PhD Comprehensive Examination

According to the Graduate College's "Policies and Procedures for Oral Examinations" (Revised 2001)

Before admission to degree candidacy, the student must pass a general examination in the chosen fields of study. 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 examination is composed of two parts: (1) a written portion covering the major and minor fields, and (2) an oral portion which is to be conducted before a committee of five faculty members appointed by the Dean of the Graduate College, upon the recommendation of the major and minor departments. The written and oral portions of the Comprehensive Examination are to take place within two successive semesters, not including summer sessions. Students must pass the written examination and results must be reported to the Graduate Degree Certification Office before the oral examination is held. All policies for retaking the written examination are left to the discretion of the department or IDP. Deadlines for the submission of paperwork pertaining to the Oral Comprehensive Examination are available in the Graduate Degree Certification Office. The Comprehensive Examination is to be held when essentially all course work has been completed and no later than three months prior to the date of the Final Oral Defense Examination. No student will be permitted a second attempt to pass the Oral Comprehensive Examination unless it is recommended by the examining committee, endorsed by the major department, and approved by the Dean of the Graduate College. The second examination, if approved, may not take place until four months after the date of the first examination.

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


The Graduate College requires that students complete at least 2/3 of their course work before attempting their comps. We encourage students to register for six hours of independent study with their committee chair during their last semester of course work and to take their comps at the end of that semester or during the first semester after they complete course work. Students should notify the Administrative Assistant for the Graduate Literature Program one year before they plan to take their comps so that she can review the process with them.

Students must complete their language requirement before they take the Comprehensive Exam.


Students select four members of the literature faculty to serve on the committee. The student's mentor serves as chair. 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 College Teaching and Research Faculty (see the list in the current Graduate Catalog), a "Request for Special Committee Member Form" must be filed with the Graduate College.


The Comprehensive Examination tests a student's knowledge in specific fields, as part of both the preparation for writing the dissertation and the development of professional expertise in the student's chosen areas of specialization. The student prepares three areas for the examination, usually a period, a genre, and two major authors, defined in close consultation with the student's committee and with the approval of the Graduate Literature Program Director. The committee, in consultation with the student, creates an examination reading list for each area of concentration. The written portion of the comprehensive consists of a four-hour examination in each of the three areas. The written exams are followed by a three-hour oral exam on all three areas. Students should take the Comprehensive Examination after their last semester of course work. The examination may be retaken once if the committee so recommends.

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.

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.


The written exam, based on questions prepared by the student's committee, is composed of three parts, one for each of the student's chosen areas. Each part is written during a four-hour period, usually scheduled on three separate days. (If students declare a Minor, they may be required to take a fourth four-hour written examination.) The written portions should be completed 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 should be completed within two weeks after the written exam. Once a student completes the three-part written portion of the examination, the committee meets to decide whether the student should be permitted to go on to the oral examination. If the decision is negative, the committee may recommend that one or more portions of the written exam be retaken.

The oral examination lasts a minimum of two hours but no longer than three. The oral examination may return to tests and issues raised on the writtens, though it is, of course, not confined to these. The student is expected "to display a broad knowledge of the chosen field of study and sufficient depth of understanding in areas of specialization."  Students are notified of the results of the examination immediately after the oral. Students may take the oral examination a second time if they fail.


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 "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 area to determine if any special procedures or policies apply. The Graduate College requires a minimum of nine hours for a minor. If you develop a minor outside our department, you may be required to take a fourth four-hour written examination.


Students who have passed their comprehensive exams and finished their course work will file the Graduate College's "Application to Candidacy" form. Once this form is approved , the Graduate College regards a student as a "candidate" for the PhD


You must submit the Comprehensive Area Study Program Form, a departmental form, to the Administrative 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, which 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.

Comprehensive Area Study Program Form > Download

There are several Graduate College forms that must be completed before the written exams begin.  You can find these forms on UAccess in the Academics section.  Click on the dropdown box and select GradPath forms.


Students work with the Graduate Administrative Assistant in arranging times for the written and oral portions of the exam. In scheduling the parts of the comprehensive exams the Administrative Assistant must take into account not only the candidate's schedule but also the schedules of the four faculty members and the Graduate College Representative. Do not schedule comprehensive exams during the winter holiday or the summer recess.


Soon after you complete your Qualifying Examination and no later than one year before your intend to take the Comprehensive Examination, you should approach the four faculty members whom you wish to serve on the examination committee. We suggest that you speak first with the chair of the committee so that he or she can assist you in selecting committee members who best match your interests. Feel free to consult the Program Director for advice at this time as well. We urge you to take courses with each of the committee members you select. You should have a good working relationship with each. Once you have assembled a committee of five faculty members, you should prepare examination reading lists for each examination area in consultation with the chair of your committee: one list for the "Period", one for the "Genre", and one for the third area. If you select two major authors for your third area, usually one of them should be outside your period. Give copies of these lists to each faculty member on your committee, working closely with them to revise and develop the final lists. This process will require a great deal of consultation, which provides you with an opportunity to talk intensively with individual faculty about your career goals and how you want to define yourself professionally. It is very important that you begin this process as early as possible after passing the Qualifying examination.

During the final semester of course work, we encourage students to register for six hours of independent study (599) with their committee chair in order to read intensively in preparation for the examination.


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