PhD Comprehensive Exam Guidelines for Students and Committees

The Comprehensive Exam
The comprehensive exam ensures that students have achieved the criteria listed below and are ready to undertake dissertation research and writing upon successful completion of the exam. Through the exams, students show the knowledge they have acquired not only through coursework but also from their independent studies.

Comprehensive Exam Criteria
Students who successfully complete the exam will demonstrate the following:

  • Depth and breadth of knowledge in fields that make up rhetoric, composition, cultural studies, 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.

The Comprehensive Exam Committee
The Comprehensive Exam Committee is the same as the Doctoral Committee. This committee must include at least four Graduate Faculty members. The committee is composed of three members of the Graduate Faculty from the Department of English and one member of the Graduate Faculty from another department. The committee chair/advisor must be from the English 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. Students should work on reading lists and exams questions first with the advisor. The advisor should meet regularly with the student, provide substantive feedback, and approve the reading lists and exam questions prior to the committee's 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. The committee is also responsible for evaluating the exams. See Evaluation of Comprehensive Exams below for more details.

Exam Process
The comprehensive exam consists of two parts: a written exam and an oral exam. The written exams cover the student's work in the core areas and in a more specialized area. For the written portions of the exam, the student chooses three of the four core areas to focus on along with an area of specialization. The oral exam covers the written portion of the exam as well as coursework. The exam process is described in more detail below. The Comprehensive Exam Process

  1. The comprehensive exam process begins when the student has fulfilled all coursework requirements. First, the student should develop readings lists and exam questions in preparation for the two-part written exam. This work is done in conjunction with the advisor and then the committee as a whole. Generally, this work and the exam can be completed in 4-6 months. Some students take longer.

    Reading lists are typically designed to include reading from coursework in addition to readings 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 committee with the advisor overseeing the process. Reading lists should be approved and signed by all committee members at least a month prior to the start of the written exam and copies of the lists should be filed with the Graduate Secretary.

    The written exam consists of four questions—three questions are based on three of the four core areas (i.e. composition, cultural studies, professional communication, or rhetoric) and one question is based on the specialized area. The student selects the three core areas to focus on as well as a specialized area. Each response should be 1500-2500 words. The student has thirty days to complete the exam. The advisor and Director of Graduate Studies administer the exam.

    The exam questions for the three chosen core areas are selected from the core area question lists (a set of 3-5 questions for each area) that are maintained by the RPC faculty chair. Using this set of questions, the student adapts one question for each of the three core areas. The revisions made to the questions should reflect the student's focus on the specialized area while maintaining the integrity of the core area. The exam question for the specialized area is initially drafted by the student. All four questions (three for the core areas and one for the specialized area) are then revised by the student in consultation with the advisor and committee. Once the advisor and committee approve the questions, the advisor files them with the Director of Graduate Studies. Please note: Copies of the readings lists and the exam questions are often made available to other graduate students in the program (as those students prepare for their own exams).

    During this time, the student typically enrolls in English 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.

  1. Following successful completion of the written exam, the student takes the oral exam, which covers coursework and the written portions of the comprehensive exam. The oral exam is mostly a conversation with the committee in which students are expected to demonstrate familiarity with rhetoric, composition, cultural studies, and professional communication and answer questions about key issues and important texts in the field. Passing the oral exam signals that the student is prepared to undertake research in a particular area of the field. Students must file paperwork with the graduate school at least 10 days in advance of their oral exam, confirming their adviser's approval to proceed with a signature, as well as the date, time and location of the exam.

Evaluation of Comprehensive Exams
The three committee members from the English Department 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 Director of Graduate Studies communicates the results of the evaluation to the student, who may then schedule the oral portion of the exam. 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 listed at the beginning of this document.

Once students pass the comprehensive exam, they are prepared for undertaking dissertation research and should continue to work with the 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 by the committee and the Dean of the Graduate School.

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