A Note About Masters and Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

Passing Comps Is a Major Milestone

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Graduate students take two sets of comprehensive exams, both master's and doctoral. Yes, it sounds scary. Comprehensive examinations, known as comps, are a source of anxiety for most graduate students.

What Is a Comprehensive Examination?

A comprehensive examination is just what it sounds like. It is a test that covers a broad base of material. It assesses the student's knowledge and capacities to earn a given graduate degree. The exact content varies by graduate program and by degree: master's and doctoral comprehensive exams have similarities but differ in detail, depth, and expectations. Depending on the graduate program and degree, comps could test course knowledge, knowledge of your proposed research area, and general knowledge in the field. This is especially true of doctoral students, who must be prepared to discuss the field at a professional level, citing material from coursework but also classic and current references.

When Do You Take Comps?

Comps are generally given toward the end of coursework or afterward as a way to determine how well a student is able to synthesize the material, solve problems, and think like a professional. Passing a comprehensive exam lets you move to the next level of study.

What Is the Format?

Master's and doctoral exams often are written exams, sometimes oral, and sometimes both written and oral. Exams are usually administered in one or more long test periods. For example, in one program written doctoral comprehensive exams are given in two blocks that are each eight hours long on consecutive days. Another program administers a written comp exam to master's students in one period that lasts five hours. Oral exams are more common in doctoral comps, but there are no hard and fast rules.

What Is the Master's Comp Exam?

Not all master's programs offer or require that students complete comprehensive exams. Some programs require a passing score on a comprehensive exam for entry to the thesis. Other programs use comprehensive exams in place of a thesis. Some programs give students a choice of completing either a comprehensive exam or a thesis. In most cases, master's students are given guidance on what to study. It might be specific lists of readings or sample questions from previous exams. Master's comprehensive exams are generally given to an entire class at once.

What Is the Doctoral Comp Exam?

Virtually all doctoral programs require that students complete doctoral comps. The exam is the gateway to the dissertation . After passing the comprehensive exam a student can use the title " doctoral candidate ," which is a label for students who have entered the dissertation phase of doctoral work, the final hurdle to the doctoral degree. Doctoral students often receive much less guidance on how to prepare for comps as compared with master's students. They might get long reading lists, some sample questions from previous exams, and instructions to be familiar with articles published over the past few years in the prominent journals in their field.

What If You Don't Pass Your Comps?

Graduate students who are unable to pass a program's comprehensive exam are weeded from the graduate program and cannot complete the degree. Graduate programs often allow a student who fails the comprehensive exam another chance to pass. However, most programs send students packing after two failing grades.

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  • 8 Tips to Prepare for Your Comprehensive Examination
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Participants gather for a group photo at the ODU Graduate Program in International Studies’ Annual Graduate Research Conference. College of Arts and Letters

Student Guide: The Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination


The comprehensive examination is a critical part of the GPIS PhD program. You should not view it simply as a bureaucratic hurdle to pass over on your way to the dissertation. Instead, before embarking on narrowly focused dissertation work, the comprehensive examination establishes that you have the broad familiarity and expertise with the field that is the mark of a doctoral education. It is the checkpoint that confirms that you are ready to pass from being a student to a scholar. The process of preparing for the comprehensive exam should help you organize and reflect on the variety of things you have learned over the past few years. While to this point, each of your seminars has been a distinct learning experience, you now can think about how your interdisciplinary work in international studies fits together. Preparation for the comprehensive exam should help you become better able to integrate and utilize the knowledge you have gained in your graduate study. It is also critically important for embarking on the dissertation. The best dissertations are effectively connected to the central questions and literature of the field. Unless you have developed an integrated overview of the field you will not have the necessary foundation for dissertation work.

The Comprehensive Character of the PhD Examination

It is important to note that the comprehensive PhD examination is not simply a test of your cumulative knowledge of seminar materials. It is, rather, a test of your preparation to work as an independent scholar at the highest level. By now you should be functioning like a scholar, and not just like a student. You should be aware of the major journals in your field and should be paying attention to them. You should know what the most important books, articles, and debates are regardless of whether they were used in your classes. It may have been a few years since you took IR theory, but it is unlikely that the scholars who work in that area have stopped pushing the field forward to wait for you to get through the comprehensive exams.

The Written Comprehensive Examination Process

The written comprehensive exams are usually scheduled for a Friday and Monday the weekend before the start of the new semester. You will do your major field on one day and your minor field on the other. We will try to schedule your major field for Friday and your minor field for Monday, but the order will be determined by the scheduling needs of the full set of students taking the written comprehensives on a given day. You will have eight hours to complete each part of the exam. The exam is closed book and no notes or other aids of any kind are allowed. For each of your fields you will be given five questions from which you will choose two to answer.

The Written Exam Grading

The exam will be graded by the appointed Doctoral Candidacy Examination Committee. The committee will usually, but not always, include the Committee Chair, and directors of the relevant tracks. It will usually take about two weeks to get the written exams graded.

Passing the Written Comprehensive Exam

Different examiners may read the exams in different ways, and it is the student's responsibility to write answers that are generally accessible and appealing across the variety of GPIS faculty. Most readers will be looking for a clear and direct answer to the question, evidence of familiarity and facility with the important literature, and an ability to integrate theory and empirical cases.

To pass the comprehensive exam, students must not receive more than one failing evaluation from a committee member.

Failing the Written Comprehensive Exam

Our goal and expectations are that every student will pass the comprehensive examination. The exam is not designed to be a barrier. It is meant to be a straightforward assessment of the student's command of their declared fields and their preparation to move on to the challenges of writing the dissertation. Nonetheless, and precisely because the exam is conceptualized as an assessment of this preparedness to move on, it plays a very important role in your doctoral education. Students who do not demonstrate an effective grasp of the relevant literature and empirics or who do not effectively and explicitly answer the questions as asked will not pass.

Students who do not pass the written portion of the exam on the first attempt will have to retake the exam in a subsequent semester. Failure on the second attempt will prevent the student from going on to write a dissertation. At the discretion of the examination committee, the failing student may be awarded the MA degree if the performance and coursework so merit, and if they do not already have a GPIS MA.

The Oral Comprehensive Examination process

Doctoral candidates are expected to be able to communicate effectively and knowledgeably both in writing and orally. Thus, the comprehensive examinations have both a written and an oral component.

The oral portion of the comprehensive examination will take place about three weeks after the written. Three to five faculty members will administer the examination. The examiners will usually, but not necessarily, include the Director or Associate Director of GPIS and the track coordinators from the student's major and minor fields. The examination will last about one hour. Each examiner will have a chance to ask questions, but the format will often shift between relatively structured questioning and a more free-flowing discussion.

The discussion will center on the student's answers for the written exam (students may use their written exam). The scope of the exam is not, however, limited to that material. The examiners will be looking to fill in any perceived gaps in the written work, and to assess the student's facility more generally with the literature and empirical material.

Passing the Oral Comprehensive Exam

Passing the oral comprehensive exam is a matter of convincing the committee members that you have an appropriate mastery of the central material of the field and are prepared to go on to focused and independent work on a dissertation. To pass, you must not receive more than one negative vote from a member of the examining committee.

Failing the Oral Comprehensive Exam

Students who do not pass the oral exam will be asked to return in one month for a second oral exam. Students who do not pass on the second attempt will not be allowed to continue for the PhD.

Tips for Preparing for the PhD Comprehensive Exam

The most important preparation for the PhD comprehensive examination is the GPIS coursework you have completed. Reviewing the notes and materials from your seminars and trying to organize it around some integrative themes is essential preparation. The following pages offer some further suggestions for effective preparation for the comprehensive examination, and for ensuring a strong examination performance.

1. Take appropriate classes

In consultation with your adviser and other faculty, be sure to select a variety of classes that will give you the broad background you need for the comprehensive exam. It is particularly important that you choose classes that will help you gain both a breadth of field knowledge, and a depth of knowledge in a few critical areas. The seminar papers you write should particularly help you develop depth in a few critical areas.

2. Keep effective class notes and reading notes

You should be thinking about preparation for the comprehensive exams from the beginning of your program. Keeping your seminar and reading notes in an organized manner will allow for more effective comprehensive exam review. You will particularly want to be careful about the material in the core classes.

You may find it useful to develop reading notes at different levels of depth. There may be a set of books and articles for which you will have 2-3 page summaries. There may be a second, larger, group for which you have paragraph length descriptions. Finally you should have a third very large group for which you have a sentence for each reading that gives you the central thrust of the argument.

3. Work on exam preparation in groups

Working with others can help you share the labor of summarizing and reviewing material. You can work with others on identifying the critical literature and on developing answers to hypothetical test questions.

4. Pay particular attention to the broad literature of international relations theory that will help you in answering a wide variety of questions

Many of the questions across the different tracks will benefit from an effective understanding of the broad currents and debates of international relations theory. One of the things a graduate education should help you do is to apply general theory to a variety of specific situations. Displaying that ability on the comprehensive exam is a good idea.

5. Identify some historical periods and important episodes and issues around which you will develop a particular expertise

Alas, no one can know everything about everything. You will see in this collection of sample questions that it is relatively rare for a question to demand knowledge of a particular event or historical period. Nonetheless, you will also see that you are often called upon to identify a critical historical period or event. You will be expected to evince in-depth knowledge of some issues or areas. Effective in-depth knowledge of a few critical issue areas or historical episodes can help you generate appropriate material for a wide variety of questions.

6. Identify some important literature with which you will be particularly familiar

You need to have a good feel for a very broad range of literature. For a lot of books and articles, remembering the author and the central thrust of their argument and evidence will serve you adequately for the comprehensives. But, just as it is essential that you have a greater depth of knowledge about a few historical episodes are critical issues, you will want to have a set of books and articles that you know extremely well. You should have an identified set of readings that you are confident you can apply to a reasonable range of questions and that you know very well and can talk about with some depth and sophistication.

7. Practice for the exam

Using the material in this booklet, you should write some practice exams. At the beginning you may want to take several hours and write an answer with open book resources. By the end you should be practicing with closed notes and a two-hour clock to simulate exam conditions. Such practice will not only help you think about how you will engage in the actual task of taking the exam, but will give you collection of sample answers that may be easily adapted to the real test questions. Just be careful that you don't mistakenly provide the answer to a similar old question and miss the slightly changed terms or requirements that are likely to show up in the real test.

The process of preparing practice exams is another area where working in groups can be extremely helpful. Having a study group can give you a larger stock of practice answers and will allow you to get feedback and to discuss the appropriate sources and arguments for a given question.

Tips for Writing an Effective Comprehensive Exam

1. Make sure you answer the questions explicitly and clearly.

The most common comprehensive exam mistake is to not explicitly and clearly answer the question. Read the question very carefully and make sure that you offer an explicit answer to the question. Do not rely on the readers to draw out implicit answers.

2. Make appropriate reference to the literature and relevant scholarly debates.

You will not, of course, be expected to provide detailed citations. But, you should demonstrate familiarity and facility with a range of the literature. You should be able to appropriately reference the scholars whose arguments are relevant to a particular issue. You may occasionally include the name of a book or article and the date of its publication.

3. Make appropriate use of theory and of empirical and historical knowledge.

If appropriately done, it is particularly effective to use theory to inform answers on history questions and history to inform answers on theory questions.

4. Write full answers that are structured with an introduction and conclusion.

As in all writing, structure and organization are important to effective communication. Just because it is a time-limited exam is no excuse for jumbled, incoherent writing. Take the time to think through and outline your argument and its structure before you write. As in all writing, signposting, headings, and clear explicit language can help communicate your ideas. Provide a clear introduction and conclusion that can help you summarize your central point and will reassure the readers that you have, in fact, explicitly answered the question.

5. Make an argument

As a scholar prepared to embark on independent thesis work, it is important that you demonstrate an ability to effectively articulate your own views. The comprehensive exam is not just about knowing the literature. It is also about demonstrating that you can think about international issues critically and come to your own conclusions. Avoid wishy-washy answers that simply describe some of the ideas extant in the field and then conclude that they are all correct. Take a stand and defend it with appropriate theoretical, analytical, and empirical material.

6. Make choices

You will notice that most of the questions are a lot bigger than can be fully answered in the two-hours you will have on average during the written exam. You have to make choices on how you will answer so that you can display your breadth and depth of knowledge while satisfying the committee that you have effectively addressed the question. It usually helps if you can be explicit about how you are managing the question ("While there are, of course, idiosyncratic elements in the complex relationship of each President to his national security team, I will focus in this short essay on the difficult relationship between Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance because it effectively illuminates the problems every foreign policy team must face"). It is rarely a good strategy to try to present a broad and superficial survey of too many things ("In this essay I will discuss the relationship of each Post-WWII American president with his respective Secretaries of State and Defense").

7. Don't make big mistakes

This, of course, is common sense, but I can't overemphasize how difficult it is to certify someone as ready to move onto writing a dissertation who fundamentally misunderstands some essential literature, or who demonstrates a wanton disregard for historical accuracy.

Tips for the Oral Examination

1. Attitude matters

Attitude is important in the oral examination, just as it will be for the remainder of your career as a scholar. As a doctoral candidate, you should be able to present your views with confidence, but without becoming defensive. The examiners are likely to push against your views and expect to see you defend them effectively, but not irrationally.

The best way to figure out the right attitude is to attend the presentations of others at research workshops, dissertation defenses, and conferences. Start paying attention to the style as well as the substance. Take note of how other scholars deal with difficult questions and criticisms. What works and what doesn't work? What makes them sound defensive? What makes them sound arrogant? What makes them sound indecisive?

2. Being nervous is inevitable

It is likely that you will be nervous. How you perform when nervous is not irrelevant to your career as a scholar. You need to demonstrate that despite being nervous you can engage in appropriate scholarly discussion.

3. We probably know more than you, but knowing everything isn't required

It is likely that all together, the three to five professors conducting the examination know some things that you don't. With some pushing, they will probably be able to find out what some of those things are. We don't expect you to know everything. We do expect you to communicate effective knowledge of a broad range of subjects, and explicit and deep knowledge of a few selected areas.

4. Practice

The best way to practice for the oral exam is to speak up and engage in discussion in your seminars, in research workshops, and at conferences. If you aren't prepared to express and defend your views in the seminar setting, it is unlikely that you will be prepared to do so in the oral exam.

5. Work with other students

Again, preparing for the comprehensive examinations with other students will help you both with the substance and with the process. Scholarly discussions of exam questions with other students will give you the chance to practice articulating and defending your views with appropriate references to the literature and empirical facts.


This examination will be conducted in a BAL Computer lab. In an emergency, you must inform the proctor immediately.

  • You may take short breaks (5-10 minutes) as needed
  • You are not permitted to leave the building under any circumstance
  • Food and beverages should be consumed during the exam
  • Save your work often on the flash drive provided
  • If any problems occur, notify the proctor immediately
  • The examination is closed book and no notes or other aids including cell phone are allowed
  • You will be given a blue book, pen, and pencil for writing notes
  • Once the exam begins the computer browsers will be locked down
  • You must sign and return the honor pledge provided

The ODU Honor Pledge will be strictly enforced, and you will be asked to sign off on this pledge on the date of the exam:

I pledge to support the Honor System of Old Dominion University. I will refrain from any form of academic dishonesty or deception, such as cheating or plagiarism. I am aware that as a member of the academic community it is my responsibility to turn in all suspected violations of the Honor Code. I will report to a hearing if summoned.

~Honor Pledge

On the day of the exam arrive 5-10 minutes early to log into the computer and be ready to start promptly at 8:30 a.m. when the exam questions are distributed.

You will receive the exam questions, a flash drive, a blue book for notes and the honor pledge to sign and return to the proctor. Use the flash drive to save your work and give to the proctor at the end of the exam.

The examination consists of two parts.

Part 1 - questions will be on your MAJOR concentration

Part 2 - questions will be on your MINOR concentration

On both days you must answer TWO out of five questions. The questions are written broadly, but your essays must remain explicitly responsive to what is asked; simply referencing texts is not sufficient. Time is ample and running out of time is not an option. Ending early is also not advised. The examination will conclude at 4:30 p.m. and all answers must be saved on the flash drive and turned in.

Guidelines to Answering Questions

(These are the instructions that come with the exam)

  • There will be five questions. You must answer two.
  • The exam lasts a total of eight hours. Allocate your time accordingly and make sure that each question has a concluding section.
  • answer the questions as they are raised and not as you wish they had been raised b. illustrate your answer with appropriate empirical examples c. cite relevant sources d. make proper references to important interpretative debates, when appropriate
  • how effectively you address each of the questions b. how well you know and manage your facts c. how soundly you handle and cite the literature d. how well you have developed and organized your argument e. the quality of your writing
  • errors of fact b. misattribution of arguments in text and/or citation c. spurious citation of literature d. presentation of answer in bullet point format e. failure to develop coherent argument

Past Field Questions

American foreign policy.

  • According to Henry Kissinger, "It is an illusion to believe that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience.... The connections that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume" during their time in office. Explain and discuss this assessment, which Kissinger made after he had served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, with explicit references to two high level foreign policy practitioners during the two decades that followed the US intervention in World War II (1941-1961).
  • "Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead," recently observed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "must be based on a marriage of principle and pragmatism, not rigid ideology, on facts and evidence, not conviction or prejudice." Explain and discuss in the context of two high level foreign policy practitioners during the immediate postwar decade (1945-1965).
  • Identify TWO crises, events, or issues that best characterize the latter part of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath (from January 1981 to January 2001). Do NOT describe any of these crises, events or issues at length but single out the features and patterns that best explain why these are so closely identified, in your judgment, with this initial post-Cold War period.
  • Describe and discuss the evolution of U.S. policies toward any country (except the USSR/Russia) or region of your choice during a 6-year period of your choice, extended from January 1981 to January 2001. To introduce your answer, explain your choice of the period you wish to discuss. To conclude, explain the relevance of that region or country to current U.S. interests and policies.
  • Whatever might be said about the events of September 11, 2001 and the wars that followed, their consequences have been epochal - meaning, system changing. After a quick review of these events, examine the conditions of what has been called a new "post-American world." What do you think of this emerging world: first, from the narrow perspective of U.S. interests, capabilities and purpose; but also, next, from the broader perspective of power and order during the coming decade? 2. "The United States," it has been noted, "never experienced what other nations experienced in achieving a position of world power. It moved within a very brief period from a position of isolation to one of global leadership, it has never been a mere nation among other nations." Explain and discuss the influence of the nation's distinctive past on the US role in the world in the twentieth century.


  • Great speculation exists on the extent to which the United States is in decline. Drawing on the central concepts and knowledge of the track, and on your broader study in the program, to what extent do you believe America is in decline? What factors could hasten or reverse this decline at the global level, insofar as you see it in play?
  • To what extent, if any, is the world safer in the post-Cold War era? In what measure have transnational threats (terrorism, migration, energy interdependence, etc) replaced the threats inherent in the Cold War?
  • Drawing on your coursework in this program, and especially on your courses in this track, to what extent do you think that the effects of anarchy can be tempered or lessened in world politics?
  • Realists tend to assume that world politics is cyclical; and that the basic elements of world politics do not change much over time (such as power, balance of power politics, the centrality of states, and conflict). To what extent do you agree with this key realist assumption?
  • To what extent, if at all, does interdependence decrease inter-state conflict in world politics?


  • From World War II to the present, states have constructed regimes to manage some-but not all-aspects of the international economy. A once-strong regime to manage trade has weakened since the 1990s. Likewise, with the abandonment of dollar-gold convertibility in 1973, a robust regime to manage monetary relations collapsed. Conversely, states originally left finance unregulated but in 1988 created and progressively have strengthened rules to manage international banking. And in production, the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment collapsed in 1998 without ever securing necessary multilateral support. What explains these variations in institutions, both across issue areas and over the course of the last 65 years?
  • The integration of gendered analyses of globalization has led to a substantive body of literature within the field of international studies. Imagine that an international studies department hires you to design and teach a graduate seminar on gender and globalization. What theoretical and empirical movements within the field would your seminar emphasize? How would you elucidate the central connections between gender and globalization? In your essay response, please explain how your choice of authors, themes and content provides an innovative approach to teaching graduate students about the complex interconnections between gender and global restructuring.
  • After the May 2010 parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, one observer wrote: The outcome in Britain underscores a problem roiling so many democracies. The economic change brought about by globalization and technological advances is not creating the happy, unified world of progress its promoters keep promising. Instead, it is splitting regions within nations that are fully part of the global market from those left behind. Does globalization foster or undermine democracy? Your answer should address at least one of the following dimensions of democracy: political behavior, democratic institutions, responsiveness, equality, and legitimacy. Please illustrate your argument using one democratic state of your choice.
  • Numerous scholars argue that historical experiences condition a nation-state's contemporary political economy. That is, a state's past policies for economic development may profoundly affect its contemporary prospects for industrialization, the reduction of poverty, and the development of political institutions. To what degree are development and democratization path-dependent processes? Can states in the contemporary political economy escape the tyranny of their history? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Developing states face different economic, political and social challenges than do the wealthiest and most powerful states. Can international political economy offer us a coherent set of theoretical tools to explain such diverse problems in the global economy? Or must it rely upon ad-hoc, degenerative hypothesizing to accommodate such empirical challenges? To illustrate your theoretical argument, please compare at least one developing and one developed state.


  • For a region of your choice identify two instances of cooperation between states that advanced/improved the regional security environment. Explain your selections in detail. Choose your examples from the last decade.
  • The spread of nuclear weapons is often cited as a major challenge to the international community. How might this threat best be countered? Your answer should critically review state policies and institutional responses.
  • In an increasingly global security environment it is far from obvious how security should be organized. Reflecting on what you have learned, how would you conceptualize a 21st century security order? Why would you conceptualize it this way?
  • To what extent does the transatlantic security community exist? Is it strong and if so, why? Is it weak and if so, why? What factors/developments are likely to determine its future?
  • For a region of your choice, discuss two events or developments over the past decade that have significantly affected regional expectations about conflict and cooperation. In your answer, make sure to demonstrate familiarity with the scholarly literature and debates at the policy levels.
  • Virtually absent from national policy agendas since the end of the Cold War, arms control is back. From a scholarly perspective and against the background of Cold War arms control, how do you evaluate the return of arms control, the emerging arms control agenda, and arms control's contribution to international peace and stability?
  • How useful are policies of deterrence in a global security environment?
  • From your understanding of the scholarly literature, single out two contributors whose work(s) you think have been critical in advancing the field of Security Studies. Carefully explain your choices.
  • Critical theorists have issued a number of challenges to traditional understandings of peace and security. Identify three such challenges and discuss. Ultimately, do these challenges represent anomalies, in the Kuhnian sense, or are they the products of normal science?


  • Both Rational-Choice and Political-Culture theories are prominent approaches in the field of comparative sociopolitical studies. What are the similarities and differences between these two approaches in terms of their intellectual geneses, theoretical assumptions, and major arguments (or hypotheses)? Discuss the major strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
  • New Institutionalism is believed to have succeeded the so-called "Old" Institutionalism in comparative sociopolitical studies. Explain the intellectual genesis, theoretical assumptions and major arguments (or hypotheses) of the New Institutionalism. In what respects is the New Institutionalism similar to and different from the Old Institutionalism? Do you think that the New Institutionalism has helped advance comparative sociopolitical studies? Why or why not?
  • Some analysts of comparative studies have advocated Statism, emphasizing the profound role of the state in shaping socioeconomic and sociopolitical developments in various countries. Explain theoretical assumptions and major arguments (or hypotheses) of Statism. Do you agree with Statism's arguments for the importance of the state (vs. society)? Why or why not?
  • Social movement and revolution
  • Democratization
  • Social capital
  • To study socioeconomic development in different regions or countries, scholars have developed two distinct approaches: Modernization Theory and Dependency Theory. Briefly explain these two approaches in terms of their fundamental assumptions and theoretical arguments. Which theory do you prefer when studying socioeconomic development in developing countries? Use evidence from any region(s) or country (countries) with which you are familiar to support your reference.


  • Explain the social construction of culture(s) and its significance to current political economic realities.
  • Cite a case study of a post-colonial critique of nationalism. Explain the role of the imperial power and how that is legitimized or not.
  • How is the concept of "nation" constructed in Modernity? How is this construction relevant to issues in international studies? Cite case studies where appropriate.
  • Explain how cultural studies theories are important to the study and practice of international relations.
  • Explain the importance of the media in the construction or reflection of the identity of immigrant, multicultural or diaspora communities.
  • Graduate Program in International Studies (GPIS)
  • 7045 Batten Arts & Letters
  • Norfolk, VA 23529

Program Director

Regina Karp

Regina Karp

NATO Accreditation


NATO, a military alliance of 31 North American and European countries, accredited the ODU GPIS degree program as a "Selected Program" for alliance members' education and training. Currently, no other civilian academic institutions have been awarded the "Selected Program" designation by NATO.

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Preparing for the Comprehensive Examination and the Dissertation

The comprehensive examination and the dissertation are the final projects in your doctoral journey.  These projects allow learners to demonstrate their skills as independent scholars and researchers.  In a real sense, the entire range of academic preparation up to this point has been preparation for this.  Between the conclusion of Track 3 of the Colloquia and the start of the comprehensive examination, there is time for continuing development and strengthening of one’s scholarly and research knowledge and skills.

Preparing for the Comprehensive Examination

As you know, in the comprehensive examination (hereafter called "comps") you will be asked to answer sophisticated questions in your specialization or field of study. You will have 28 calendar days to answer the questions in which you will need to bring your skills to the highest level for the greatest chance of success. These are skills in:

  • Using the library to discover relevant research and theory on the questions.
  • Critically thinking about and analyzing that research.
  • Formulating a focused and thorough answer to the question.
  • Writing in a professional or scholarly voice.

Scholarly Skills Needed in the Comps

There is a set of interrelated skills needed to pass the comps. They derive from the four competencies of the Colloquia (scholar-practitioner, critical thinker, researcher , and professional writer):

  • Can you deconstruct complex questions to identify what is actually being asked? (The Comprehensive Manual in the Learning Resources/Comprehensive and Dissertation Resources section of iGuide has a chapter on how to deconstruct questions).
  • Can you appropriately identify the levels of critical analysis needed? (Remember Bloom's taxonomy of critical thinking.)
  • Can you organize a sophisticated literature search for existing work on the various elements of the question?
  • Can you thoroughly analyze and critique that existing work in order to build a framework for your own answer to the question?
  • Can you write your answer using all the elements of APA formatting, proper citation, good grammar, word usage, and mechanics (punctuation, spelling, formatting, and so on)?
  • Can you present your answer using the correct paper and paragraph formatting—the introduction, main body, and conclusion model for the paper and the M.E.A.L. plan for paragraphs?
  • Can you answer the question thoroughly and respond to all elements that are asked?
  • Can you use the analytic service provided by Capella (Turnitin) to check your writing for originality and make all necessary corrections?
  • Can you work in an organized and focused way within a carefully constructed timeline, ensuring timely delivery of the answers?

If you are weak or unready in any of these skills, develop a plan (which you will present to the courseroom instructor) for improving your skills between now and the quarter when you will take comps. This plan can be proactive—that is, a positive approach to developing or strengthening a particular skill. It can also include reactive elements, such as deciding to take a quarter off to concentrate heavily on developing or improving your skills. The comps and the dissertation are crucial to your success: only successfully completing both will allow you to succeed in this program. Careful and thorough preparation is key—the more ready you are going in, the greater your chances of success.

Some Ideas for Your Readiness-for-Comps Plan

  • Identify the courses that you still need to complete. How can each of them be used to enhance your skill set for independent scholarship?
  • Make a list of the various skills you 'll need in the comps. Make a plan to practice them intentionally in your remaining courses.
  • Set goals for that practice and assess your progress weekly.
  • Inform your instructors about your plans and ask them to help you with feedback focused on your needs.
  • Figure out how you can use remaining courses to deepen your literature review for your dissertation. For instance, if a course is a methodology course, use it to deepen your literature on your own methodology and design. If it is a content course, figure out how that content relates to your dissertation topic and try to focus your course paper or product that way so that you can build your literature review.
  • Know that at least one of your comps questions can be tailored to your dissertation focus. As such, your preparation prior to the exam will be important and useful.
  • Review the Comprehensive Examination Manual thoroughly before starting the exam. Learn the process, the timelines, the requirements, and how to understand and deconstruct the questions. You cannot ask for help once the examination starts – it is an examination after all so you may not use an editor or librarian at any point. Consequently, come as prepared as you can so that you do not waste time trying to understand the rules and regulations.

Preparing for the Dissertation

When you meet your dissertation mentor, one of the first things you and the mentor will discuss is your research plan, developed through the Colloquia.  So it is important that it be as well-prepared as you can make it before you have that discussion.  You should have been updating your literature review in the research plan through all the quarters you’ve been taking courses and attending Colloquia.  Between now and the comps, continue that.  Once you have passed the comps and are on track to start dissertation, continue building that lit review and revising your research plan according to your latest findings.

Before you start the dissertation, become very familiar with the resources available to you in your school.  Go to Research at Capella , and then click on the link to "Research in [your school's name]" at the bottom of the page.  Open every document and discover what is there for you.  Prepare yourself for talking with a mentor so that you sound knowledgeable about the processes and the various elements of the dissertation—do not wait for a mentor to tell you what is needed or how to find something.  The dissertation is a demonstration of independent research.

Before you pass the comps, do not spend a lot of time preparing for dissertation (except to keep working on your research plan and building that lit review).  Instead, devote the time to preparing for the comps—when you pass the exam, there will be plenty of time for gearing up for the dissertation.

Keep one thing in the forefront of your vision:  The comps and the dissertation demonstrate your independence , as a scholar (comps) and as a researcher (dissertation).  You will be asked to demonstrate not only that you have knowledge, not only that you can present that knowledge in a manner appropriate to a PhD, but that you can use that knowledge to generate new knowledge on your own initiative, independently.  Consequently, evaluate honestly the level of your scholarship skills, the breadth of your knowledge, and the degree of true independence in your work.

Independence does not mean isolation, though.  Scholars form a community, and they talk together, recognizing their limitations and asking for help when they need it.

Knowing when one needs help is a genuine dimension of independent scholarship.  Can you ask for help when you need it?  Can you tell when you need it?

Another thing to look at as you prepare for the dissertation (and the comps, for that matter), is to assess your comfort with difficult feedback.  Particularly in the dissertation, you will receive a lot of difficult feedback—about your ideas, about your writing, about details of your research design, about any and every aspect of the project.  You may even get differing feedback from different evaluators, and you’ll have to negotiate with them if the differences are extreme.  Are you ready to not take tough feedback personally, but to use it to strengthen your work?  Don’t pass over that point lightly—self-assess carefully on this point.

Finally, evaluate your time management skills.  Perhaps the hardest problem to solve with the dissertation is how to ensure that you get done in a reasonable period of time.  There are no real deadlines—although there are milestones—like there are in courses.  The work is relentless, but there is no one expecting a document on a certain day.  It is far too easy to get lost.  This is another aspect of the independence you must demonstrate: the ability to get the job done on your own.  If procrastination and time management have been problems during your coursework, they will be magnified enormously during the dissertation.  If you have all the other necessary skills but allow yourself to procrastinate, your chances of success drop.  So if that has been a problem, take time to investigate it and develop a plan to overcome it.  You can do it, with a plan.

Doc. reference: phd_t3_u10s3_h01_prepcomp.html

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What Is a Comprehensive Exam? a Grad Students’ Guide


Any graduate student on both the master’s and doctoral level has likely heard of a comprehensive exam, which are sometimes simply known as “comps.” It may sound a bit overwhelming and scary, but by understanding what is a comprehensive exam and everything they entail, students can reduce the anxiety that tends to come with these exams.

What is a Comprehensive Exam?

Similar to how it sounds, a comprehensive exam is a test that covers a large array of material. Such a test aims to assess the knowledge and capabilities of a student before granting them with a graduate degree.

What’s included in the comprehensive exam varies depending on the type of degree, and passing the exam allows you to continue onto higher levels of education.

The Most Common Formats

The format for a comprehensive exam varies greatly, and it depends on your school. You may even have to take multiple types of exams.

They are often given in the form of an academic paper, but can also be given as a formal oral exam or a traditional supervised written exam that can be broken up over a few days. In certain cases, a comprehensive exam is merely a review of your academic portfolio.

What Is Required

Although the requirements for a comprehensive exam vary between schools and programs, in general, a minimum GPA is required prior to taking this exam.

Students who take a comprehensive exam must have completed all of the coursework, and if relevant to their field of study, they may need to have completed a doctoral residency prior to taking the exam. Other requirements include a request form for the comprehensive exam that must be filled out and submitted.

What The Exam Entails

The aim of comprehensive exams are to ensure that students have understood the main ideas of both their field and research focus. These exams are used as a tool to make sure that students don’t begin their dissertation without being fully prepared.

Therefore, these exams tend to include questions about research methodologies and how to apply them in specific fields of study.

Comprehensive exams also entail a variety of concepts and theories related to the subject of study, both for adding to the already existing knowledge, and on how to solve problems.

What Are Cumulative Final Exams?

Cumulative final exams aim to ensure that students have managed to retain everything they learned in class. The exam therefore focuses on material that was covered throughout the entire study period.

Other than simply retaining the information, these types of tests also evaluate your ability to understand and apply the material taught from the entire semester or even year.

Many people confuse cumulative final exams with comprehensive exams, and although they both have their benefits and sound similar, they are two different types of exams!

The most obvious difference is that comprehensive exams focus more on a student’s readiness for the next stage (dissertations), and less on their academic performance.

Photo by  Feedyourvision  from  Pexels

When should you start thinking about comps.

While it’s common to want to start planning out our every move as soon as possible, for many young students, our career goals and interests tend to change very quickly — especially as we are exposed to different ideas. Ideally, for most students, they start to think about comprehensive exams during the spring semester of their second year in the program, but this is not necessarily right for everyone.

When Should They Be Taken?

Comprehensive exams tend to be given towards the end of coursework , since they are seen as the determining factor as to whether or not a student is prepared to move to the next professional step of writing their dissertation.

What Is The Exam Format?

At the master’s and doctoral level, comprehensive exams tend to be written, though they can be oral, and in certain cases are even a combination of both formats. The exams last in some cases for more than one test period, and can be as long as eight hours in each sitting.

The Difference Between Master’s vs. Doctoral

Is there a difference between master’s and doctoral comprehensive exams?

Master’s Comp Exam

When it comes to master’s programs, taking a comprehensive exam is not always required. Certain programs will request passing a comprehensive exam to begin a thesis, while others may accept the exam instead of a thesis. If you’re lucky, your college will even give you the choice between the two!

Doctoral Comp Exam

As opposed to master’s programs, almost all doctoral programs require that their students complete a comprehensive exam, and it is seen as the first step to starting a dissertation. Once the student has passed the exam, they are given the title of ‘doctoral candidate’ and can then begin their research.

Photo by  Fox  from  Pexels

The best ways to prepare for the comprehensive exam.

Now that you know all about what is a comprehensive exam, the next step is to figure out how to best prepare for this big test. Here are 14 steps to prepare:

1. Start Early

The best way to prepare for just about anything in life is to start early. When it comes to comprehensive exams, this is especially important since graduate programs require you to have a committee and a set date, as well as no shortage of paperwork to be dealt with.

2. Create A Packet

Make yourself a packet with all of your information. Keeping it all in one organized place can help you stay on track, and can make it a lot easier to share with your committee.

3. Always Take Notes

Taking notes is the key to success in any field. As soon as a new idea, thought, theory, or just about anything related to your studies comes up — write it down!

4. Educate Yourself

If you’re going to be a professional in your field, then be professional! Educate yourself as much as possible and constantly look for new ways to add to your knowledge by asking questions and reading relevant material. Figure out where you can expand your knowledge.

5. Watch Others

Watch how other successful people in your field work and research. Learn from these fellow professionals and remember that once upon a time they were also in your place. Talk to other doctoral candidates or professors, and see what kind of advice they can offer you.

6. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

Put yourself in the shoes of a fellow professional in your field. What would they think in this situation? What would they do?

7. Practice Makes Perfect

Keep practicing no matter what. It’s no lie that practice makes perfect, so don’t give up.

8. Memorize and Roleplay

Aim to memorize quotes from the sources you’ve used as you may need them when you defend yourself in front of your committee. Even just paraphrasing what you read is also good enough. Using role play techniques, such as having a friend ask you questions, can also help you be well prepared for your comprehensive exam, especially if it’s given in an oral format.

9. Change Up The Words

Rephrasing what you want to say can help you better remember. Once you know how to say what you wanted to in several different ways, it’s likely to stick with you.

10. Don’t Be Afraid

The goal of the exam is to see what you know, and if you don’t know something, that’s ok! That’s why the exam was created. Don’t be so hard on yourself, because at the end of the day, this test is to help you be as best prepared as possible, and you can always try again.

11. Be Strategic About Your Reading

There are endless texts, journals, and reports out there that can help you with your comprehensive exam. But it’s not exactly realistic to expect to read everything out there. Be strategic about your reading, and make sure you’re only reading the most relevant and important information to avoid burnout and save yourself time.

12. Stay On Top Of Your Field

You’re about to be a professional in your field, and it’s up to you to stay on top of what’s going on in your field, whether that be keeping up to date with popular journals or even shadowing a professor.

13. Always Ask Questions

If you really want to succeed, you’re going to need to ask for help. Find a patient and understanding professional who is willing to give you the tips you need and help you fill in the missing blanks.

14. Mind And Body Is Important

The mind and body connection is completely undeniable. Even if you’re well prepared mentally, make sure that your body is too. You want to be able to handle any stress that may come your way.

You can do so by ensuring that you get enough sleep each night, drink plenty of water, prepare healthy meals, and maybe even practice some yoga or meditation! These things may seem time consuming, but they will be worth the investment.

How Is The Overall Outcome Determined?

If you unfortunately do not pass the comprehensive exam, you are required to take it again in order to pass the program. Students are only allowed to take the test twice before a different project is given.

For students that are given an oral exam, a committee of staff members (2-3 people) will undergo an oral review for an hour, which will go over areas that were considered to be below the expected standard.

When Should You Start Preparing?

While every student is different, the general consensus is that you should start preparing anywhere from 6-8 months before your comprehensive exam.

What Is The Aim Of A Comprehensive Exam?

If you were now asked what is a comprehensive exam, you would surely be able to give a seriously comprehensive answer. The goal of a comprehensive exam is for graduate students to show their deep understanding of concepts related to their field of study, as well as how to properly conduct research in their field. That’s because we need you to continue adding to our knowledge!

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  • Capella University Blog
  • PhD/Doctorate

What is a comprehensive exam?

March 12, 2019

A comprehensive exam is an evaluation that measures a student’s competency and mastery of concepts in the field of an academic discipline.

Passing a comprehensive exam, which may be in written, verbal, or some other format, indicates that a student is prepared to move into the dissertation phase of the degree.

Many graduate programs, especially PhD programs, require students to take comprehensive exams (which are also known as preliminary exams, general exams, or major field exams) as part of their program. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to ensure the student is knowledgeable enough with his or her area of research to make an original contribution.

What should you expect from comprehensive exams—or “comps,” as they’re commonly called?

The nature of the exams will vary from school to school, and program to program, but here are a few of the most common formats, requirements, and expectations.

Comps formats

The formats for comps vary widely. You may find yourself doing any of these:

  • Submission of an academic paper as a basis for the dissertation.
  • Formal oral exam.
  • Review of your academic portfolio.
  • A series of proctored, or supervised, exams.

Your school and program will dictate the required format, and in some cases, you may need to take multiple types.

Comps requirements

Again, these will vary across schools and programs, with some requiring all, and others requiring some.

  • Minimum GPA (at Capella University, a 3.0 GPA is required before taking the comps).
  • Completion of all coursework.
  • Completion of doctoral residency, if relevant to the program.
  • Paperwork, such as the Comprehensive Exam request form.
  • Possible additional requirements for students in licensure or practicum programs.

What the exams involve

Faculty are verifying that students grasp the key elements of research and the current state of their field enough to position their research to add to the collection of knowledge in the field. To that end, comps exam questions are usually focused around:

  • Knowledge of the research methodologies and how to apply them in the student’s areas of specialization
  • Theories and concepts that contribute to the body of knowledge in the student’s area of specialization
  • Theory and research that can solve problems in the field

Your coursework prior to the comps should prepare you to thoroughly and knowledgeably discuss these questions. The comps are a mechanism for ensuring that students don’t begin dissertation work until they’re fully prepared to do so.

Many schools (including Capella) will allow you to re-take the comps if you don’t pass the first time.

If at any time you’re in doubt about your level of preparation for the comps, be sure to work with your advisors and mentors to address those concerns before scheduling them.

Capella University offers professional doctorate degree and PhD programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s doctoral programs .

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Doctoral Comprehensive Examination, Candidacy, and Dissertation

All doctoral students must complete and successfully pass a Doctoral Comprehensive Examination. The comprehensive exam has both a written and oral component and is usually taken after two years of coursework is completed. The written and oral exam evaluates students’ mastery of their specialization and the counselor education and supervision core curricular areas. The exam can include but is not limited to, content from core doctoral coursework, the student’s field of specialization, and research interest areas.

The Ph.D. in Counselor Education at Ohio University is a research doctorate intended to prepare scholars in the sciences, humanities and the arts to carry out significant research and produce scholarly work. To this effect, all doctoral candidates must complete a dissertation, a scholarly account of research in the new area of knowledge. Students are required to complete at least 10 credit hours of dissertation.

To be admitted to Doctoral Candidacy, a doctoral student must complete the coursework listed in their program of study, successfully pass a comprehensive exam, and have an approved dissertation proposal. Specifically, the following criteria must be met:

  • Program of Study courses successfully completed, including all courses with a prior grade of PR.
  • Scholarly Tools Courses on Program of Study successfully completed.
  • Comprehensive Examination successfully completed.
  • The Dissertation Committee Approval form was completed and submitted to The Patton College Office of Graduate Records.
  • The Dissertation Proposal was successfully defended and the Proposal Defense Report was completed and submitted to The Patton College Office of Graduate Records.
  • IRB approval or waiver must be obtained and submitted to The Patton College Office of Graduate Records.

Forms indicating completion of the above steps are available on the Patton College of Education forms page . Doctoral students should also consult the Patton College of Education Doctoral Handbook and Thesis and Dissertation Services (TAD).

Doctoral students are not permitted to schedule the oral examination of the dissertation until they have met all requirements for formal admission to candidacy. Formal notification of admission to candidacy will be provided by the PCOE Office of Student Affairs. A copy will be sent to your advisor and kept on file in the Office of Student Affairs in The Patton College of Education.

After formal admission to doctoral candidacy, all doctoral students must successfully complete a final dissertation defense followed by The Patton College dissertation submission process, and, to graduate, meet the TAD requirements for dissertation submission associated with the academic term in which graduation is intended.

Additional information can be found in the Appendices.

Best Practices for the Comprehensive Examination

comprehensive exam dissertation

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Penn State’s Graduate School requires that each Ph.D. student “pass a comprehensive examination to become a Ph.D. candidate” ( GCAC-606 ). The comprehensive examination is administered by the Philosophy Department.

The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to help students develop breadth and depth in areas relevant to their chosen areas of research. The historical and systematic reading lists contain resources that can aid students in developing a dissertation prospectus.

The comprehensive examination process is one that necessitates flexibility because every student is different, students work on a wide variety of topics, and students enter the comprehensive exam process with different levels of knowledge. The specifics of how the comprehensive examination preparation process takes place are, therefore, determined by the student and the dissertation advisor/committee in conversation with one another.

While holding a general principle of flexibility in mind, there are several areas where best practices regarding the comprehensive examination can be recommended:

Number of Questions

Faculty should consider providing students with five questions per exam session, one of which students will answer.

Length of Reading Lists

Because our program provides five years of funding, students are encouraged to defend their dissertation prospectuses by the end of their third year in the program, leaving two years in which they can write their dissertations. This means that students will have roughly half a year (the first half of their third year) in which to prepare to take their comprehensive examination. Accordingly, the preparation of each reading list should take no longer than three months. Lists that include a combination of texts students already have familiarity with and those that are new to them are more likely to be able to be completed within three months.

Thematic Identification

Students are encouraged to identify broad themes across readings that relate to their proposed areas of research and should share those with their dissertation advisor and committee in advance of the generation of questions for the comprehensive examination. In writing questions for the exam, committee members are encouraged to be sensitive to the philosophical themes the student intends to develop in their research.

Dates of Exam

The dates of the exam should be set by the supervisor and student in consultation with each other.

Length of Answers

Answers to each comprehensive exam question should fall in the range of 4000–6000 words.

Oral Examination

In posing questions during the oral portion of the examination, faculty are encouraged to focus exclusively on the written portion of the exam.

In beginning to draft their comprehensive examination reading lists and rationale, students should consult the comprehensive examination template available on the department website.

Policies and Procedures

Criteria of evaluation for the written and oral portions of the exam, as well as additional details regarding the comprehensive examination process, can be found in Graduate Program Policies and Procedures .

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GCAC-606 Comprehensive Examination - Research Doctorate

Comprehensive examination - research doctorate.

To establish the content, form, scheduling, and reporting requirements for the Comprehensive Examination.

Academic Goal

To evaluate the student’s mastery of the major field and, if appropriate, dual-title and minor fields, and to determine whether the student is prepared to succeed in their dissertation research.

All students enrolled in programs of study leading to the Ph.D.

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The research doctorate requires preparation of a dissertation that represents a significant contribution to knowledge in the major field of study and demonstrates the student’s ability to do independent research of high quality as well as competence in scholarly exposition. The Comprehensive Examination is a critical step to ensure the student has the foundation to succeed in their dissertation research. It is the second major summative assessment (see GCAC-604 Qualifying Examination - Research Doctorate ) of a doctoral student’s progress toward the degree.

Definitions keyboard_arrow_down

Policy statement.

  • Each Ph.D. student is required to pass a Comprehensive Examination to become a Ph.D. candidate.
  • The Comprehensive Examination is administered, overseen, and evaluated by the entire Ph.D. Committee (see GCAC-602 and GCAC-603 ).
  • the student’s mastery of the major, and if appropriate, dual-title and minor fields of study; and
  • whether the student is prepared to succeed in their dissertation research.
  • The format of the Comprehensive Examination may be entirely oral, or it may have both a written and an oral component.
  • The timing and the format of the examination
  • Clear criteria for evaluation.
  • If retaking the examination after failure is allowed, and if so under what conditions.
  • If retaking the examination after failure is permitted whether there is a limit to the number of attempts and a timeline under which the retakes must be completed.
  • If students who have failed the final attempt will be dismissed from the program or may be allowed to change to the master’s degree.
  • The dual-title faculty representative on the Ph.D. committee will participate in constructing comprehensive examination questions and assessing student performance related to the dual-title area of study as part of a unified comprehensive examination with the major program administered to the student.
  • A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the Ph.D. committee is required for passing the Comprehensive Examination.
  • When a period of more than six years has elapsed between the passing of the Comprehensive Examination and the completion of the program, the student is required to pass a second Comprehensive Examination before the final oral examination or final performance will be scheduled.
  • The responsibility for scheduling the Comprehensive Exam rests with the student and their Ph.D. committee chair.
  • All students are required to have a minimum grade-point average of 3.00 for work completed at the University as a graduate student at the time the Comprehensive Examination is administered.
  • Students may not have deferred or missing grades.
  • the completion of all course work required by the program and the Ph.D. Committee (this does not preclude the Ph.D. Committee from requiring additional education, including course work, as defined in GCAC-603 );
  • the student has satisfied the English competency requirement ( GCAC-605 );
  • the student has satisfied any program-specific communication and foreign language competency requirement.
  • The Comprehensive Examination should be scheduled within a year of completion of all required course work to provide students with timely assessment of their ability to complete their dissertation, but it must be scheduled no later than five years following the passing of the Qualifying Examination.
  • The examination must be scheduled at least two weeks prior to the date of the examination.
  • Because all Ph.D. programs are offered as resident instruction, graduate programs are strongly encouraged to conduct the Comprehensive Examination in-person.
  • Fully in-person: the entire committee and the student are physically in the same room.
  • Fully remote: the entire committee and the student participate via University-licensed interactive audio-video technology.
  • Hybrid: individual members of the committee and/or the student may participate in person or via University-licensed interactive audio-video technology.
  • Individuals taking part in the Comprehensive Examination in-person must participate at the campus location of the graduate center offering the program to ensure the technological reliability, confidentiality, and safety of all participants.
  • Those participating via distance must use University-licensed interactive audio-visual technology. If unable to connect with video, audio-only participation is allowed.
  • When the student and their adviser cannot agree on the mode of the Comprehensive Examination, the Graduate Program Head will make the final decision. Either the student or adviser can appeal the Graduate Program Head’s decision to the college or school administrator for graduate education (associate dean or equivalent).
  • If the Graduate Program Head does not approve the choice of mode, either the student or adviser can appeal the Graduate Program Head’s decision to the college or school administrator for graduate education (associate dean or equivalent).
  • Participation mode must be communicated by the student and their adviser to all Ph.D. Committee members at the time of scheduling.
  • In the case of emergencies that occur after the examination scheduling has been recorded with Graduate Enrollment Services and which impact the examination or the composition of the committee, programs should contact Graduate Enrollment Services before holding the examination.
  • The results of all Comprehensive Examinations, regardless of the outcome, must be reported within five business days following the examination.

Responsibilities/Guidelines/Best Practices

  • The student may discuss with the Ph.D. committee members the types of questions that might be asked on this exam.


Further Information

Exceptions to Comprehensive Examination Time Limits due to COVID-19




Revision History

  • Process Statement 6: Revised so that allowable delivery modes for the exam are determined by the graduate program with appeal process through the college/school. Minor editorial changes throughout.
  • Process Statement 6: Revised requirements for in-person and remote participation.
  • Added a requirement for a timeline under which retakes must be completed to Policy Statement 5.a.iii.2.
  • Policy revised extensively.
  • Adapted from Graduate Bulletin: June 2018.

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comprehensive exam dissertation

Comprehensive Examinations Guidelines

Guide to Comparative Literature Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination Milestone

Comprehensive Examinations (also known as "Comps" or "Comp Exams") serve three purposes: 1) to solidify your education as a comparatist, 2) to help you get a handle on a field of expertise generally pertinent to comparatist inquiry and to your work specifically, and 3) to help you lay the groundwork for your dissertation. All three comprehensives are designed with these goals in mind, and all three examinations will be tailored accordingly under the supervision of the examination committee chair and with the input of committee members.

We also want you to think about how these three examinations are related as you fashion them. The first exam explores the works, contexts, critical traditions, methodologies and theories that define the primary field in which you will position yourself as a comparatist and more specifically as related to your dissertation. The second exam defines, constructs, and develops your expertise in theories and methods, within which you will write, research, and likely also teach as a comparatist. The third comprehensive examination, i.e., the dissertation prospectus, proposes a project in the primary field, conceived of in comparatist terms and addressing certain comparatist debates. 

The examination committee must make a determination as to whether the performance is a pass or a fail.  In the case of a borderline performance, the committee may, at its discretion, give the student an opportunity to improve the performance, e.g. by rewriting the response to a question, before making the determination pass/fail.  A student who outright fails a portion of any of the comprehensives may retake the exam in question once within two to ten weeks after receiving the failing results.  The requirements for and timing of the retake depend on the student's particular performance, as evaluated in writing by the examination committee, and will be determined in consultation by the chair of the exam committee, the graduate advisor (DGS), and the program director.

The Student  is responsible for attending all meetings, responding to correspondences, and punctually completing all of the comprehensive examination directions, including answering and submitting responses in a timely manner to The Research Advisory Committee (RAC) and The Coordinator, as well as being in contact with The Primary Research Advisor for progressing through the Comprehensive Examination Milestone.

The Primary Research Advisor  is responsible for assisting the Student in assembling the three member Comprehensive Committee for the defense, for compiling and delivering written comprehensive examination questions to The Coordinator  in accordance to the Comparative Literature program Comprehensive Exam template, and for communicating pass/fail of all parts of each comprehensive examination to The Coordinator . 

The Research Advisory Committee (RAC)  should consist of at least three full-time Washington University faculty members who are authorized to supervise PhD students and who have appropriate expertise in the proposed field of study. The RAC is responsible for attending all meetings and examinations regarding the comprehensive examination process for The Student and communicating with The Coordinator regarding scheduling of all meetings involved in the comprehensive examination process.

The Coordinator ( Academic and Administrative Coordinator ) is responsible for coordinating dates, times, and locations of examinations with the Student and Comprehensive Committee, for emailing written examinations to the Student and RAC Committee, for recording pass/file according to The Primary Research Advisor on student milestone tracking, and for submitting appropriate Milestone Forms to the OGS via Portal including the Unsuccessful Qualifying Exam Form and the Successful Qualifying Exam Form.

The OGS provides information on the  Comprehensive Examination  (called the Qualifying Examination on OGS website).


Before any Comprehensive Examinations can be scheduled, The Student will need to obtain a faculty member to lead their Research Advisory Committee: this member is The Primary Research Advisor. The Student, along with The Primary Research Advisor, will need to identify and secure two additional faculty members to add to their RAC.

Once this three member RAC is established, The Student will contact The Coordinator to arrange a date, time, and place to meet for a preliminary bibliography meeting. This meeting should be approximately 4 months before the first written exam is scheduled. See below for specific elements of the bibliography meeting and the comprehensives themselves. A timeline will be created at this meeting, which The Student and The Primary Research Advisor should share with The Coordinator for ease of scheduling. 

Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2

Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2 consist of both a written and oral portion, both of which are required to be passed before proceeding to the next exam. It is highly recommended to schedule both the written and oral portions of each exam together, in order to avoid both a long delay between written remarks and oral defense, and to avoid unnecessary extension of the overall scheduled time line. It is helpful to have an idea for when you would like your oral portion to occur, and work backwards to schedule the written portion to ensure your and your committee members’ schedules are open (for example, avoiding major holidays, major university and department events, and planned travel). 

The written portion of the first and second comprehensive exams will consist of three questions provided by the RAC, two of which you must answer within a one week period. These questions will be broad in nature and related to the general goals described above as well as to the goals specified below under each comprehensive.

The 1 hour oral examination will follow the written examination in approximately two weeks. Please note: proceeding to the oral does not in and of itself indicate a passing performance on the written . The oral examination may include follow-up questions having to do with your performance on the written examination and could include the question that you did not answer. Most importantly, the oral will include questions on works on your reading list that were not treated in your written answers.  

Upon completion of both parts of the examination, you will receive both an oral and brief written evaluation of your examination, including a passing or failing mark as well as next steps in the Comprehensive Examination process.

Comprehensive Exam 3

Unlike Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2, Comprehensive Exam 3's written portion is not in response to provided questions. Comprehensive Exam 3 explicitly prepares The Student to write a dissertation. It consists of a 20-25-page dissertation proposal, including detailed prospectus, primary texts, and critical sources, followed by an oral defense of the proposal. The Student will work with The Primary Research Adivsor to prepare the proposal. Once The Student and The Primary Research Advisor are satisfied with a draft, The Student will circulate it to the RAC. The 1 hour oral defense will follow approximately two weeks later.

In most cases, The Primary Research Advisor and RAC will continue and become three members of the five or six member Dissertation Defense Committee (including The Dissertation Director).  Please see  Ph.D. Dissertation Guidelines  for further information . 

(After coursework is completed/4 th year in program)

Approximately four months before you write your first comprehensive, with the help of The Coordinator and The Primary Research Advisor, you will arrange an hour-long meeting including The Student, all faculty members likely to serve on your RAC (3), the  Director of Comparative Literature , and the  DGS of Comparative Literature . During this meeting, faculty will review the expectations, goals and procedures of the examinations, discuss a time line for achieving these goals, and review your bibliography. The bibliography contains the content that The RAC will base their questions on for in the examinations.  This preliminary step is REQUIRED before the comprehensive examinations can commence. 

All those present will receive a brief summary of this meeting in writing, and the summary will be kept on file should you for any reason have to find different examiners over the course of the comprehensives.  

Comprehensive Examination #1

(Approximately 4 months after Preliminaries)

The first comprehensive is an examination in your primary comparatist field. It has four purposes: 1) to enable you to think about and become familiar with how a “field” of comparatist inquiry is defined and shaped; 2) to enable you to identify and familiarize yourself with the historical debates and recent criticism that has shaped comparatist inquiry in this field; 3) to provide you with the occasion to work closely on some of the most important works of criticism pertinent to this field; and 4) to re/familiarize yourself with some exemplary primary works in this field.

The definition of the “field” is flexible, but should have identifiable historical limits and specificity. Additional attributes of a field might include some of the following: important phases or modes of cultural contact; identifiable literary movements such as naturalism, realism, or modernism; transcultural, transnational, and/or translinguistic reach (drawing on your language training); technological developments (the invention of photography, cinema, digital technologies, etc); a set of questions, issues or concerns, etc. A field should be conceived broadly enough to be well populated with primary work and secondary literature. Your dissertation project should fall within the field broadly conceived. Examples of a field include, but are not limited to, comparative modernism, twentieth-century transnational poetics, early modern comparative theater and performance studies, medieval media theory (orality, manuscript culture, etc.), transnational feminist or queer literary studies, postcolonial literature, Sinophone literature, comparative ethnic literatures, etc. Such comparative fields might well be anchored in expertise in one or two areas (transnational poetics with an emphasis on Latin American poetry, comparative modernism with an emphasis in Chinese modernism, etc). You might also work in a “traditional field” such as Victorian British literature or German Romanticism, in which case we encourage you to think creatively about this field as a comparatist. 

Written Examination #1

Student Name: Comprehensive Examination No. 1   (Field) Committee Members:

This written examination consists of three questions that address the annotated bibliography that you submitted to your RAC for this examination. These questions will be made available to you at a specific  TIME  on  DATE . You will have exactly one week to complete your responses and return your completed work to all the members of your committee, as well as The Coordinator at the exact TIME one week from the DATE . Make sure that you answer all the parts of a given question unless the question gives you license to do otherwise. 

Oral Examination #1

The 1-hour oral examination #1 will follow the written examination #1 in approximately two weeks. Proceeding to the oral examination does NOT indicate a passing performance on the written.

Comprehensive Examination #2

(Approximately 2 months after Exam 1)

Your second comprehensive tests your familiarity with and ability to talk about methodologies and theories critical to comparatist analysis and asks you to position yourself within the broad discipline of Comparative Literature by specifying particularly methodologies/theories that will likely inform your future teaching and scholarship. For this examination, in consultation with your advisors, you will create a bibliography of key works from three methodologies/theories in which you wish to prove competence. These should pertain to at least two of the four areas of the core requirements and, where possible, be pertinent to your projected dissertation topic. You should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the origins of these methodologies and theories and key debates and practices and you should also be prepared to give examples of applications. Methodologies/theories might include postcolonial theory, performance theory, queer theory, affect theory, comparative performance study, cultural geography, theories of sound, media theory, philology, translation theory, etc. 

Written Examination #2

Student Name: Comprehensive Examination No. 2   (Theory/Methods) Committee Members:

This written examination consists of three questions that address the annotated bibliography that you submitted to your committee for this examination. These questions will be made available to you at a specific  TIME  on  DATE . You will have exactly one week to complete your responses and return your completed work to all the members of your RAC, as well as The Coordinator at the exact TIME one week from the DATE . Make sure that you answer all the parts of a given question unless the question gives you license to do otherwise. 

Oral Examination #2

The oral examination #2 will follow the written examination #2 in approximately two weeks. Proceeding to the oral does not indicate a passing performance on the written.

Comprehensive Examination #3 (aka "Proposal")

(Approximately 2 months after Exam 2)

Your third comprehensive explicitly prepares you to write your dissertation. It consists of a 20-25 page dissertation proposal, including detailed prospectus, primary texts, and critical sources, followed by a defense of the proposal. You will work with your Primary Research Advisor to prepare the proposal. Once you and your Primary Research Advisor are satisfied with your draft, you will circulate it to your RAC. The 1-hour oral defense will follow approximately two weeks later.

Written Examination #3/Proposal

A 20-25 page dissertation proposal challenges you to generate a blueprint of your project. It is usually composed of the following or most of the following elements:

  • Abstract : a two to three sentence summary.
  • Introduction : The introduction paints the "scholarly landscape." It addresses the following such questions: what is the issue or problem you mean to address, how does your inquiry relate to the (sub)field, and how does it fit into the current scholarly conversation?
  • Review of scholarship (literature review) : A review of scholarship addresses the following such questions: what have been the major developments relating to your topic, what are some questions that have been left open, and how do these lacunae bring you to your topic?
  • The question : What is the problem or issue your dissertation will address, and what do you foresee as its contribution to the field?
  • Methodology : This section outlines the conceptual/theoretical framework. Which theorists or school/s of thought do you expect to be using and why?  What is comparatist about your study?
  • Research to date : Summarize what you have already done.
  • Preliminary Outline : This section should include preliminary chapter divisions with brief explanations of what is in each (and even how one leads to the next).
  • Timeline for Completion
  • Selected Preliminary Bibliography

Oral Examination #3/Proposal Defense

In the 1-hour oral defense, your examiners will be trying to make the following judgments about your proposal: Is the topic viable? Is it original? Is the central question significant? Do you have the knowledge and skills needed to address the problem? Are the methods sound? Will the theory and methods enable you to make an argument? Are you likely to finish in a timely manner? The proposal generally serves as the basis for your introductory chapter and serves to guide you through the process of researching and writing your dissertation.

Title, Scope, and Procedure (TSP)

(Before starting 5 th year of graduate study)

Although usually linked with the Dissertation Phase, the Student may want to bring work on their Title, Scope and Procedure (TSP) form as part of their prospectus. You must file your TSP form before starting your fifth year of graduate study .

Your project's "scope" defines its limits—what you intend to cover and what you intend not to cover. Your "procedure" describes the manner in which you intend to conduct your research. By defining the scope and procedure of your dissertation, you provide an initial outline or model for yourself as you research your topic.

You may file your  Title, Scope, and Procedure Form  as soon as your Research Advisory Committee (RAC) has signed it. The form also serves as a contract between you and your RAC. RACs normally consist of three tenured or tenure-track Washington University faculty members from within your degree program. These three members normally continue to become the core of the larger five-member Dissertation Defense Committee. 

Your dissertation's title, scope, and procedure may change in the course of your research. You are not required to file an amended form with the Graduate School, although getting your committee’s written approval of the changes may be advisable.

More information on the TSP can be found at  Dissertation Guidelines

Questions from students may be addressed to The Coordinator or [email protected] , including for a copy of the explicit examination procedures and regulations including time frame and approximate numbers of works included on each examination. The Coordinator will work with you and your committee to schedule all of the steps in the examination process.

Problems arising during the process that for whatever reason require intervention or mediation should be directed to the Director of Comparative Literature.

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  • PhD Comprehensive Examination and Dissertation Prospectus Guidelines

UPDATED AS OF 11 October 2023

  • One of these areas, which includes within it the student’s dissertation topic, will be considered the Major Area; the other will be considered the Minor Area.
  • Major and Minor Areas are defined as topics of a systematic nature within the cultural study of music and/or adjacent disciplines.
  • For each of the chosen areas, the student will be expected to show a firm grasp of bibliography, historiography / ethnography, methods and problems, and current scholarly concerns, and to be able to articulate how their proposed dissertation work will contribute to the disciplinary conversations in their areas.
  • No later than six months before their proposed PhD Comprehensive Examination date, Student identifies a Division faculty member who agrees to serve as their PhD Advisor. It is possible for two faculty to be Co-advisors if all parties agree.
  • In consultation with their PhD Advisor(s), student identifies other faculty whom they wish to serve on their Comprehensive Examination Committee, and obtains agreement from those faculty to serve.
  • Since the Graduate School requires that the Dissertation Committee include at least one faculty member from outside the Butler School of Music, having that faculty member join the Comprehensive Examination Committee is customary.
  • In consultation with their PhD Advisor and the members of their proposed Comprehensive Examination Committee, the student identifies a Major and a Minor area of expertise for their Comprehensive Examination.
  • No later than the third week of the semester during which they intend to take their Comprehensive Examination, the student proposes their Comprehensive Examination to the Division by submitting the BSOM Ethno/Musicology Request Form for Division Approval of Comprehensive Exams and the BSOM Ethno/Musicology ABD Requirement Verification Form to the Division Head.
  • Within one week of the student’s submission of the Comprehensive Examination Proposal form, if the Division would like to request clarifications or changes, the Division Head conveys that request to the student. Otherwise, the Division Head verifies to the student the Division’s approval of the Comprehensive Examination Proposal.
  • Within two weeks of Division approval, the student meets with each Comprehensive Examination Committee member to begin discussing specific topics of interest within the Major and Minor examination areas.
  • In consultation with the members of their Comprehensive Examination Committee and especially their PhD Advisor, the student compiles a bibliography of resources that they will consult in preparation for the Comprehensive Examination.
  • In the following weeks the student continues regular conversations with the members of their Comprehensive Examination Committee, in order for each member to have the opportunity to construct one or more exam prompts and/or contribute to the reading lists based on their conversations with the student about their mutual areas of interests/expertise within the student’s chosen Major and Minor Areas.
  • The format and scope of the Comprehensive Examination should be tailored to the student’s professional goals in transparent conversation with their PhD Advisor and Comprehensive Examination Committee.
  • The purpose of the collected prompts is to demonstrate the student’s professional preparation and to help them construct a bridge between what they have done in their coursework and what they would like to do for the dissertation.
  • The prompts should be constructed so that the student is not surprised by any of the questions, and is challenged to take the conversations they have had with the Comprehensive Examination Committee a step further and ideally incorporate issues tangential to the Major and Minor areas.
  • The expectation should be for a student to spend the equivalent of about 15 focused hours of writing, or write the equivalent of approximately 40 double-spaced pages in 12 point font size in response to 6-8 prompts, or some comparable focused effort. Further details are to be agreed upon in conversation between the student and the Comprehensive Examination Committee.
  • The student will determine with their Comprehensive Examination Committee what period of time they would like to have available for this focused writing, with the understanding that it should not exceed two weeks.
  • The PhD Advisor forwards the collected prompts to the BSOM Graduate Coordinator, who forwards them to the student on the date the student has designated for the start of their Comprehensive Examination.
  • Upon completion, the student returns the completed Comprehensive Examination to the Graduate Coordinator, who forwards it to the PhD Advisor, who in turn circulates it to the Comprehensive Examination Committee.
  • If the student wishes to advance to candidacy immediately after the defense, the student forwards their Dissertation Prospectus (which they have been developing in consultation with their PhD Advisor) to their Comprehensive Examination Committee at least two weeks before the defense to give the committee the opportunity to review the prospectus thoroughly.
  • should be between 6,000 and 12,000 words in length, double-spaced in 12 point font, not counting bibliography, notes, and citations;
  • should focus on situating the proposed work within extant scholarship through a systematic literature review and brief outline of the goals and significance of the project;
  • will ideally serve as the basis of the first chapter of the student’s dissertation;
  • a methods section;
  • a statement of significance;
  • a provisional list and description of the chapters the student intends to include;
  • a plan of work.
  • The student should also provide an abstract of the prospectus of approximately 250 words that will be included in their candidacy application.
  • The Division understands that the student’s focus can change, and probably will, so nothing is set in stone. The goal of the prospectus is to demonstrate that the student has a plan in place for the independent dissertation work.
  • If the comprehensive exam has included a prompt that has allowed the student to articulate the substance of the prospectus, the full draft of the prospectus may be turned in fewer than 2 weeks before the defense with the agreement of the Comprehensive Examination Committee.
  • At the defense, the Comprehensive Examination Committee discusses the student’s exam submissions (and Dissertation Prospectus, where applicable) and poses questions and suggestions moving forward.
  • If the student does not wish to advance to candidacy immediately after the defense, the student forwards their Dissertation Prospectus (which they have been developing in consultation with their PhD Advisor) to their Comprehensive Examination Committee no later than the second week of the long semester following the comprehensive examination. The Examination Committee then consults with the PhD Advisor to determine whether an oral conversation about the Prospectus is advisable or whether written feedback to the student is sufficient.
  • Once the Comprehensive Examination Committee has verified the student’s passing performance on the Comprehensive Exam and given approval to the student’s Prospectus, the student submits a proposal for doctoral candidacy to the Graduate School with the assistance of the BSOM Graduate Coordinator.
  • If the student wishes to obtain a Master’s credential, once they have passed the Comprehensive Examination and submitted their Dissertation Prospectus, they should consult the instructions at Obtaining a Master’s Degree during PhD Coursework.

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Graduate Studies

Comprehensive exam process.

A doctoral student must pass a comprehensive examination in the major field of study. This examination, which may be written, oral or both, is not limited to the areas of the student’s course work, but tests the student’s grasp of the field as a whole. The administration of this exam is governed by the following guidelines:

1. Students must have a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0 at the time of their examinations.

2. Students must be enrolled in a minimum of one credit of graduate course work the semester in which they take the doctoral comprehensive examination. Students may enroll in 699/dissertation hours to prepare for the comprehensive exam; however, those credits will only count towards dissertation hour requirements if taken within the same semester as the passed exam.

3. At least two weeks prior to the date of the examination, the major graduate unit must request approval from the Dean of Graduate Studies to hold the exam. It may not be conducted until the Dean of Graduate Studies approves the  Announcement of Examination Form  and it is returned to the unit.

4. The doctoral comprehensive examination committee (usually the student’s Committee on Studies) consists of a minimum of three members approved for committee service. See the Comprehensive Exam Committee section of this page for more information.

5. In order to qualify to sit for a doctoral exam during the intersession, the student must be registered for the following semester.

6. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the graduate unit will notify the student of the results of the examination no later than two weeks after the date on which it was administered. Should such circumstances arise, the graduate unit will notify the student in writing of the reason for the delay and let him/her know when notification can be expected.

7. The results of the examination must be reported to the Dean of Graduate Studies on the “Report of Examination” form no later than two weeks after the date of the examination.

8. If a student fails the examination, the Committee on Studies may recommend a second examination, which must be administered within one calendar year from the date of the first examination. The doctoral comprehensive examination may be taken only twice. A second failure will result in the student’s termination from the program.

Conditional Pass

Having evaluated the materials required for the examination, if the Committee feels that, although the student has demonstrated knowledge and understanding of the field, it is not quite sufficient to justify a grade of “ pass,” the committee may assign the grade of “Conditional Pass” and require that the student meet additional conditions before a grade of pass will be awarded. The student must meet the conditions noted on the Conditional Pass by the end of the subsequent term. However, students who plan to graduate in a specific term must resolve a Conditional Pass by the posted deadline for submission of examination results. The committee will note the conditions that need to be met by the student on the examination form. Once the committee indicates the student has met the conditional pass criteria, they will submit a memo to Graduate Studies.

Comprehensive Exam Committee

The role of the examination committee is to approve the exam questions, conduct the exam, evaluate the student response and report the results. Each committee must consist of a minimum of three members approved by Graduate Studies. Although this committee generally remains intact as part of your Dissertation Committee, some members may change with permission from your advisor.

Two members must be Category 1 OR one member can be Category 1 and one member may be Category 3 if their appointment is within the student’s major

The chair of the exam committee must be Category 1, 5 or 3, if their appointment is within the student’s major

The third member can be any Category (1-6)

A co-chair can be from any Category (1-6) as long as the other co-chair is a Category 1 or 3 if his/her appointment is within the student’s major

No more than one voting member can be in Category 4. Departments can impose a more restrictive structure for exam committees.

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College of arts and sciences, ph.d. comprehensive examinations, goals of the written and oral exams.

Comprehensive exams occur after the completion of course work and before the beginning of the dissertation. As a transition, the exams provide an opportunity to add both breadth and depth to your program of study. The comprehensive exams should you achieve the following:

  • candidate engages in a sustained critical argument in support of a central thesis statement through effective analysis (of texts, contexts, discourses);
  • candidate synthesizes a diverse, multi-authored range of sources from comps lists;
  • candidate intervenes in disciplinary discourses or areas of expertise with unique insights and original thinking.

Comprehensive exams must be completed no later than 12 calendar months after the completion of the student’s coursework.

Extensions may be granted on a per case basis. Students must apply to the Graduate Director or Department Chair for an extension. Extensions shall be in one semester increments, with a maximum of two. Students taking a leave of absence from the program do not need to apply for an exam extension. If a student does not complete the exams in the required time period, including approved extensions, they shall be removed from the program according to the guidelines set forth by the Graduate School. Students may appeal to the Academic Appeal Board per the Graduate School regulations.

Written Exam Structure

Students will prepare three lists in preparation for the exams. There will be two written examinations meeting the following specifications:

  • The first exam will survey the student’s knowledge of two related lists of titles, the first list, of primary texts (see below), and the second, of critical and theoretical texts. The student will provide a single rationale explaining the list areas, selections of individual works, and interrelation of lists.
  • The student will determine the composition of this list in consultation with his or her major professor and core committee.
  • To complete this examination, the student will write three essays totaling 45 pages responding to questions drawn from a list of six questions or more. The questions will be designed to elicit thinking from the student that places the two lists in conversation with each other.
  • The student will have one week to complete this examination.
  • The first list on this first exam will represent a historically defined core field . This core field list of 30-35 book-length works will consist of primary texts (with “primary texts” understood as principal objects of study , such as novels, poetry, plays, films, letters, diaries, or other appropriate documents).
  • The second list on the first examination will contextualize the first in criticism and theory . This list must include secondary approaches to some of the primary texts, but it may also include theoretical and/or interdisciplinary titles that inform the approach the student has chosen to pursue. Significant articles may be included among the 30-35 titles on this list.

General Instructions for the Written Comprehensive Exam 1.

  • The second exam will test the student’s knowledge of a secondary core field or a sub-field .
  • There should be no significant overlap with any of the material on the first exam.
  • This exam list will consist of 30-35 titles . Along with the list for this second exam, the student will prepare a rationale for it.
  • The second exam will be taken within four weeks of the first exam . The second exam must be completed within 48 hours.
  • To complete this exam, students must write one essay approximately 15 pages in length in response to a question chosen from a list of at least three .

General Instructions for the Written Comprehensive Exam 2 .

Oral Exam Structure

The comprehensive oral examination is distinguished from the oral defense of the dissertation proposal. 

The oral exam must take place within 4 weeks of the completion of the comprehensive examinations. This exam will be scheduled for two hours and will take the form of a rigorous discussion between the student and the student’s oral comprehensive exam committee of five faculty members (see below under “Committee members and Responsibilities.” Faculty questions will arise from the student’s exam rationales and lists, as well as from the responses from the written examinations. The dissertation prospectus is not part of the oral exam.

Department Responsibilities

The Department will arbitrate any disputes arising from students and committee members or major professor and shall seek a resolution that will help the student continue to be a productive member of the graduate student body. Disputes will be resolved in a timely manner.

Committee members and Responsibilities

As per the Graduate School Manual, the doctoral committee is composed of the major professor as chairperson and two additional members, one from within the Department and one from an outside area. This is the “core” committee that will guide the student toward completion of the written comprehensive exams. The major professor shall help the student understand the level of work required to pass exams at the University of Rhode Island.

At the time of the oral exam, two additional committee members shall be added to the “core” committee: one from within the Department and one from outside the department. The major professor will serve as chairperson of the oral comprehensive exam.

The committee shall be required to respond to student queries and written submissions in a timely manner (2 weeks) in order to aid students in meeting the time and deadline requirements of the comprehensive exam procedures.

Departmental Notes

Accommodations will be made for documented disabilities or illness.

A student who fails the C omprehensive Written Examination may be allowed one re-examination in the part or parts failed if recommended by the doctoral committee and approved by the Dean of the Graduate School. A second examination, if permitted, may be taken only after a minimum of two weeks has passed to allow for additional student preparation. In all cases, a second examination must take place before one year has elapsed. ( GSM – please note this is not the Qualifying Examination. Scroll down to the Comprehensive [Written] Examination )

*Note—the Oral Defense of the Dissertation Proposal is part of the dissertation process and not the comprehensive examination. For further guidance, please see the Department and graduate school procedures.

Updated 3/20


Comprehensive Exam and Dissertation

Comprehensive examination.

The comprehensive examination covers two different areas of linguistics (normally corresponding to your primary and secondary areas of concentration) and consists of written and oral components.

The written comprehensive may consist of two research papers, two closed-book or take-home exams, or some combination of these. At least one of the two papers or exams should deal with a core area of linguistic theory. The format of the written examination will be determined by your Advisory Committee on the basis of your areas of concentration. When you pass the written examination, you should proceed to the oral portion of the comprehensive within two weeks.

While the written exam format will involve a separate exam for each of the two areas (see below), students following the research paper format may write papers that reflect a combination of their areas of concentration (e.g., sociolinguistics and phonetics, historical linguistics and syntactic theory, etc.). However, the two papers should still indicate breadth of knowledge as well as depth, which could be shown by the use of different research methodologies or by focusing on different languages, for example.

Details specific to the different formats of the exam are given below.

A. Written comprehensive exam

1. research paper format, first paper.

  • No more than ~25 pages, usually a revised and expanded version of a paper written for a course
  • Must be approved by the Major Professor and then submitted to other members of advising committee
  • At the discretion of the committee, if the first paper is initially presented at the Linguistics Colloquium or at a conference, the oral defense of the first paper may take place at the same time as the defense of the second paper. 

Second Paper

  • If based on a paper written for a course, the second paper should go well beyond the original course paper in depth and/or breadth
  • Must be approved by Major Professor then submitted to advisory committee for approval
  • Once the paper has passed, the 90-minute oral comprehensive exam will be scheduled as outlined below.

2. Take-home exam format

  • The two finalized reading lists MUST be sent all three members of the advisory committee AT LEAST 2 WEEKS BEFORE THE EXAM.
  • There will be a separate exam for each reading list, and the exam format will be determined by the Advisory Committee 
  • To pass each exam, the student must demonstrate a good understanding of the subject matter and provide a level of detail and quality of argumentation commensurate with the time and resources allowed.

3. Closed-book exam format

  • The exam may be hand-written or typed on a computer at the discretion of the committee.

B. Oral comprehensive exam

The Doctoral Oral Comprehensive Exam must be announced with the Graduate School, as it is technically a public event. You must contact the Graduate Coordinator's Assistant to announce your Oral Comprehensive Exam two weeks prior to the scheduled event.

The oral comprehensive exam lasts for 90 minutes. It will begin with an oral defense of your second research paper (or both the first and second papers if the separate "mini-defense" of the first paper is waived by your committee) or a consideration of your performance on the written exams, but after this, questions may range over any material on the exam reading lists and/or your program of study.

Written and oral exams will be graded on the scale High Pass/Pass/Fail. Two passing votes are required to pass each portion of the exam.

If you should fail any portion of the exam, you may retake it once, no sooner than two weeks after the first attempt but within one additional semester. If you should fail this portion of the exam a second time, you will be dismissed from the program.

Dissertation Prospectus

Within one semester after passing the comprehensive examination, you should submit a dissertation prospectus to your Advisory Committee for approval.

The prospectus should propose a problem for a doctoral dissertation, ascertain the originality of the idea with reference to available literature, and demonstrate the availability of means and materials required to solve the problem.

The prospectus need not be lengthy, and should not exceed 5,000 words (excluding references).

When you, your Major Professor, and your Advisory Committee agree that the prospectus is complete, a copy must be filed with the Department Head. The Head will publish a list of dissertation topics currently in progress in the department for the faculty and students at least once per year, along with the names of the students and their Advisory Committees.

Click here for instructions regarding the dissertation prospectus

Dissertation and Oral Defense

Upon approval of the prospectus by the Advisory Committee, you will prepare a dissertation. The dissertation is based on original research which makes a significant contribution to knowledge in some area of theoretical and/or applied linguistics.

Previous dissertations by students in the department are available for your consideration.

You must present a bound copy of the completed dissertation to the department. Theses and dissertations will be otherwise submitted electronically to the Graduate School. Consult the UGA Graduate School Policies and Procedures regarding electronic theses and dissertations.

You must contact the Graduate Coordinator Assistant to announce your Oral Comprehensive Exam two weeks prior to the date of the defense. The oral defense of a dissertation must be announced with the Graduate School, as it is technically a public event.

When you and you Major Professor agree that the dissertation is complete, it must be circulated to the other members of the Advisory Committee at least three weeks before the date of the defense.

The defense itself must be scheduled for at least one week prior to the deadline for submission of the completed thesis to the Graduate School prior to graduation.You will defend your dissertation in an oral examination of approximately 90-120 minutes.

Updated: 8/8/2023


Chad Howe

Dr. Chad Howe Graduate Coordinator [email protected]

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Comprehensive Exam

Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the details for the comprehensive exam process and expectations for the dissertation research proposal defense by reviewing the  Ph.D. Roadmap .

Reserve a Room

For all room reservations, please email Jenna Hart at [email protected] . If you have a room preference, please include this in the email.

Submit an Exam Request Form

At least one month prior to your exam, submit an electronic Exam Request form .

Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form

Once the Graduate Programs Office receives your exam request form, they will generate your Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature form and an email will be sent to your PSU email address from Adobe Sign. Doctoral Committee forms are completed electronically through Adobe Sign.

English Competency and the Communication and Foreign Language Requirement

An international candidate for the Ph.D. must have satisfied the English competency and the communication and foreign language requirement before taking the comprehensive examination.

Minimum Grade-point Average of 3.00

All candidates are required to have a minimum grade-point average of 3.00 for coursework done at the University at the time the comprehensive examination is given and may not have deferred or missing grades.

Registered as Full-time or Part-time Student

The candidate must be registered as a full-time or part-time student for the semester in which the comprehensive examination is taken.

When a Period of More Than Six Years Has Elapsed

between the passing of the comprehensive examination and the completion of the dissertation defense, the student is required to pass a second comprehensive examination before the final oral examination will be scheduled.

Final Defense

Possible committee member changes.

Please contact the Graduate Programs Office if any of your committee members have changed since your comprehensive exam. If needed, a Revised Doctoral Committee Form will be completed and sent to you through Adobe Sign.

The Graduate Office will forward your information to the Graduate School for processing.

  • Thesis and Dissertation Guide
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  • Electronic Approval for Thesis and Dissertation Submission

Supporting Materials

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