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Indiana University Bloomington

Exam & Dissertation Research


The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

The qualifying exam is comprised of two parts, the second part dependent upon a student’s successfully completing the first. In the first part of the exam, students demonstrate their qualifications as a specialist in a chosen field of English literature and language. This section determines the student’s general preparedness for teaching at in this field at the post-secondary level, and for conducting research in this field. The second part of the exam judges a student’s qualifications and readiness for undertaking a dissertation.

The first part of the exam is typically taken in September of a student’s fourth year in the program; the second part typically completed the following spring.

The procedure for qualifying exams typically proceeds as follows:

Step 1

By no later than January of her third year, a student will have asked two faculty members to serve on her exam committee; one of whom will act as chair.  She will report this information to the DGS, who will assign a third member to the committee for the first portion of the exam process. To this committee of three the student will submit by April 1 a reading list of primary and secondary materials that delineates her general field of scholarly expertise. Her committee will need to meet with the student at least once and approve this list before the end of that spring semester. It is assumed that the student will also meet with her committee members individually as she prepares for the exam.

A reading list will cover a clearly defined field of scholarship in English and illustrate a command of that field. (This should not prevent a student designing an exam from joint or combined fields. In fact, the exam is meant to facilitate study of non-conventional or innovative fields within English.).The reading list will not exceed 100 book-length items. A certain portion of the list will be devoted to significant secondary works in the field.  The graduate office will keep a file of approved reading lists for the help of students preparing for exams.

Step 2

Before the beginning of classes the following fall, the beginning of her fourth year, the student will, in consultation with her committee and the DGS, schedule an exam date sometime in September.

At 9:00 on the morning the day before the exam, the student will receive from the graduate secretary several questions prepared by her committee.  If the exam has been scheduled for a Monday, then the chair of the committee will arrange for the student to receive the questions on Sunday.  The questions will follow the model of essay questions. The student will prepare a roughly 20-minute presentation in response to one question selected from the list. She may consult books and notes, and she may prepare her answers in the place most convenient to her.

On the following day, the student will meet with the committee for a two-hour examination. The first hour of the exam will consist of the student’s presentation and the committee’s questions in response to that presentation. Notes are allowed, but the presentation is to be primarily an oral performance. The second half of the exam meeting will be concerned with questions about the student’s chosen field, in an effort to assess the student’s knowledge of the works on her list, her agility with the leading concepts in her field, and the quality of her ideas about the field.

At the completion of two hours, the student will leave the room to give the committee time to consult. After a short consultation, they will call her back into the room and report whether she has failed, passed or passed with distinction this part of the qualifying exam. The chair of the committee will report this news in writing to the DGS.

If a student passes, she will take the second part of the exam the subsequent spring. In the case of a failed exam, the student will meet with each member of the committee for feedback and advice. The committee chair’s report to the DGS will include a justification for the failing grade. The student will schedule a retake for the beginning of the following semester. Students are allowed one re-take for each section of the exam.

Step 3

Having passed the first part of the exam, a student will enroll that coming spring in W795, the prospectus-writing workshop. (This workshop is an 8-week, 2-credit course taught by the DGS). The student will also report the names of the research committee, typically four members of the faculty, to the DGS at the outset of the spring semester.

Students should enter the workshop with a research project and draft prospectus and bibliography for the dissertation in hand. Over the course of the semester, and in consultation with their respective committees, students will each prepare and write a dissertation prospectus, no longer than 18 pages + bibliography. When the prospectus is ready to be approved, the student will submit it to his exam committee and arrange a time for the second exam meeting, to be held no later than the second week of May. Note: submission of the prospectus must happen at least three weeks prior to the exam meeting.

This second meeting effectively serves as a defense of the prospectus and a completion of the exam process.     

Step 4

The second exam meeting will last between one and two hours. For this meeting, the four committee members will have read and reviewed the prospectus and prepared questions to determine a) whether the student is ready to conduct a long-term independent research project that would qualify as a dissertation and b) whether the topic and methodology proposed for the research project meet current scholarly standards. The committee may also raise questions about the written quality of the prospectus. Most of the meeting will be devoted to examining the claims and aims of the prospectus as well the dissertation it imagines.