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PhD Comprehensive Exam

PhD students will take the oral portion of the Comprehensive Exam at the end of their second year in the program, either in May or in late August.

In May, the Exam will take place on the designated Reading Day, as indicated on the FCRH academic calendar. In late August, it will take place on one of two Exam Days, the two non-holiday weekdays before the first day of fall semester classes.

The May Exam is strongly recommended as it allows students to begin developing their dissertation proposals during the summer before they begin teaching.

The PhD Comprehensive Exam consists of two components:

  • A revised course essay
  • A two-hour oral exam covering one major field and two minor fields

Exam Committee

The PhD Comprehensive Exam Committee will consist of three English department faculty members, one of whom serves as the Committee Chair.

The student, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), will select the Committee Chair. The two other committee members will be chosen via consultation among the student, the Committee Chair, and the DGS.

Committees must be finalized during the Fall semester prior to the May or August exam date (see Planning and Registering for Exams below and in the New PhD Comprehensive Examination Document).

Planning and Registering for Exams

To register, students:

  • Begin planning their exams in consultation with the DGS by the beginning of the Fall semester of the second year.
  • Use DegreeWorks to verify that all your degree requirements have been met or are in progress.
  • In the Fall semester, if taking the May exam, register for the Spring semester PH.D.COMP.EXAM-ENGLISH (ENGL 0930) through
  • If taking the August exam and not taking any credit bearing coursework, register for the Spring semester for REQUIREMENT PREP (ENGL 0912) and then register for the Fall for PH.D.COMP.EXAM-ENGLISH (ENGL 0930).
  • These registrations must be completed through by the add/drop deadline for continuing students as indicated on the GSAS Academic Calendar.

Exam Results
After the oral exam has taken place, the committee will grade the student's entire Exam as a whole and immediately communicate the result to the student. Written and oral portions of the exam will be graded together and a student will receive only one Exam grade.

GSAS grades include Pass, High Pass, and Failure.  

A Pass grade requires the oral and written expression of a sound conceptual grasp of literary history and form, as well as evidence of a solid familiarity with the individual works discussed. Successful students are able to respond productively to questions and argue points with clarity and specificity, while demonstrating competent knowledge of their major and minor fields.

A High Pass grade requires a higher order of synthetic understanding, historical range, original insight, theoretical sophistication, and detailed recollection. In assigning a High Pass, Exam Committees look for evidence of serious and sustained independent thinking.

Students who fail the exam may retake it once, within six months of the first attempt. The first failure does not appear on a student's transcript. Students may read faculty comments on their exams after submitting a written request to the graduate administrator.

Students whose Exam is only marginally passable but not indicative of the ability to complete a dissertation will receive a departmental grade of Low Pass. Because this grade is officially recorded as a Pass, it allows for a student to receive the MPhil degree. But students receiving a Low Pass will not be allowed to continue work toward the PhD

For further information about the PhD Comprehensive Exam, please review the PhD Comprehensive Exam Document and consult the GSAS Policies and Procedures Guidebook-available through the GSAS website and the English Department website (under Forms and Resources).