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Doctoral Comprehensive Examination

Preparation for Examinations
Examination Process
Grading of Examinations

Students in the PhD program prepare four fields, one major and three minor fields. Students take written examinations in all four fields, followed by an oral examination (with the exception of World History, which substitutes course work for the written portion of the examination). The oral examination is an extension of the written exams and should be considered an integral part of the examination process. Normally, students take their comprehensive examination at the end of the fourth semester and no later than at the end of the sixth semester. The specific expectations and requirements for the preparation of examinations, the examination process, and the grading of examinations are discussed below:

Preparation for Examinations

Each student must form a comprehensive examination committee, whose members should include the student’s main faculty adviser plus their three minor field advisers. The faculty adviser for each field determines what the student needs to do in preparation for the comprehensive examination in that field. Normally, this will involve a certain amount of course work, with seminar classes highly recommended, and the developing of a book list with the help of the faculty adviser. As a rough guide, the major field book list should consist of a minimum of 60 titles and a maximum of 100 titles, while a minor field book list should be comprised of a minimum of 30 titles and a maximum of 50 titles. The student is responsible for knowing the readings on the book list in preparation for the comprehensive examination (both written and oral). Students must take four written examinations, one in each of their four fields (with the exception of World History, which substitutes course work for the written portion of the examination). Students will also sit for an oral examination following the written examinations. Normally, students take their comprehensive examinations at the end of the fourth semester and no later than at the end of the sixth semester.

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Examination Process

The written examinations for the four fields are composed by the student’s field advisers. Normally, the student’s main faculty adviser will compose the questions for the major field. Each of the student’s minor field advisers will write the questions for the minor field they are supervising. Each field adviser may construct his/her examination as he/she sees fit (for example, an adviser not or may not offer a choice of questions, and/or structure his/her examination in sections, etc.). Normally, however, the examination in the major field consists of three or four questions and students may be given a time limit of six to eight hours. The examination in the minor field consists of two or three questions and students may be given a time limit of four to six hours. Students take the written portion of the comprehensive examination in the History Department Library or another agreed upon space and use a department-provided laptop computer. At the end of each examination day, the laptop must be returned to the History Department by 4:30pm.

It is the student’s responsibility to schedule their examinations (both written and oral) within a fixed period of time and agreed upon space. Students should discuss scheduling in advance with their examination committee, and should work with the Department’s Senior Administrative Assistant to book a room and Department laptop for the requisite amount of time for each examination. A student will complete all four written examinations within the space of ten days. Any alterations in this arrangement or changes to the examination schedule must be approved in advance by the Director of Graduate Studies.

The oral examination should follow swiftly upon the completion of the last written examination, normally within a period of no more than one week. All field advisers shall take part in the oral examination. The oral examination is an extension of the written exams and should be considered as part of an integral process. Thus, although each field adviser shall proceed as they see fit, it is recommended that they pursue points addressed, or not addressed, in the written examinations. Students, with the assistance of the Senior Administrative Assistant, are responsible for scheduling a time (and location) for the oral examination, at which all members of the examination committee can meet. Oral examinations will last for two hours, during which all field advisers shall have an opportunity to pose questions to the student. The student’s main faculty adviser should impress upon the student that he/she needs to begin to plan this process significantly in advance of the intended date, as the schedules of faculty advisers may make it difficult to find a suitable date.

Again, these are rough guidelines, and changes in the examination schedule and arrangements may be made with the approval in advance of the Director of Graduate Studies.

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Grading of Examinations

The student will receive an overall grade of either “Pass” or “Fail” for each of the four fields under examination (which includes both the written and oral portions of the examination). The faculty adviser overseeing each field is responsible for assigning a grade for the corresponding examination. In order to pass the comprehensive exam, students must pass their major field and two of the three minor fields. To pass a minor field, students must demonstrate sufficient preparation in that field for teaching at the college or university levels. To pass the major field, students must demonstrate a broad historical knowledge of the field, an understanding of the historiography, and the ability to contextualize their potential contribution to this field. A student is considered to have failed a particular field if the adviser responsible for that field feels that the student has failed either the written examination in that field, or the portion of the oral examination devoted to that field, or both.

If a student fails one of his/her minor fields, they will have one opportunity to re-take only that portion of the exam, no later than one semester following the oral examination, if they want to present it as a teaching field. Since the examination process is considered an integral whole, the student who seeks to re-take the minor field must re-take both the written examination and the relevant portion of the oral examination. A student re-taking a portion of the oral examination will do so in the presence both of the field adviser whose exam he/she failed and his/her main faculty adviser.

If a student fails the major field, or two or more minor fields, he/she must re-take the entire comprehensive examination (that is, all written examinations and the entire oral examination). The student must petition to their examination committee in order to be permitted to repeat the comprehensive examination, and they must re-take their comprehensive examination by no later than the end of the following semester. If a student fails their comprehensive examination for a second time, they cannot petition to repeat it again.
Any alteration in this timeline must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.

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