Literature Comprehensive Examination

The Comprehensive Examination* (* Also known in previous Graduate Catalogs as the Preliminary Examination.)

According to the Graduate College’s “Comprehensive Examination for Advancement to Candidacy”

Before admission to candidacy for the doctoral degree, the student must pass a written and an oral Doctoral Comprehensive Examination. This examination is intended to test the student's comprehensive knowledge of the major and minor subjects of study, both in breadth across the general field of study and in depth within the area of specialization. The Comprehensive Examination is considered a single examination, although it consists of written and oral parts. While the Graduate College sets general policies and guidelines for exams, it is expected that each program will have different ways of assessing a student's knowledge of the field and their preparation to begin the dissertation. Each program determines the format and administration of the written portion. A student will pass the written portion before sitting for the oral portion. Programs will have written policies regarding whether or not students may retake failed written exams as well as specific policies regarding second attempts. The time between the written and oral portion is determined by individual programs, but the oral portion should come early enough to allow the student to advance to candidacy in a timely fashion. Normally, the written and oral portions of the comprehensive examination should take place at least three months prior to the Final Oral Examination (defense of dissertation). The exact time and place of this examination must be scheduled with your department.

Upon successful completion of the written examinations in the major and minor(s), the Oral Comprehensive Examination is conducted before the examining committee of the faculty. This is the occasion when faculty committee members have both the opportunity and obligation to require the student to display a broad knowledge of the chosen field of study and sufficient depth of understanding in areas of specialization. Discussion of proposed dissertation research may be included. The examining committee must attest that the student has demonstrated the professional level of knowledge expected of a junior academic colleague. The Graduate College allows no more than one re-take of the oral exam.

With these general policies in mind, we regard the Comprehensive Examination as an opportunity to test a student’s expertise in specific areas of interest and preparation for the dissertation.

For the comprehensive exams you will prepare three areas of emphasis (e.g. a period, a genre, and two major authors), defined in close consultation with your committee and with the approval of the Graduate Literature Program Director. In consultation with your committee, you will develop an examination reading list for each area of concentration. The Comprehensive Exam consists of a four-hour written examination in each of the three areas, followed by a three-hour oral exam on all three areas. You should take the Comprehensive Examination after your last semester of course work. The examination may be retaken once if the committee so recommends.

Scheduling the Exam

We encourage students to complete all coursework then to register for six hours of independent study with their committee chair during the first semester after completing courses and to take the comps at the end of that semester. However, students should contact the Program Assistant for the Graduate Literature Program one year before they plan to take their comps so that he/she can review the process with them.

Students must complete their language requirement before they take the Comprehensive Exam.
Students work with the Graduate Program Assistant in arranging times for the written and oral portions of the exam. In scheduling the parts of the comprehensive exams the Program Assistant must take into account not only the schedule of the candidate but the schedules of the four faculty members involved. Therefore, students should avoid scheduling comprehensive exams during the winter holiday or the summer recess.

Paperwork for the Comprehensive Exam

You must submit the Comprehensive Area Study Program Form, a departmental form, to the Program Assistant for the Graduate Literature Program at least six months before you will be taking the first section of the written exam. An approved reading list must be attached to this form. This form finalizes both committee make-up and reading lists. Once the form is on file, these can be changed only by petition to the Program Director.

In addition, the Graduate College requires the  "Doctoral Plan of Study", and Doctoral Committee Appointment  forms filled out and approved by your committee before you begin taking the first section of the written exam.

The Comprehensive Exam Committee

You should select four members of the literature faculty to serve on the committee. Your mentor serves as chair of the committee. One or two members of the committee may be from outside the Literature Program to support a minor or an interdisciplinary emphasis (see below). If a proposed committee member is outside the English Department or not a member of the Graduate Teaching and Research Faculty (see list in the current on-line Graduate Catalog), you must file a “Request for Special Committee Member” form with the Graduate College.

For advice on selecting your committee, see “Preparing for the Comprehensive Examination,” below.

The Structure of the Comprehensive Exam

The Comprehensive Exam consists of a written and an oral portion. In consultation with your committee members, you will define three major areas of study (e.g. a period, a genre, and two major authors), and prepare examination reading lists for each of these examination areas for committee approval.

On the written and oral parts of the Comprehensive Examination, candidates who pass are expected to have demonstrated -- in addition to the ability to describe, define, and compare texts and conventions -- a well-developed capacity to (1) analyze literature so as to bring out its underlying dynamics, meanings, and conflicts and (2) conceptualize both the assumptions that most fundamentally drive individual texts and the ideas and problems by which the study and the teaching of literature should be organized.  Occasional lapses of memory are understandable.  But any graduate student who proceeds to complete a Ph.D. has to have demonstrated analysis and conceptualization, not just in individual class papers, but in the written comparisons and the oral-interview setting of the Comprehensive Exam. Such skills in such settings are vital to the professional preparation that PhDs need to secure future employment at the college or university level.

               Written Portion

The written exam, based on questions prepared by your committee, is composed of three parts, one covering each of your major areas of study. You will have four hours to write on each of your areas.  Each portion of the written exam will be scheduled on a separate day. ( If you declare a Minor, you  may be required  to take a fourth four-hour written examination.). You should complete all the written portions within a one month period.

The primary function of the writtens is to assess the candidate's readiness to take the oral, which is the more important examination.  After reviewing the writtens, the committee will approve proceeding to the oral if, in its judgment, the writtens suggest the candidate has at least a reasonable chance of passing the oral examination.

The oral examination may return to tests and issues raised on the writtens, though it is, of course, not confined to these.

        Face to Face Decision Meeting

The decision meeting to determine whether the candidate may move forward from the writtens to the oral examination must be held in person (or, if a face to face meeting is impossible, via conference call).

          Oral Portion

Once you complete the written portion of the examination, the committee meets to decide whether you should be permitted to go on to the oral examination. If the decision is positive, you will proceed to the oral, which should occur within two weeks after the writtens. If the decision is negative, the committee may recommend that you retake one or more portions of the written exam.

The oral examination lasts a minimum of one hour but no longer than three. Committee members usually base their questions on the written portions of the exam and on the reading lists. You are expected “to display a broad knowledge of the chosen field of study and sufficient depth and understanding in areas of specialization.” You will be  notified of the results of the examination immediately after the oral. If so recommended by the committee, you may take the oral examination a second time if you fail. The Graduate College allows no more than one re-take of the oral exam

The Minor

The Graduate College requires all PhD students to declare a “major subject” and at least one “minor subject.” Most of our graduate students in the Literature Program declare both the “major” and the “minor” in English. The “major” and the “minor” in these cases are distinguished only by the paperwork that we file with the Graduate College.

It is also possible to develop a substantial minor outside our department. If you wish to do so, talk with your committee chair and with the Literature Program Director. You should also talk with the department head in the “minor subject” to determine if any special procedures or policies apply. The Graduate College requires a minimum of nine hours (three courses) for a minor. If you develop a minor outside our department, you may be required to take a fourth four-hour written examination.

Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

Soon after you complete your Qualifying Exam and no later than one year before you intend to take comps, you should confirm the four faculty members whom you wish to serve on your exam committee.  You should speak first with the Program Director and the chair of the committee so that they can assist you in selecting the committee members who best match your interests.  We urge you to plan well in advance to take courses from faculty members whom you think might be appropriate committee members, and to cultivate good working relationships with them.  Comps go more smoothly if you have already worked with all the members of the committee.

Once you have assembled your committee,  you should prepare the examination reading lists for each exam area, in consultation with your committee chair.  Students who elect to do two authors for the third area should ordinarily select one of them from outside the chosen historical period.  Distribute copies of your drafted lists to each member of your committee, working closely with them to revise and develop the final lists.  This process will require considerable consultation and offers you the opportunity to talk intensively with faculty about your study program, your career goals, and how you want to define yourself professionally.

It is crucial to begin this process early, at least one year before you plan to take the comprehensive examination.   You should gain a clear idea of your committee members’ views on the status of the reading list.  In particular, you need to clarify the status of the secondary historical, critical, or theoretical material, since some faculty members may want you to include a substantial amount of secondary material on the actual reading lists, while others will expect you to have a working knowledge of pertinent criticism.

During the semester you plan to take prelims, we encourage you to register for six hours of independent study (599) with your committee chair in order to read intensively in preparation for your exams.


Advice from students on the Comprehensive Exam


College of Social and Behavioral Sciences