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Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam


The comprehensive exam gives you an opportunity to demonstrate mastery over relevant theory, methods, and empirical material in a subfield or set of related subfields, with an eye toward conducting related research. Exams can be taken in traditional or ‘synthetic’ areas. Exams that bridge areas may be useful for students whose emerging research agenda draws on multiple lines of scholarship. The topic and coverage of the exam should be substantially broader than a dissertation, and it should cover foundational readings and current scholarship in one or more subfields. Specific exam areas will be developed by you in collaboration with your committee.


The exam committee should include at least three faculty members selected by the student. A departmental representative (DR) is also randomly assigned to the committee. At least two of the student-selected faculty members should have at least a 25% appointments in the sociology department. The third should have, at a minimum, adjunct status in the department.


Exams typically consist of written responses to between three and six questions posed by an examining committee. In total, responses should not exceed 30-pages (double-spaced, standard margins, 12-point Times New Roman or similar font). Responses need not be of equal length. You will have 48 hours to complete the exam. This is an open book exam, allowing you to consult books, articles, notes, and online materials. However, you should not discuss the questions or responses with anyone. The exam instructions will specify whether citations and references are required and whether references count toward the 30-page limit.

In consultation with the student, the committees may choose to offer a shorter, closed-book exam, also conducted over a two-day period. Closed book exams include a maximum of 8 hours each day to complete the exam. The examining committee sets the final structure of the exam in terms of number of hours, and total number of questions.

Additional Time

You can request a 24-hour extension if you:

  • are a non-native English writer.
  • are pregnant.
  • have a documented learning disability.
  • have a health condition that requires additional time.

Request this extension when scheduling your exam and send the committee approval to the graduate program advisor.

Requesting an Exam

Narrative Rationale 

Prepare a short narrative rationale for the exam (one page or less). Describe why you are  proposing this particular exam, and outline the broad contours of the exam’s domain. If the exam covers more than one field or subfield in the discipline, the narrative should briefly discuss how this particular combination of fields will prepare you for future research and teaching.

Departmental Representative

After the proposed exam has been approved by the GPC, a Departmental Representative will be randomly assigned to your committee. The main role of the DR is to assure that exams do not become too closely aligned to a student’s (or faculty member’s) idiosyncratic interests. It also provides faculty with an opportunity to see what type of work is being done in the department. In practice, the DR provides coordination and oversight, as opposed to creating the exam and providing feedback. At a minimum, the DR should review exam questions to ensure that they are neither too broad nor too narrow and have an opportunity to read the completed exam.


You should take the comprehensive exams within one year of completing the MA degree, and no later than the spring of the fourth year. A few guidelines:

  • Schedule exams during the quarter (not during a break). 
  • The exam is typically taken before the last week so it can be graded before the break.
  • You must be registered in the quarter in which you take the exam.


You will learn the exam outcome within two weeks. Exam outcomes include:

Pass with Distinction
Conditional Pass

A conditional pass means that the committee is asking for revisions. You have 60-days to revise and resubmit. If you do not resubmit, you will be placed on warning status with the graduate school. Students placed on warning must re-take the comprehensive exam within one quarter after the original exam date.

Students who fail the exam will be put on warning status and will have the opportunity to retake the exam the following quarter. Students who fail the exam a second time will be dismissed from the program. A third attempt is granted if two-thirds of the faculty approve.