Comprehensive exam guidelines

The student must formally defend the Ph.D. research proposal to the full committee.   Timing of the proposal defense will depend on the discipline. As a reminder, please request an Outside Examiner a minimum of two weeks prior to the exam.

A. Overall Goals
Successful completion of written and oral comprehensive exams will reflect breadth and depth of knowledge by the student demonstrating:

  • Competency in three fields or disciplines related to the dissertation;
  • How this knowledge relates to the student’s research;
  • His/her ability to participate in discourse within the pertinent academic fields;
  • That s/he is prepared to be a professional in one or more intersecting fields.

Students are not expected to exhibit the same depth of expertise in each field or discipline as students earning their Ph.D.s in a single discipline. In most disciplines the written exam is followed by an oral component; the Graduate School encourages this.

B. Format
The format of the exam will be determined by the graduate committee and should be appropriate to the fields of study. Below are examples of formats the Graduate School deems acceptable from a diversity of disciplines:

  • Psychology - three portfolios:
  1. Community and program evaluation
  2. Research Project
  3. Clinical Portfolio
  • Anthropology - three field papers (extended analyses / treatments of the literature within the specified subject areas; these could include a methodology field)

  • Many disciplines: sets of questions submitted by all or some committee members.  
    The time periods given for the student to respond to each or all questions should be determined by the committee and student.
    Time frame examples include (but are not limited to) the following: the student responding to all questions in 1 day (open- or closed-book), the student responding to one question per day, the student responding to all questions within 1 - 2 weeks.

PLEASE NOTE: Completing a chapter of the dissertation is NOT an acceptable format for the written exam. 

C. Procedure
The student should work with their committee to develop the content and procedures for the written comprehensive exam.

  • As deemed appropriate, the committee and the student may agree upon a reading list 3-6 months prior to the exam.
  • The student and committee should agree on the areas in which the student will be examined, scheduling for each component (if applicable), the format of the exam, and the testing conditions (e.g., time available per question, open or closed book).
    This should be written down and copied to all the committee members and the student.
  • Students may receive a pass, conditional pass, or fail on the written exam. In the case of a conditional pass or fail, the committee shall inform the student of the time limitation for a resubmission or retake.

A student may attempt the written and oral exams a maximum of three times.