Comprehensive Examinations

Comprehensive Examinations

The comprehensive or qualifying examinations ("comps" or "quals") are a standard feature of historical training in the United States and overseas. The examinations require the examinee to demonstrate mastery of historical scholarship and historiography in a major field, including specialized mastery of the authors, themes, works, and topics most relevant to the intended dissertation topic.

Comprehensive examinations include the following:

  1. A major field examination, divided into a four-hour general field examination and a three-hour special field examination, both administered in written format
  2. A two-hour oral examination in the major and special fields
  3. An optional four-hour minor field examination, administered in written format

For the major, special, and minor field examinations, the examination committee consists of three or four members of the Graduate Faculty, typically all members of the History faculty. The Director of Graduate Studies designates the committee members and Chair, in consultation with the major advisor and the student. The committee chair shall not be the student's advisor. All committee members contribute questions to the written and oral examinations.  The U.S. field has a unique examination committee structure, described in the following section.

All written examinations are administered twice a year, in October and April. Oral examinations follow within two weeks of passing both the general and special field examinations.

Major field examinations will be graded pass, pass with distinction, or fail. Minor field, language, and special skill examinations will be graded pass or fail.

When a student receives a pass or pass with distinction and the endorsement to continue on in the Ph.D. program, the student has the option to request that the master of arts degree be conferred "along the way," subject to fulfillment of the standard requirements of the M.A. degree.

In some instances, the examination committee may recommend that a Ph.D. student taking comprehensive examinations be given a pass at the M.A. level, sufficient for the conferral of a terminal master's degree. Such a recommendation will be made with the expectation that the student not continue on towards doctoral candidacy.

The format, content, and length of the reading lists for the general and special field examinations will vary by major field. As of Fall 2008, the Latin American field is the only Ph.D. field to use standardized lists for the general field examination. In all other fields, students develop their general field reading lists in consultation with the members of the examination committee. In all fields, the reading list for the special field examination is developed by the examinee in close collaboration with the advisor and other members of the examination committee. The list should advance the student's historiographic knowledge in themes closely related to the intended dissertation topic.

Each student should consult his/her advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies for additional guidelines on the expectations for and the grading of all examinations.

Comprehensive Examinations: U.S. Field

In the U.S. field, a single committee of four faculty members is responsible for a student's general field examination, special field examination, and oral examination. The student's advisor is a member of the committee, along with three other faculty members selected such that the committee as a whole includes at least one member from each of the three chronological periods (i.e., early America, 19th century, 20th century) and at least two in the student's special field. The student's advisor may not serve as committee chair.

The General Field Examination will consist of three sections. Within each section, the examinee will be asked to answer one of three questions. The General Field examination is based on a general field reading list developed by the student in collaboration/consultation with her/his advisor and the other three members of the examination committee. The list will show chronological balance across the span of early American and United States history as well as thematic breadth. To accomplish this goal, the general field list will include approximately 250 books (or the equivalent in articles and essays).

The Special Field Examination will consist of either: two sections of three questions each, with students choosing one from each section; or a single section of five questions, with students choosing two to answer. The Examining Committee will advise the student which of the two formats will be used on the special field examination.

The general and special field reading lists must be compiled and approved by the examination committee no later than the date of the Department Commencement ceremonies in the semester prior to the standard October or April comprehensive examinations dates. An electronic copy of the approved reading lists must be posted to the Portfolio section of the student's MEGS record. After posting the lists, limited changes may be made solely by mutual agreement of the student and his/her advisor.

The solicitation of questions and preparation of the examination is the overall responsibility of the chair of the Examining Committee. All committee members participate in evaluating each examination. For a student to pass an examination, three members of the committee must vote favorably.

Petition for Re-Examination

In the case of failure of a minor field examination, a language examination, or of one or more parts of the major field examination (general, special, and oral), the student may petition the Graduate Committee to take the examination a second time. If the petition is approved, the student must retake the examination when it is next offered. In the case of the major field examination, the student needs to take again only the part or parts of the exam that he/she failed. A student may petition only once to retake all or part of a major or minor field examination.