PhD Program

About the PhD Program

The primary objective of the PhD in Planning is to prepare students for academic careers in teaching and research. Some may also pursue an advanced planning career in the private, non-profit or public sector, given the rising demand for people with a PhD credential outside of academia.

The PhD program in Planning has 3 fields of specialization:

  • City-regions in global context: economic development and social planning
  • Environment and sustainability planning
  • Urban development, design and the built environment

Our program is designed to provide students with a broad and critical knowledge of planning history, theory and practice, as well as rigorous training in research. These objectives are achieved through a combination of advanced seminars and workshops, a comprehensive exam and a doctoral dissertation. As part of their training, students also receive teaching assistantships and may be offered research assistantships, as these become available.

The degree requirements consist of successful completion of coursework, a PhD comprehensive examination, a dissertation proposal, a dissertation and defense of that dissertation. The program is designed to be completed within four years. Candidates will have a supervisor (on entry) and a supervisory committee (formed during the first year). Coursework and exams are completed by the end of year two, work on the dissertation in years three and four and dissertation and defense in year four.


Admission Requirements

For application instructions please see the Application Instructions section.

Students are admitted under the general regulations of the School of Graduate Studies.

For entry to the PhD program, a standing equivalent to a University of Toronto A- in an acceptable Master’s program in planning or a closely related field is required. We view professional planning or related experience favourably during the admissions process and encourage applications from those belonging to groups that are currently underrepresented in the academic and professional worlds of planning.

Applicants whose first language is not English and who have graduated from a university where the language of instruction and examination was not English must have attained a minimum score on an acceptable English language proficiency test.

We do not anticipate having direct entry to the PhD program or transfers from the MScPl program to the PhD program in the immediate future.

Timeline to Completion

  • Year 1 (September – April) = Completion of coursework
  • Year 1 (January – June) = Form supervisory committee, identify areas of concentration and prepare a draft reading list for comprehensive exam
  • Year 1 (May – June) = Annual progress meeting, present draft reading list for comprehensive exam to supervisory committee
  • Year 1, 2 (June – December) = Comprehensive exam
  • Year 2 (June – no later than September year 3) = Proposal exam
  • Year 2, 3 = Research, data collection, writing and annual progress meeting
  • Year 4 = Research, data collection, writing, annual progress meeting, internal and SGS final oral examinations

Residence and Length of Program

The PhD program is a four-year program that can be completed on a full-time basis. Students must complete two years in residence at the University of Toronto. All PhD program requirements must be completed within six-years from first enrolment.


All students in the PhD program are expected to complete at least six half-credit courses (3.0 FCE) as follows:

  • PLA2000H Advanced Planning Theory (0.5 FCE)
  • JPG1111H Advanced Research Design (or a methods course in a related department subject to the approval of the supervisor) (0.5 FCE)
  • An elective course from outside the planning program (0.5 FCE)
  • Two electives in any subject (1.0 FCE)
  • PLA2001H (CR/NCR) (0.5 FCE)

Students who do not have a masters degree in planning or a related discipline may be required by their supervisor to take up to two additional half-credit courses (4.0 FCE total) depending on their background and experience.
Planning PhD students may take any of the PLA or JPG courses listed in Section D. There is no restriction on the type or source of courses that must be taken outside the Program in Planning. The student’s doctoral supervisor will approve outside course requests.

Supervisory Committee

During the second term of the first year, the student and supervisor will assemble a Supervisory Committee.

The Supervisory Committee consists of the supervisor/co-supervisors, at least one additional graduate faculty member from the department and an additional graduate faculty member from any graduate unit. Additional members can be added if necessary. The Supervisory Committee meets with the student to review progress at least once a year, administers program exams, and regularly provides advice on future work.

Annual Progress Reports

Progress review meetings must be held at least once per academic year (or more often as required). In no case should the supervisory committee go more than 12-14 months without holding a meeting. At the progress review meeting the Supervisory Committee will assess progress and plans for the following year and provide feedback on the annual progress report, which must be submitted to the graduate office for review by the Associate Chair, Graduate no later than July 1. The report is recorded in the student’s departmental and Acorn records. It is the responsibility of the student to schedule progress report meetings.

For the first progress meeting (normally held between April to June in year 1), the student should fill out the annual progress report form and bring a draft comprehensive reading list for discussion to the meeting. The timeline for writing the comprehensive exam should be established at this meeting. The student should also include 2-3 paragraphs on the proposed thesis area or topic.

Annual reports for each subsequent year should take place between January to April however variations to this schedule are acceptable. The annual progress meeting can be combined with other meetings (such as comprehensive, proposal or thesis exams). The annual report in years 2 and higher should include a list of activities undertaken in the past year, such as publications, courses, conference presentations, teacher training activities, professional development activities and progress on the dissertation (data collection, number of interviews completed and transcribed, document analysis undertaken, chapters completed, etc.). Progress reports can also be accompanied by materials such as draft questionnaires and interview guides, initial tabulations and analysis of results, and chapter summaries. The student should also construct a timeline for work to be completed and activities to be undertaken in the following year.

4.3.5 If a Supervisory Committee reports that a student’s progress is unsatisfactory in each of two consecutive meetings, various sanctions may be recommended, including ineligibility for fellowships or termination of registration. A student who, through their own neglect, fails to have a meeting within 12-14 months of their last meeting will be considered to have received an unsatisfactory progress report from the committee.

PhD Comprehensive Examination

Students will take a written and oral PhD Examination administered by the supervisory committee between June of year one and no later than December of year two. The purpose of the exam is to ascertain whether a student has obtained an adequate knowledge base to continue in the PhD program; to ascertain any knowledge gaps and suggest remedial action; and to provide a student with the opportunity to get a broad perspective on their chosen field of study. The scope and areas of concentration of the examination are to be jointly determined by the supervisory committee and the student. They are to be laid out in the draft comprehensive reading list and are to be confirmed in the first progress meeting. It is the responsibility of the supervisory committee to review and approve the draft reading list by a deadline established jointly by the supervisor and student. The scope of the exam cannot be changed after this stage.

The student should seek the advice of all committee members in preparing for the comprehensive examination. In consultation with the supervisor, the student should compile an appropriate draft reading list for each area of concentration by June of year one. The draft reading list should be circulated to all committee members for their comments and should form the basis of the examination. Normally, the total number of readings is approximately 100, but may be shorter or longer depending on the number of books included in the list. Students may wish to consider subdividing each area of concentration into 2-4 themes and should include a summary of what they see as the major issues covered in each area.

The supervisor is responsible for preparing the examination paper on the basis of input received from the committee members. The detailed instructions should be finalized in consultation with the student and committee members.

Exam Format

The exam will cover three areas of concentration and will have three questions in each area. The student must answer one question from each area of concentration. The questions will be based on the reading list and may not extend into material not covered by the reading list. The PhD examination is comprised of a written section and an oral section. The student may choose one of the three following formats for the written section:

  • One-Day Examination: The student writes the exam over eight hours in a closed room on campus. The examination is open book and internet access is not permitted. Citations should be included from the comprehensive exam reading list, where relevant. These can be cited in text, i.e. (Harvey, 2008). The expected length of each of the three answers is 2000-2500 words.
  • Two-Day Examination: The student writes the examination over two periods, amounting to eight hours in total, at least one day apart. All other conditions for the exam are the same as the one-day examination.
  • Five-Day Examination: The student writes the exam over a five day period (including weekend days if the exam period includes a weekend) either on or off-campus. The examination is due at the same time of day it is collected by the student (e.g. an exam that starts at 9am on a Thursday will be due at 9am on the following Tuesday). It is expected that students will cite their work, citations will be drawn exclusively or primarily from the reading list. There is no need to attach a list of references for books or articles included in the examination reading list. The few, if any, additional references to works cited that are not on the reading list can be attached to the end of each answer. Responses will be more in-depth than the one day exam. The expected length of each response is 3500-4500 words (not including the list of references/bibliography).

The written examination should be submitted electronically by the student to all committee members and the graduate office by the due date and time. The student should ask the committee members whether they would also like to receive a paper copy and, if so, the student is responsible for making a copy and providing it to the faculty member as soon as possible.

The oral examination (with the full examination committee) should take place not later than one week following the submission of the written exam. The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. It is the responsibility of the student to arrange for a date, time and room for the oral examination and to provide this information to the graduate office. The graduate office will prepare an examination file which must be returned immediately following the exam.

Exam Results

At the time of the oral examination, the committee should base its evaluation of the student on the following criteria:

  • The quality of the written responses: mastery, coverage, and communicative clarity for all questions on the examination;
  • The quality of the oral defence of written responses and to questions not answered in writing: in terms of capturing the essence of the questions posed; ability to address the concerns raised and to deliver reasoned answers to legitimate criticisms;
  • Oral responses to any questions related to the scope of the exam.

The supervisor should ensure that each committee member is satisfied with the answers to questions that he or she submitted for the examination. The outcome of the comprehensive exam is one of the following:

  • Pass
  • Conditional Pass. Student must satisfy conditions specified by the exam committee within one month, subject to final approval of the committee or a subset of the committee, which must include the supervisor(s). Failure to satisfy conditions by this date shall result in a failure of the exam.
  • Fail. If this is the first failure, the student can repeat the exam within six months. The department will recommend termination of a student’s graduate program if the student fails the repeat exam.

Conditions typically imposed for a conditional pass can include re-writing one or more questions or clarifying all or part of an oral answer in writing.

Exam Timeline

Year 1 (January – April) = Assemble a supervisory committee
Year 1 (January – June) = Identify areas of concentration and prepare a draft reading list
Year 1 (no later than May-June) = Present a draft reading list to the supervisory committee for the first progress meeting
At least 2 months prior to exam = Establish date for approval of the final reading list by the supervisory committee
At least 1 month prior to exam = Student schedules exam and informs the graduate office of the date
Within 3 months of the exam = If the outcome of the exam is conditional pass, all conditions must be satisfied
Within 6 months of the exam = If the outcome of the exam is fail and this is the first failed exam, student must repeat the exam

GGAPSS and the department have produced some PhD Comprehensive Exam Tips for students preparing to take their exam.

Research Proposal

A Research Proposal must be submitted and defended before the supervisory committee at the research proposal examination. The committee will advise the student on the acceptability of the proposal and will decide on any further steps to be taken in shaping the dissertation research project. The outcome of the proposal exam is one of the following:

  • Pass
  • Conditional Pass. Student must satisfy conditions specified by the supervisory committee (within three months) subject to final approval of the committee or a subset of the committee, which must include the supervisor(s). Failure to satisfy conditions by this date shall result in failure of the exam.
  • Fail. The student must repeat the exam within six months.

The conditions will be attached to the research proposal examination form and typically include requests for revisions to theory and methodology. Examples of requested revisions might include additional reading on theory, reconceptualization of the theoretical approach, or additional research into the feasibility or appropriateness of the methodology. To keep on track for time-to-completion the department recommends the research proposal be defended by June of year two and no later than September of year 3. Normally, all required coursework will have been completed by the time of the research proposal exam but in some cases the research proposal can be presented earlier with the agreement of the supervisory committee.

The research proposal should be prepared when the student has settled on a research topic; completed a preliminary exploration of the sources; and identified the problem and defined a research strategy. Ideally, the research proposal should take the form of a paper of about twenty to forty pages in length which includes a statement of the problem, research questions, a discussion and literature review of the research context in which it is set, research objectives or hypotheses, a brief outline of the data sources and methods, a draft survey or guiding questions for interviews (where appropriate) and a suggested timetable for completion. There should be a discussion of methods and methodology that makes reference to the literature on methodology. The proposal should provide a rationale for the choice of methods and discuss any ethical issues stemming from the research (if appropriate). The research proposal should be defended prior to extensive research. It should not constitute a draft of the final thesis.

The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. It is the responsibility of the student to arrange for a date, time and room for the examination and to provide this information to the graduate office. The graduate office will prepare the examination file that can be collected just before the exam and returned immediately following the exam.

PhD Candidacy

When all requirements exclusive of the thesis have been met, a student has achieved PhD Candidacy. The department requires students to achieve candidacy by the end of year two. School of Graduate Studies policy requires that candidacy is achieved by the end of year three. Students who have not achieved candidacy by the end of year three will not be permitted to register in future sessions unless an extension has been approved.

Good Standing and Satisfactory Progress

Graduate students are required to remain in good standing in their programs and they are required to continually make satisfactory progress toward the completion of their degree requirements. This includes the requirement of minimum grade performance in course work, the successful passage of written and oral examinations among other degree requirements and the speed and timeliness of progression through degree requirements.

Failure to maintain good academic standing or satisfactory progress may result in various sanctions, including ineligibility for fellowships or termination of registration.

The Thesis

The thesis shall constitute a significant contribution to the knowledge of the field and must be based on original research conducted while registered for the PhD program. The topic for the thesis will have been approved at the proposal defence.

The thesis may take one of two forms. The traditional form is a manuscript thesis. An alternative form is the paper thesis.

The paper thesis will normally consist of a minimum of three journal articles considered publishable in, or that have been published in, good quality journals. The journal articles must meet four criteria, as determined by the supervisory committee:

  1. The student is listed as the first or sole author of the paper when submitted for publication.
  2. The student has done the following: had a primary or significant role in conceptualizing the paper, designing the methodology, collecting and analysing data.
  3. The student wrote the first draft, and revised later drafts after feedback from the supervisor, committee members or co-authors.
  4. The paper is truly part of the dissertation project (i.e. it would not have been written if not for the student’s dissertation and cannot count toward anyone else’s dissertation project).

It is recommended that the student and supervisor discuss these criteria and the expectations for authorship of the papers as early as possible and no later than the proposal defense.

Both types of theses should be based on a coherent topic with an introduction presenting the general theme of the research and a conclusion summarizing and integrating the major findings. In the paper thesis, it may be appropriate to pull out common elements of the papers (e.g. methodology or literature review) into a separate chapter. Pagination should be continuous for both types of theses; there should be a common table of contents, appendices as need, and the thesis should have an integrated bibliography.

The thesis should be formatted according to the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) Formatting Guidelines.

Departmental Thesis Examination

The completed PhD thesis will be examined in a Departmental Thesis Examination. The examination committee consists of the supervisory committee. One or more additional members can be from outside the Department of Geography if required.

The graduate office must be notified of the exam details 2 weeks prior to the examination date. The thesis must also be provided to the all examiners and the graduate office a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the exam date (or earlier, up to 4 weeks prior, at the discretion of the exam committee). The thesis must be approved by the supervisor(s) prior to distribution to the examiners and must be complete including all references, appendices, etc. It must be formatted using the SGS formatting guidelines. If the thesis is not received 2 weeks prior to the exam, the graduate office will cancel the exam. The graduate office will prepare the examination file that can be collected by the supervisor just before the exam to be returned immediately following the exam.

The exam must be scheduled for 2 hours and the student must attend the exam on campus. The student may give a short presentation of about 15 minutes summarizing the major contributions of the thesis. This presentation will be followed by questions from the committee members. At the end of the examination, the student will leave the room while the committee reaches a decision. The committee will recommend (or not) that the thesis be accepted and may require revisions prior to submission to the department for the SGS Final Oral Examination.

School of Graduate Studies Final Oral Examination

A Final Oral Examination Committee will conduct the Final Oral Examination (FOE). Departmental policy is that the committee must include six voting members. The examination committee must include no more than three members of the Supervisory Committee (including the supervisor/co-supervisor) and at least three examiners who have not been closely involved in the supervision of the thesis. Eligible for inclusion in the latter group are the external appraiser (in person or by audio connection), members of the geography graduate faculty who have not read the thesis, and members of the graduate faculty of other departments, centres, or institutes of the University who have not read the thesis. A quorum is four voting members (at least one member of the supervisory committee and two external examiners are required for the exam to proceed). The School of Graduate Studies must approve the composition of the FOE committee.

The School of Graduate Studies, on the recommendation of the Associate Chair, Graduate, appoints the external appraiser. The external appraiser must:

  • Be a recognized expert on the subject of the thesis and should be external to the University of Toronto;
  • Be an Associate or Full Professor at their home institution;
  • Have an arms-length relationship with both the candidate and the supervisor;
  • Receive a copy of the thesis (from the department) at least six weeks prior to the exam.

Scheduling the Final Oral Examination begins a minimum of seven weeks prior to the proposed examination date. Please see Timeline for Scheduling a PhD Final Oral Exam for information on scheduling the exam.

Detailed guidelines for composition of the exam committee, appointment of the external appraiser and the exam procedures are contained in the SGS guidelines for doctoral exams.

Submission of the Final Thesis

Once any final revisions or modifications have been made, the final thesis must be submitted to SGS. A bound copy must also be submitted to the department within four weeks of SGS submission. Consult the SGS thesis submission instructions for information.

PhD Final Year Fees

Academic fees for doctoral candidates in the final year of their program are pro-rated based on the twelve-month academic year. Incidental fees are charged on a sessional (term) basis. A fee schedule is available at Student Accounts.

The month-to-month fee schedule does not apply to reinstated students. Students who have been reinstated will have received a notice from the School of Graduate Studies stating the terms of his or her reinstatement, along with the total amount owing for the reinstatement.

International students may be eligible for a partial refund of their UHIP. Please note that there are deadlines for such refunds, and students should contact the Centre for International Experience for information on eligibility.