Doctoral Preliminary Examination - Revised February, 2014

Qualifications for Taking the Exam

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.

Purpose of the Preliminary Examination

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.

The Structure of the Preliminary Examination

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:

  • Old and Middle English
  • Renaissance/Early Modern English
  • Restoration and Eighteenth Century British
  • Nineteenth-Century British
  • Post 1900 British and Anglophone Literature
  • Postcolonial Literatures and Theory
  • American Literature Before 1900
  • American Literature After 1900
  • African American Literature
  • Rhetoric and Composition
  • Literary Theory

II. Secondary Areas

Choose two of the following:

  • An examination in a different area selected from the list above
  • A third examination in a different area selected from the list above
  • A cross-period or critical problem examination (Negotiated Exam)

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:

  • The list should represent one of the following
    • preparation for a career specialty or subspecialty not represented by the other exams (e.g. homiletics, gender studies),
    • concentration upon a particular genre that cannot be covered by a traditional historical exam (e.g. romance, the novel, tragic drama), or
    • a critical problem that transcends the traditional historical categories (e.g. What is the relation of German aesthetics to nineteenth-century American and British poetic form? What was the impact of the colonization of America upon British literature? How might ethnography be used to study multi-cultural literacies in academic and non-academic contexts?)
  • In general, the list for such an exam should provide the appropriate background for the specialized research anticipated for the dissertation, but should not represent works confined to a single historical period. The list should include authors from at least two historical periods (as defined by the categories for the primary list) or two nationalities. In the case of genre, the list must include authors from three historical periods and/or nationalities.
  • For a negotiated reading list, your 400-600 word rationale should explain what authors and what works you chose and why, what theoretical questions you are examining with this list, how the list meets the criteria above, and how the list supports your future work in the doctoral program and in your areas of specialization.
  • 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.

Preparation for the Preliminary Examination

Preparation for the preliminary examination should be a joint effort between you and your advisory committee.
The following guidelines should be followed as you prepare for your exams:

  • During the first and second years in the program, students meet with the DGS and individual faculty members to form their Doctoral Committees
  • Students should aim to form their Doctoral Committees and file the Doctoral Committee Form (available from the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs) once they have completed 18 hours of course work, or shortly thereafter. 
  • Students shall consult with the individual members of their committee to compose their exam lists and rationales.
  • The Chair and the student shall schedule a mandatory meeting of the entire committee to preview preparation for the exam and approve the reading lists and rationales.  Ideally, this should occur at least one year before exams; it should occur no later than six months before the exams.  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.
  • No later than two weeks after this mandatory meeting, the student must provide a copy of the final approved lists and rationales to each member of the committee AND to the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs.
  • It is expected that students will consult with their committee chair and members throughout the period in which they are preparing to take exams.  In addition to these other meetings, which are strongly recommended, the student must schedule a meeting with the committee chair no later than two weeks before the exams are scheduled to discuss any remaining issues or concerns.
  • Early in the semester in which the exams are scheduled, the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs and the DGS will email all students taking exams to discuss scheduling details.

In addition to discussion of the lists, you should gain the committee’s advice on such matters as the following:

  1. Preferred texts or editions of items on the reading list, including useful introduction.
  2. Secondary texts (critical or historical) to supplement the primary texts on the reading list. (Such additions and stipulations will reflect the particular views of the committee and your needs.)
  3. Guidance in selecting emphases for study (these will vary according to your previous work and the predilections of the committee), including advice about which works are to be known intensively and which are to be known more generally (cf. Bacon: some books to be tasted, some swallowed, some few to be chewed and digested).
  4. Guidance about ideas on which you should concentrate for further study.
  5. Discussion about the general format of the written and oral parts of the examination.
  6. Decisions on whether the committee will confer with you about responses on the written examination before the oral examination is taken.

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.

Conduct of the Preliminary Examination

The administration of the exams is as follows:

  • Approximately one month prior to the student’s exams the committee chair should contact the other committee members to request exam questions. The Chair should give committee members at least two weeks to compose their questions and revise them (as needed). If the committee cannot agree upon questions, it is the responsibility of the Chair to compose the final examination questions so that the examination may proceed. The Chair should submit final sets of exam questions to the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs no later than two business days prior to the student’s first scheduled exam.
  • 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 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 or the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs on three separate days within a seven day period at a time agreed upon with your chair.
  • Once the student has completed the written exam, the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs will circulate his or her answers to members of the committee, each of whom should respond in writing within two weeks to the chair with comments (which may range from a few phrases or sentences per exam to full paragraphs) and a grade (pass/fail) for each section of the exam. Unanimous approval of the committee is required for passing the written preliminary examination.  There are no contingent passes: the exam is graded as either pass or fail.
  • If a faculty member fails to respond to the chair with a grade and comments on the written exam within the two-week window, the student shall automatically be granted the grade of pass from that committee member and the exam process shall proceed accordingly.
  • Once the chair has received feedback from the committee (and no later than two weeks after completion of the written exams), the chair should contact the student in writing (via email) to convey the results of the written exam. 
  • While sharing the complete set of evaluative comments with the student is optional, the committee chair should convey any significant reservations about the exam, whether in whole or in part, in writing to the student, again within two weeks of completion of the written exams.
  • At this time, the chair must also contact the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs to convey the results of the written exam and schedule the oral exam if the written exam was passing.  If the chair and committee agree to do so, they may schedule a date/time for the oral exam in advance of the written exam, with the understanding that this date/time is subject to modification and dependent on the results of the student’s written exam.
  • If the student fails one part of the exam (primary or secondary) and passes the others (primary or secondary), s/he may be re-examined only on the part failed. The student is 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. The student is 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. The student may not take the oral examination until all parts of the written examination are passed.

The Oral Examination

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.
The following guidelines govern the administration of the oral examination:

  • The oral exam must be held within one month of the written exams, assuming the written exams are passing. (Graduate School policy).
  • It is expected that students will consult with their committee members prior to the oral exam to discuss strengths and weaknesses of the written exam and how best to prepare for the oral exam.
  • The oral exam lasts between two and three hours.  Ordinarily the chair 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, the committee members will excuse the student while they confer.  If the committee disagrees, they will discuss evaluations to reach consensus.  The committee may decide whether to render individual decisions by open discussion or secret ballot. Unanimous approval is required for passing the oral examination; as with the written exams, there are no contingent passes: the exam is graded as either pass or fail.  All members of the committee should be present when they convey their decision to the student.
  • After the student has completed the oral exam and the committee has reached a consensus about the results, the chair shall convey these results to the Administrative Assistant for English Graduate Programs in writing (via email). 
  • If a student fails the oral exam (in whole or part), re-examination is required; the committee will determine the focus and scope of the re-examination and communicate this to the student in writing well in advance of the second exam.  The student has 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.  If the student fails the oral exam, he or she is required to meet with the appropriate committee members to discuss weaknesses and methods of preparation for re-examination.
  • Upon the 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 the 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 and the following documents on our website (under “Policies and Documents”): “How to Put Together a Doctoral Committee,” “English Department Policy on Doctoral Committees,” and “Best Practices for Graduate Committees and Advising.”


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