Comprehensive Exam

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.

Note: Students should not begin the exam process without meeting with their advisor in advance. This helps students avoid missteps that might stall progress.


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


1. Selecting a Doctoral Committee

The student should work with their 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, two of whom must be RPC faculty (and one of these serving as chair/advisor), and one member must be graduate faculty from another department. The outside member functions as a Dean’s representative and, depending on their expertise, may have a larger role in consulting with the student. 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.


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 exam questions and reading lists. Once approved by the advisor, the questions and lists are sent by the student to the full committee and the student schedules a committee meeting, during which the student receives feedback and suggestions for revision (on the questions and lists). All four members of the committee must approve the questions and lists before the student may schedule the exam; such approval may happen during this meeting or after student has revised according to feedback received during the meeting.

Exam questions

Exam questions should enable the student to clearly represent and analyze disciplinary conversations in RPC (including those representing the contemporary field). The core questions should be modeled on the sample questions, which direct the student 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 their future work (especially in the dissertation).

Reading Lists

Reading lists should include the scholarship that will allow the student to successfully prepare for the exam. They typically combine texts from coursework as well as texts that the student, advisor, and committee feel are important in preparing the student for research and specialization in RPC. 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 but should balance breadth and depth.


3. Preparing for the Exam

The student should carefully study all content from the reading lists in preparation for the written and oral exams. In addition to careful reading and review, the student should also take notes and make plans for the arguments and organization they will use in the exam. During this time, the student works primarily with the advisor. 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. During the fall semester, students who have not completed the exam will enroll in 3 credits of ENGL 600 (as a course). Students who have not completed exams must enroll in this course every year until completion. Students who hold graduate assistantships can also use ENGL 600 hours to maintain full time status while preparing for the exam (these additional credits should be taken under their advisor’s name).

Note: Per Graduate School policy, each student must successfully defend their dissertation within 5 years of completion of comprehensive exams or they must retake the exams. Graduate School policy also mandates continuous enrollment (of at least 3 credits) during this time (and at all times during the doctoral degree). Students who do not continuously enroll will need to reapply to the program.


4. Scheduling Written Exam/Exam Logistics

Finalized questions, reading lists, and a start date/time should be approved and signed by all committee members at least one month prior to the start of the written exam and filed by the English Department Graduate Secretary (in the student’s permanent file). Once the exam has been officially scheduled, 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.

Note: The advisor prepares the exam by sending a copy of the questions to the English Department Graduate Secretary (about a week in advance of the start date), who administers it to the student on the specified day/time.


5. Taking the Written Exam

The student has 4 weeks (28 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 4 weeks, the student returns exam responses to the English Department Graduate Secretary, who distributes the entire exam to all committee members and communicates which members are responsible to respond to which responses (as specified by the advisor).

Evaluation of Written Exam

Under the direction of the advisor, the committee (including the advisor) is responsible for evaluating the exams. Each question should be read by two committee members. 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 English Department Graduate Secretary communicates the results of the evaluation to the student and advisor and distributes all written feedback to all committee members and to the student. If the student is successful, they may then schedule the oral portion of the exam. Students unsuccessful in part or all of the comprehensive examination will be expected to retake the necessary part(s), within two semesters.

The Oral Exam

Following successful completion and passing of the written exam, the student takes a 2-hour oral exam, which covers coursework and the written portions of the comprehensive exam. The student must submit a Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form to the Graduate School at least 10 work days (i.e., 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 (as agreed to by the full committee). A copy of this form should also be filed with the English Department Graduate Secretary and retained by the student for their records. Because these 10 days begin after the two weeks committee members use to evaluate the exam, students can expect at least a month between the completion of the written exam and date of the oral exam.

The oral exam is considered as a conversation with the committee in which the student is 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 fields, particularly as relevant to the written exam. Passing the oral exam signals that the student is prepared to undertake research in RPC. All four committee members evaluate the oral portion of the exam and the student is 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.

Note: As directed by the advisor, the student should plan to use some time at the end of the exam period to introduce ideas relating to dissertation research to their committees. This allows the student to successfully transition from comprehensive exams to the dissertation proposal. This work should not take up substantive time, however, as students will need to use most of the 2 hours to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge in RPC.

After the Exam

Once the student passes both parts of the comprehensive exam, they are prepared to undertake dissertation research and should continue to work with their doctoral committee on planning for and carrying out that research. The student is now considered ABD.

NoteA student who failed part or all of the comprehensive exam will be required to retake the necessary part(s) within the following two semesters, contingent upon full committee 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 (to be taken within two semesters, under the direction of the advisor) or (2) be terminated from the doctoral program. Students should also consult the Graduate School requirements in such cases.