During this time, get your proposal written. It has to be completed and sent to your committee at LEAST ONE WEEK before your exam.

Once the magic date is set, time to get studying. A WORD TO THE WISE: do not, under any circumstances, leave this to the last minute. I mean, if you want to have your exam on May 15th, don’t wait until April 30th to start planning it. Faculty in our department are BUSY, they need lots of time to plan things in advance. Also, our department secretary is busy; they may not have the time to get you your chair at the last minute. I recommend, as a loose guideline, start planning your QE at least 2-3 months before the actual date. Once the date is set, the committee approved and the chair appointed, you can focus on writing the report and studying up.

As for how much to study, well, some people over-study and waste time sitting at home pouring over obscure literature based on the fact that the QE committee can ask you any question on any topic they deem relevant. No one will ask you something far out, like rocket physics, and if they do the chair will step in and object (that’s what they are there for, to make sure the exam is fair for you). It can happen though that, say, if you are studying nutritional effects on cancer, someone may ask you to draw the molecular structure of one of the vitamins you are interested in. On occasion an obscure reference to something can surface. In conclusion: you know how much you need to do in order to feel prepared. I am a worrier; I need to feel like I’ve covered ALL my bases to feel ready. Other people with better long-term memories than mine will only feel the need to go over a few key review articles. Do what makes you feel confident, though don’t re-read all your undergrad textbooks and most certainly don’t NOT study at all. Make sure you know your proposal, its strengths and weaknesses. Be able to clearly explain with support from literature WHY you are doing what you have decided to do and why it is important. Know the most current literature on the subject and have a good grasp on the fundamentals from past discoveries. One other useful hint: once you know your committee, find out what THEIR research interests are. Likely, they will only ask questions on subjects they already know a lot about.

Now, exam time. Relax. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat something. Bring with you the Qualifying Exam report form (you can find it at the beginning of this section). This is easy to fill out. It will be signed at the meeting and the final results written on it. Make sure to send a copy to the department, keep one for your records and some give one to their supervisor’s secretary for your supervisor’s file on you (yes, they do have a file on you). Go to the meeting site and set up. Test your laser pointer. Make sure your presentation file loads onto your lab’s ancient computer (or that your laptop is compatible with the projector) and test the projector. Run through the presentation one more time. Some people make coffee and bring snacks for their committee members, especially if it’s a morning or noontime meeting.

Once you’re in there, it’s just like a long supervisory committee meeting. Your supervisor introduces you and states the purpose. You present. They ask questions, you answer. You leave the room, they deliberate and call you back in to announce the decision.

Go have a beer!

After recovering from your celebrations, don’t forget to send in your form to the department so they know you passed (you will, it is VERY rare that someone doesn’t). Then, if you are switching over from a Masters, remember to apply to McGill for the next semester.

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