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School of Humanities

History Graduate Exams


Comprehensive written examinations for MA and MS students are taken early in the spring semester of the second year, usually the second Friday in February. Both MA and MS exams follow the same format. Students will have a 3 hour written essay exam with one question provided by each of their committee members. Students unable to take their exams at this scheduled time must petition the DGS for approval to change their exam date and make all other arrangements for a different exam time with their graduate committee and the DGS well in advance of the scheduled date.

The content of the examination will be determined by the student's graduate committee. In general, the examination will cover the student's content courses, which includes all graduate courses except HIS 710 and HIS 711/712. Consequently, students should take content courses with their committee members: at least two with their committee chair and one with each of the other committee members. Many faculty members strongly recommend that students audit additional courses to strengthen their knowledge of particular subjects. Committee members may also request students to master a book list or a reading topic growing out of an aspect of their course work. For these reasons, the Department of History urges graduate students to decide on their fields and to consult with advisors and the DGS to formulate a coherent plan of study as soon as possible in their graduate career. Students are strongly encouraged to discuss their exams with their committee members and remind them that they should submit their questions to the DGS and the History Department administrative assistant at least one week prior to the exam.

Students must make a B average on each of the three parts of their comprehensive exams in order to pass; no grade may be lower than a C+. Students who fail all or part of their exam should make arrangements with their advisor and the relevant faculty members to retake those sections as soon as possible. A second failure will lead to a hearing with the Department Chair and the DGS and to probable expulsion from the graduate program. Students must also make be sure to consult with their committee chair and the DGS to ensure the “Results of Comprehensive Exam Form” is sent to the Graduate School with all required signatures.

Students in the dual Master’s programs follow the same examination procedures as those students obtaining MA or MS degrees in history alone with a few exceptions. Their committees should include two faculty members from the Department of History and one from the School of Library and Information Sciences or in the case of Anthropology/History students, two members from each department’s faculty. Also, they usually take their exams early in the spring semester of their third year.

Upon completion of all coursework and language requirements, doctoral candidates will take oral and written comprehensive examinations in their fields of study. The candidate is expected to demonstrate proficiency in all areas of the examination. As with Master’s candidates, doctoral students may gain the required proficiency through various means and should refer to the methods recommended for the Master's candidates. In addition, the department requires doctoral candidates to complete a reading list of key works in each field of study. Many fields, such as War and Society, have reading lists posted on the History Department’s website. Students should consult the members of their examination committee soon after its formation in order to establish reading lists and examination fields.

The format of the written PhD examination is as follows:

Day One – Major Field Examination (for example, Early America and U.S. to 1877), 6-8 hours

Day Two – Major Field Examination (for example, U.S. since 1877), 6-8 hours

Day Three – First Minor Field Examination, 4-6 hours

Day Four – Second Minor Field Examination, 4-6 hours

NOTE: The division of major fields does not preclude the appearance of comprehensive questions.

The comprehensive examination also includes an oral exam with the entire examination committee, which should last approximately two and one-half to three hours.

Comprehensive exams should be taken no later than the doctoral student's third year of study. Students who need to delay taking the exam must consult with their committee chair, committee members, and the DGS as to the reason for postponement. Students are strongly discouraged from scheduling comprehensive exams during the summer semester, since most faculty members are not available at that time.

It is the student's responsibility to consult the chair of his/her examination committee to determine faculty availability and to set dates for the written and oral exams. Oral exams must be scheduled and confirmed with all members of the faculty committee before written exams may take place. Because of the demands on faculty time, students should make these arrangements several months in advance of the exam. If changes need to be made, students or the committee chair should notify all committee members as soon as possible. Students may choose the order in which faculty members question them during their oral exam and should notify their committee chair about their choice. Students should also consult with their advisor, who serves as chair of the examination committee, a week before their exams in order to make any final arrangements.

PhD students who fail any part of or the entire comprehensive exam have one additional attempt to pass the exam (or the part of it they failed, at the discretion of the examination committee and the DGS). The student’s comprehensive exam committee may, if the student fails the majority of the written exam, cancel the oral exam portion of the test before it commences. Comprehensive exams may be retaken only once (if the written exam was taken and the oral exam was cancelled, that is considered a failure of both parts of the exam and counts as the single failure allowed). For more information, see the Graduate Bulletin. Students must also make be sure to consult with their committee chair and the DGS to ensure the “Results of Comprehensive Exam Form” is sent to the Graduate School with all required signatures.

During the semester in which a PhD student takes comprehensive exams or the semester immediately after (excluding the summer term), the student should enroll in a HIS 792 Independent Study course with their committee chair. The object of the HIS 792 course is to complete a dissertation prospectus and to begin research on the dissertation. Students who do not receive a grade of B or better in this course will be dismissed from the program.

During the PhD student's final year of dissertation preparation, the student should consult his/her committee, especially the chair, as well as the DGS, about procedures for applying for jobs. Constructing an effective letter of application and curriculum vitae (c.v.) takes time and requires consultation. Allow the DGS, members of the Graduate Professionalism Committee, and/or the dissertation committee chair to examine your basic letter of application and c.v. Preparing for an interview also takes time. Students should ask their committee, members of the Graduate Professionalism Committee, the DGS, the Department Chair, and others who may be interested in their career path to conduct at least one mock interview. Ideally, students will schedule a second mock interview with an entirely different interview team, though that interview should be observed by members of the student's committee.

Once the dissertation is complete, students, in consultation with their committee chair, must schedule the dissertation defense with the entire committee. Students should make these arrangements far in advance of the defense date, especially if the defense is in the summer, to ensure faculty can attend (summer dissertation defenses are strongly discouraged as most faculty members are not available). Students must also allow faculty members enough time to read the entire dissertation amid their busy schedules—at least three to four weeks should be given to committee members who have not read the dissertation before. Once students pass the defense, they need to ensure the necessary paperwork (available from the Graduate School), with all required committee member signatures, is taken to the Graduate School.


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