The comprehensive exam is a closed-book, written test on three
general research areas selected by the student. These
research areas should represent broad fields of study within the
discipline of English, fields that represent the student’s primary
professional interests as a scholar and teacher. The purpose
of the exam is to demonstrate sufficiently comprehensive knowledge
of three fields to begin dissertation research.
The comprehensive exam, which D.A. students take within one year
after finishing their graduate coursework, proceeds in several
1. The student first plans three fields of
study and asks three English faculty to serve as mentors on his or
her comprehensive exam committee. Each of the three faculty
mentors would represent one of the proposed fields. Fields of
study may be based on graduate courses that the student has taken,
or they may represent other areas of research that the student
wants to study in preparation for the dissertation. Students
should begin this process of defining their fields and committees
prior to completing their coursework.
2. The student then organizes reading lists
for each field in consultation with the mentors who represent the
individual fields. These lists should include primary and
secondary sources that are most important to the field. Each
list should have at least 20 titles, but the exact number depends
on the field and the mentor’s judgment of what would constitute
sufficiently comprehensive knowledge of this
3. As the student completes the reading lists,
he or she writes a 2-5 page rationale that explains the reason for
selecting the fields and reading lists as well as the relationship
between the three fields.
4. Finally, students prepare for the exam
through consultation with their mentors and discussion of possible
exam questions. Students should have a fair idea what sorts of
questions they will be answering on the exam, even though the
faculty mentors have final authority to choose the questions.
After the student’s comprehensive exam plan has been approved by
each committee member, he or she needs to register for the exams
through the graduate school. The deadlines for registration,
which occur during the first month of each semester, are posted in
the academic calendar of the Graduate Bulletin. The exam is
administered and scheduled, however, through the English
Department. Prior to registration for the exam, the student
should submit the English D.A. Comprehensive Exam approval form,
with the signatures of each committee member, as well as a copy of
the approved reading lists and rationale to the English Director of
Graduate Studies. The student should also indicate the dates
in which he or she plans to take the exam at this time.
The exam itself is divided into three sessions of three hours
each. Each session will examine one of the fields of
study, based on the reading lists the student has created.
For each session, students will have three hours to respond to at
least two essay questions. The exam tests students’ ability
to a) demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of their fields; b)
defend a thesis in writing; c) move clearly and cogently between
general questions and specific texts; and d) relate their interests
to the major intellectual and critical frameworks in their
How to Organize the Reading Lists:
There is no single paradigm for the comprehensive exams lists,
which depend on the nature of the fields and the student’s
interests. While the three fields should prepare students for
more specialized dissertation research, they represent more general
areas of study than dissertation subtopics. A good starting
place for a field would be a graduate course that a student has
taken. The reading list for the course then would be expanded
to represent a greater degree of expertise in this field.
Students can also define fields that are not directly related to
courses they have taken, especially if they have a clear idea of
what their dissertation topic will be. Possible fields
include but are not limited to areas of cultural studies, literary
studies, pedadogy, theory, and writing studies.
View a Comprehensive Exam Proposal.