Comprehensive Exam


Students prepare for and take the comprehensive exam during the academic year following completion of doctoral coursework, using resources collected through coursework, including texts, assignments, and independent research. It consists of two parts: a written exam and an oral exam. The written exam covers the student’s work in (two of three possible) core areas and in a more specialized area. The oral exam follows the written and covers the written portion as well as coursework. Together, these parts ensure that students have achieved the criteria and are ready to undertake dissertation research and writing.

Students who successfully complete the exam will demonstrate the following:

  • Depth and breadth of knowledge in fields that make up rhetoric, composition, and technical and professional communication, particularly as this relates to coursework in the program
  • Familiarity with important issues, tensions, theories, and research within the specific areas of focus related to a chosen area of specialization
  • Ability to synthesize information and make connections across various sources of information
  • Ability to form an argument that is situated within the field and relevant to others
  • Ability to write clearly and concisely

Exam Process

The comprehensive exam process begins when the student has fulfilled all coursework requirements and concludes when the student has successfully defended the oral portion of the exam. The following list describes the major steps of the process.

1. Selecting a Doctoral Committee

The student should work with her advisor to select a doctoral committee, which is the same as the dissertation committee. This committee must include at least four graduate faculty members. The committee is composed of three members of the graduate faculty from the English Department, one of whom will be the chair/advisor, and one member of the graduate faculty from another department. The advisor’s role in the committee is to work primarily with the student and to consult with committee members as necessary to best support the student and to ensure the quality of the student’s work. When the committee is set, the student should complete the Program of Study form available at


2. Drafting Exam Questions and Reading Lists

The student also works with the advisor to draft three exam questions for the written exam (two representing core areas and one specialized) and corresponding reading lists (that the student will use in preparation for and in answer to the exam). The advisor should meet regularly with the student, provide substantive feedback, and approve the technical and professional communication, particularly as this relates to coursework in the program specific areas of focus related to a chosen area of specialization information reading lists and exam questions prior to the committee’s feedback and approval. The role of the rest of the committee is to provide additional feedback to the student and approve the reading list and exam questions. The outside member functions as a Dean’s representative and, depending on his or her expertise, may have a larger role in consulting with the student.

Exam questions

Exam questions should enable the student to clearly represent, analyze, and evaluate contemporary scholarship and disciplinary conversations. The core questions should be modeled on the sample questions (available from the Graduate Secretary), which direct students to balance broad coverage of the core area while articulating key concepts and tensions. The specialized question should direct the student to engage more specifically in the research that will underwrite her future work (especially in the dissertation).

Reading Lists

Reading lists should include the scholarship that will allow students to successfully prepare for the exams. They typically combine texts from coursework as well as texts that the student, advisor, and committee feel are important in preparing the student for doctoral research. The content and length of the readings lists are determined by the student and doctoral committee with the advisor overseeing the process. These lists need not be exhaustive and should balance breadth and depth.


3. Preparing for the Exam

Students should carefully study all content from the reading lists in preparation for the written and oral exams. In addition to careful reading and review, students should also take notes and make plans for the arguments and organization they will use in the exam.

During this time, the student typically enrolls in ENGL 600 and works primarily with the advisor, consulting the committee only after revising based on the advisor’s review of materials. The student is responsible for scheduling regular meetings with the advisor and communicating with the committee. Generally, this work and the exam can be completed within an academic year. Some students take longer. To support students preparing for the exam and the dissertation work to come, ENGL 600 may be offered as a regular 3-credit course in fall semesters. This is contingent upon (1) a sufficient number of students enrolling (minimally, five graduate students) and (2) availability of a faculty member to lead the course. When these conditions are not met, students can enroll for ENGL 600 for close, individual work with their advisor.

Note: ENGL 600 is not required as part of the program, but students holding Graduate Assistantships can use ENGL 600 hours to maintain full time status while preparing for the exam.


4. Committee Approval

Questions, reading lists, and a start date should be approved and signed by all committee members at least a month prior to the start of the written exam. They are then filed with filed with the Graduate Secretary. Typically, the committee decides who will read each response; each question is read by at least two committee members.

Note: Once the committee approves the questions and reading lists, the student should not consult with anyone, including the advisor, about how to go about responding to the exam questions. The student and advisor can speak of general strategies but not with respect to the particular questions to be answered.


5. Taking the Exam

The advisor prepares the exam and gives it to the Graduate Secretary, who administers it.

The student has 30 days to complete the exam. Each response should be answered in 2,500 words (with a max of 3,000) and reflect the criteria listed above. At the end of 30 days, the student returns the exam to the Graduate Secretary, who distributes it to doctoral committee members.


Evaluation of Written Exam

Under the direction of the advisor, the committee is also responsible for evaluating the exams. Students unsuccessful in part or all of the comprehensive examination will be expected to retake the necessary part(s), ideally by the end of the following semester.  The three committee members from the English Department (and the Dean’s representative at the advisor’s discretion) read the written portions of the exam and determine if they constitute passing work. They also provide written feedback on the exams that can help guide the student in content area expertise and academic writing. This evaluation process typically takes two weeks, after which the Graduate Secretary communicates the results of the evaluation to the student, who may then schedule the oral portion of the exam.


The Oral Exam

Following successful completion and passing of the written exam, the student takes the oral exam, which covers coursework and the written portions of the comprehensive exam. Students must submit a Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form to the Graduate School at least 10 work days (ie., two weeks) in advance of their oral exam, confirming their advisor’s approval to proceed, as well as the date, time, and location of the exam.

Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form is available at

It is a good idea to make a copy of this form with the graduate secretary for your files.

The oral exam is considered as a conversation with the committee in which students are expected to demonstrate familiarity with rhetoric, composition, and/or technical and professional communication as well as address questions about key issues and important texts in the field, particularly as relevant to the written exam. Passing the oral exam signals that the student is prepared to undertake research in a particular area of the field. All four committee members evaluate the oral portion of the exam and students are typically notified of the results of the exam evaluation shortly following the completion of the exam. In evaluating the written and oral portions of the exam, the committee uses the criteria above.


After the Exam

Once students pass the both parts of the comprehensive exam, they are prepared for undertaking dissertation research and should continue to work with their doctoral committee on planning for and carrying out that research. Students who fail part or all of the comprehensive exam will be required to retake the necessary part(s) within the following two semesters, contingent upon approval to retake the exam. Any applicant for candidacy who fails the comprehensive examination may, upon recommendation of the committee and approval of the graduate dean, (1) be granted a second examination after a lapse of at least one semester or (2) be terminated from the doctoral program. The student must be registered for three credits of graduate course work in the Graduate School during the semester in which the comprehensive examination is taken. A student taking an oral examination during the summer must enroll for at least one credit for that term.

Note: Students should also consult the Graduate School requirements as well as the Ph.D. program requirements in addition to these guidelines.

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