Comprehensive Exam Guidelines

Students will begin work on the comprehensive exam during Ph.D. 1, with completion by the end of Ph.D. 2 (see details below).

Normally, all students registered in the Developmental Graduate Program will complete the Developmental Comprehensive Exam.  Any exceptions to these guidelines for a specific student must be approved by the student’s supervisor and by the Chairs of the Developmental and Graduate Committees. 

Comprehensive Exam committees consist of the student’s supervisor and two other faculty members (typically members of the Psychology Department, preferably in developmental area, but one member may be external to department).

The Comprehensive Exam should be a broad extension of the student’s research interests. The topic should not be directly related to the dissertation; for example, it should not form the introduction to the dissertation. The topic should also not be a direct extension of the student’s Master’s thesis work.  Regardless of topic, a key feature of the Comprehensive Exam is the demonstration of broad knowledge coupled with critical thinking skills and the ability to synthesize, analyze, and critique a body of literature.


Comprehensive Paper

The student will be required to develop a deep, systematic understanding of a topic and demonstrate the ability to articulate and defend a thesis position on that topic that fits the guidelines and format of a Developmental Review published paper. The student will be expected to approach the review from multi-theoretic and multi-disciplinary perspectives. One can think of the ultimate goal of this option as publishing a critical review of a specific field in an appropriate journal.

Specifically, the review paper should present a novel idea.  For example, students may choose to reinterpret findings with new theories and ideas, propose novel syntheses of existing literature that develop new theories and ideas, or provide a broad systematic critique of a methodology, theory, discipline, or field.  The goal of the review paper is to develop a coherent argument for thinking about a particular research area in a novel manner.  The intended audience should match the journal’s readership, aiming to be accessible to a broad range of developmental scientists while also targeting expertise in the content area. In rare instances, the student may propose to target a different journal, but this has to be approved by the committee.

Tips for Students

Review papers are not book reports. The goal is not simply to tell people about papers that you have read, but to make an argument by providing additional structure, value, and coherence, pertinent to the goal of your review.

Work very hard to define the focus. Often substantial reading and thought in an area is necessary before one has a focus. Have a thesis statement that takes no more than one or two sentences. 

Read published review papers and take notes not just about content but about form. What is their argument? How do they present their evidence? 



DUE (no later than)


June 30 PhD 1

Proposal Meeting

45 days later

Paper Submitted to Committee

June 1 PhD 2

Committee Reviews returned to student

30 days later

Revised Paper Submitted to Committee

90 days after reviews received

2nd Round (if needed)

Final decision - Dec. 15 PhD 3


Proposal (June 30 PH.D. 1)  

A proposal is submitted to the student’s Comprehensive Exam committee. The proposal is a short (approx. 4-6 pg.) description of the comprehensive exam plan, including (though not necessarily in this order):

  1. Why this topic, format, and comps option was chosen, including how the option might fit future career goals.  Additionally, students will provide information regarding a peer-reviewed journal to which the paper may ultimately be submitted and why this journal was chosen. Developmental Review is recommended.
  2. The crux of the intended argument.
  3. An explanation of how this exam will satisfy the general requirement of “breadth” inherent to a comprehensive exam (e.g., What is the broader importance of this topic? How does this topic relate to the theoretical questions of importance in developmental psychology? What has research in this area uncovered and what remains to be investigated? What are some of the major disagreements in the field and why do they occur?
    Additionally, a list of readings should be provided.  The organized list will typically contain about 100 references, including books and/or articles, in whatever ratio is appropriate for the area. 

Proposal meeting (within 45 days of proposal meeting Ph.D. 1)  

An in-person meeting with the student and three committee members is held.   Students may be asked to provide a brief summary of their proposal.  Committee members will provide feedback on the proposal, which may include additions or deletions to the reading list.  If substantial changes to the proposal are recommended, the committee can request a revised proposal be sent to them. If the committee deems appropriate, an optional second proposal meeting may be scheduled within 45 days.

Review paper submitted to committee (June 1 PH.D. 2)

The paper will be submitted to the committee allowing 2 weeks or more for committee member to read.  The committee will appoint an Action Editor (not the supervisor) who will add to and compile written reviews from the two other committee members.  The Action Editor will provide a review of the paper to the student within 30 days of receiving all of the reviews. Committee may exercise discretion for the date of submitting reviews back to student if there is a need to accommodate vacation, travel, or leave absences, with an absolute limit of August 31.

Revision Policies

It is quite common for revisions to be required.  The Action Editor will return the reviews plus an overview assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. The Action Editor will provide specific requests for revisions stated clearly enough that the revision can be evaluated as to whether they satisfy every one of the requested changes. Meeting to discuss revisions is optional.

Within 90 days after receiving reviews, students will submit the revised review paper, accompanied by a cover letter.  The cover letter should be similar to the letters that one provides to journal editors when a revised manuscript is submitted and will address how the student has incorporated each of the requested revisions to the manuscript suggested by the committee.

The second review process will be the same process as the first round but within a tighter time frame. Each committee member will provide a pass/no-pass rating and further review, if necessary, to the Action Editor. The Action Editor will again summarize feedback and provide the result to student. If the revision is not deemed a “pass” by the committee by December 15th of Ph.D. 3, the comprehensive exam is considered to be failed, and the student will not be able to continue in the Ph.D. program. Please see the Graduate Calendar for the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies for more information.


Pass/Fail Timeline

Students will have the opportunity to revise their original exam two times. If a second revision is not deemed a “pass” by the committee by December 15th of PhD3, the comprehensive exam is considered to be failed, and the student will not be able to continue in the PhD program. Please see the Graduate Calendar for the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies for more information.


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