The preliminary examination for the PhD in English is taken after you have completed course work and satisfied the foreign language requirement and other conditions or research skill requirements. The examination is preliminary in that you must pass the examination, both the written and oral parts, before being officially admitted to candidacy for the degree by the Graduate School.
It is important that you understand the nature and purposes of the preliminary examination. Such knowledge will aid in your preparation and will enable you to make the examination a significant part of study for your degree.
The purpose of the written exam is multi-fold. The doctoral oral examination forms a bridge between the wide-ranging period of formal coursework and the highly focused work of the Ph.D. dissertation. When drawing up the reading lists, you and your advising faculty should bear in mind the possibilities of the current job market, the focus of your anticipated dissertation topic, the logical integration of the various parts of the exam, your interests, and the faculty's expertise. Successful completion of the exams strengthens the faculty advisor's ability to certify to potential employers your teaching and research competence in the areas of examination. In grading the exams, faculty members will ask themselves, "Does this student seem to know the material and understand the concepts that all competent professors teaching in this area should be expected to know and understand?" The examiners will assess your ability to respond appropriately to the questions by integrating and synthesizing large amounts of information and expressing it in coherent and persuasive prose.
Areas of Specialization (exam areas and reading lists)
Your exams and reading lists are based on your choice of one primary area and two secondary areas of specialization for teaching and scholarship.
I. Primary Areas
Choose one of the following areas:
II. Secondary Areas
Choose two of the following:
Although a list may repeat authors, it may not repeat works on the other two lists.
Reading lists: In consultation with their committee members, students will generate a list of primary texts and relevant secondary scholarship for each of their exam areas. Students are encouraged to consult with former graduate students and available sample lists in their exam fields for guidance when preparing their lists. The primary exam should include around 45-50 primary texts, while each secondary exam (including a negotiated secondary exam) should include around 20-25 primary texts. For each exam field, you also need to provide a 400-600 word rationale explaining your selection of texts and focus.
Negotiated reading list: Because this exam is intended to allow you to pursue a specialized interest within a context that is broad enough to constitute a secondary teaching area or area of inquiry related to your dissertation, the list should adhere to the following principles:
Preparation for the preliminary examination should be a joint effort between you and your advisory committee. Early in the preparation you must consult with your committee chair and schedule a meeting with your committee in committee session, not individually, to preview preparation for the examination. At this session you should present the tentative reading lists, previously drawn up in consultation with the individual committee members, for further revision and ratification by your entire advisory committee, along with your rationales for each list. You are responsible for providing a copy of the final approved lists and rationales to each member of your advisory committee within two weeks after this meeting.
It is in your best interest that the faculty member(s) responsible for the negotiated list exam be confident of his or her expertise and reputation in the field or sub-field represented by the exam, and that she or he either already has sufficient knowledge of the texts and their secondary literatures or is willing to attain this knowledge prior to the examination date. For this reason, faculty members are not obligated to accept any proposal for a negotiated exam, in whole or in part.
In addition to discussion of the lists, you should gain the committee’s advice on such matters as the following:
This conference with your advisory committee in committee session during preparation is required; more conferences are advised should you and your committee see the need for sharpened counsel.
In addition, you should consult the file of the previously given sample preliminary written examination questions online. You will find the information to be a useful record of precedent and example for guidance in preparation.
The administration of the exams is as follows:
For the primary exam, you will be given FIVE HOURS (of which, one hour should be reserved for revision) to answer three out of five questions; for a secondary exam, you will be given THREE HOURS to answer two out of four questions; for a negotiated secondary exam, you will be given THREE HOURS to answer to answer one or two questions out of four. The questions will be answered on a computer, and your location will be established in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies.
The written preliminary examination will ordinarily be administered by the chair of your committee on three separate days within a seven day period at a time agreed upon with your chair. Upon your completion of the entire written examination, your chair will immediately begin circulating the examination for reading and evaluation by your committee. Your committee will individually make written evaluative comments on each question of the examination to evaluate your performance. Unanimous approval of the committee is required for passing the preliminary examination.
You should be advised informally whether you passed or failed all or part of the examination. If you fail one part (primary or secondary) and pass the others (primary or secondary), you may be re-examined only on the part failed. You are thus allowed one further opportunity to pass the examination, whether in part or in whole. At least one semester must elapse before re-examination is permitted. You are required to meet with the faculty member(s) who wrote the questions for the failed part of the examination to discuss weaknesses and methods of preparation for re-examination. You may not take the oral examination until all parts of the written examination are passed.
The oral part of the preliminary examination, normally scheduled two to four weeks after successful completion of the written examination, will also cover your primary and secondary fields. It is expected that many of the questions posed during the oral will derive from your performance on the written examination. Questions on additional matters relevant to your primary and secondary fields will also be posed.
The oral examination is not limited to a repetition of the written questions. It provides opportunity for you to give evidence of long, thoughtful, and critical consideration of questions related to your primary and secondary areas. You will be called upon to consider both the intrinsic qualities of works and the relationships of those works to others, to the genres, their historical placement, and their authors. It is to your advantage to answer questions fully, with ample citation of examples, passages, or other details as well as with full consideration of literary and historical context. The preferred recognition is that you have much more to say than there is time to say it.
Time allowed for the oral examination is two to three hours. Ordinarily the chair of your committee will begin the questioning and continue uninterrupted by other questioners for an agreed upon period (about 20 minutes). The chair will then be followed by each member of the committee in a like manner for a similar period. Usually the committee will divide responsibilities in order to ensure coverage of the major and minor fields. After a short break, the committee will re-open questioning on any matters earlier posed or on new lines of inquiry.
Upon completing the examination, you will be excused while your committee confers. Your committee may decide whether to render individual decisions by open discussion or secret ballot. If there is division within the committee, it is appropriate to discuss evaluations to see if agreement is possible. As with written examinations, unanimous approval of the committee is required for passing the oral examination.
Your entire committee should be present when you are told their decision. If re-examination is required, you should be advised about deficiencies in knowledge and/or presentation. During re-examination you will be responsible for answering on the primary and secondary fields.
You have a maximum of two opportunities to pass the oral part of the preliminary examination. At least one semester must elapse before re-examination is permitted.
Upon your successful completion of the entire preliminary examination, the committee chair will so advise the Director of Graduate Studies, who will report the examination and date as a matter of record to the Graduate School. The chair of your committee should also submit a copy of the examination questions and the written answers to the Director of Graduate Studies, who will place the questions in a public online file, and place the answers in your confidential file.
Also see Sample PhD Questions