Comprehensive Exams


The Comprehensive Examination is a requirement for all PhD students and is designed both to evaluate student progress and to prepare students for further studies. Before embarking upon the process of writing their dissertations, students should demonstrate in the Comprehensive Examination a broad knowledge of the relevant literature in their field of study and the ability to think clearly and critically about existing research in the field.


The Comprehensive Examination is undertaken sometime after the completion of coursework in the second year of study and must be completed by the end of November in the third year of study.


The Comprehensive Examination consists of a written and oral component. An examination committee, which includes the student’s supervisor and two other professors (who are full or associate members of the School of Graduate Studies, but not necessarily the department), set the written questions, evaluate the responses, and preside over the oral defense. The supervisor will submit a final report to the Associate Chair, Graduate, which will be inserted into the student’s file.

Form of the Examination: The Written Component

The examination committee sets three questions for the student in the following areas:

1. Major field
This field should include but be larger than the student’s intended field for the dissertation. It will normally fall within the research field of the supervisor, who will write the question for this field. The answer should comprise roughly 15-20 pages.

2. Minor field
This field should be related to but not identical to the major field. It is usually cognate with the major field in terms of discipline, era, or methodology, but is more focused. Another member of the examination committee will write this question that should be answered in approximately 10 pages.

3. Adjacent field
This field should be more tangentially related to the major and minor fields and often deals with theory or methodology. It offers a chance to build diversity in teaching and research interests. The third member of the examination committee will write this question, which should also be answered in approximately 10 pages.

The examination committee will write the three questions and deposit them with the department, who will send them to the student at an agreed date and time. The student has exactly seven days in which to write responses to the three questions and then provide both the department and their supervisor with copies of their answers.

The Oral Component

The supervisor will schedule a committee meeting for the student’s oral defense of the written responses within one to two weeks of the deposit of the written responses. The oral defense lasts two hours. The committee members will ask the student to defend and/or expand upon the written responses. After the questions are completed, the student will be asked to leave the room while the committee members evaluate both the written responses and the oral defense. At this time, the committee will then decide whether the student has:

1. Passed all fields
2. Failed the major field
3. Passed the major field, but failed the minor and/or adjacent fields

The student will then be asked to return and will be informed of the evaluation by the supervisor. The supervisor will submit a written report of the evaluation and a copy of the student’s written responses to the Associate Chair, Graduate and the student.

Results of the Evaluation

There are three results based upon the three possibilities listed above:

1. If the student passes all fields, he or she will then move onto the production of the dissertation prospectus.
2. If the student fails the major field, then he or she will be given one more chance to take an entirely new examination with three new questions within three months of the oral defense date.
3. If the student passes the major field but fails either one or both of the minor and adjacent fields, then he or she will be given one more chance within six weeks to take a comprehensive examination with new question(s) only in the fields failed.
4. If the student fails any portion of the second attempt at the examination, he/she will be asked to leave the doctoral program.