Graduate sections

Graduate Studies

Letter from the Chair

Departmental Forms and Guidelines

Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines for Examiners and Examinees

This document is intended to clarify the nature of and preparation process for Preliminary Exams (“prelims”) especially for students in the planning stages of prelims.  Students should FIRST consult the document “Preliminary Exams Demystified’ for basic descriptions of prelims fields and requirements, as well as the “Graduate Work Timeline” for scheduling and deadlines.  Additional information is also available on the department web site.  Procedures for scheduling and reporting exams through the Graduate Secretary is available in the document “Preliminary Exam Scheduling and Reporting Procedures.”

Prelims constitute an important stage in the progress of a History graduate student.  Having completed coursework in at least three fields in addition to theory and methods requirements, students are called upon to demonstrate a comprehensive command of historiographical issues and scholarship in their one major and two minor prelim fields.   The process of constructing lists for these exams, reading in the lists, organizing the information and interpretations gleaned from this reading into a broad conceptualization of each field, discussing these concepts with examiners, and then completing each exam constitutes an important pedagogical moment distinct from coursework, on one hand, and dissertation research and writing, on the other.  Passing or better results on written and oral prelims convey the department’s confidence in a student’s readiness for teaching responsibilities in the examined fields, participation in debates involving those fields within the larger discipline, and independent research and writing of the dissertation.

Agreement on guiding assumptions and expectations of the student and examiners is vital to the successful completion of exams.  Therefore, this document lays out shared departmental assumptions about prelims, expectations for students and examiners,  and potential variations in examiners’ approaches to the prelims that students and examiners should clarify.  Because our examinations are undertaken by ad hoc committees, there are areas of broad departmental agreement on the scope and function of prelims, and also areas where faculty differ in ways that are fruitful for our scholarly life.  The important thing is for students and examiners to communicate and clarify reasonable expectations, even if these vary somewhat across exams.

Guiding Assumptions

Preliminary examination fields are FIELDS, not topics or research interests.  The reading lists, however constituted, are accordingly deep and wide-ranging so as to provide the basis for a demonstration not only of mastery of specific interests but also knowledge of general historiographical trends and important scholarship in the field.  Faculty have varied approaches to the question of what kinds of material should be included in a prelim field list.   The scope of the field, its inclusion of work in related disciplines, the potential significance of theoretical or methodological works, etc. are issues that should be discussed with examiners as you are preparing field lists for each exam.

Coursework in a field cannot completely prepare a student for a prelim whether the field is a major or minor field for the student.  Though you will have done much reading in problems courses taken to fulfill field requirements, these courses fulfill many other functions: provocation of scholarly debate on topics that are smaller than fields, exploration of recent historiographical turns that may not represent the full extent of scholarship over time, etc.  Students should therefore expect to do additional reading in preparation for prelims.  The department regards this process of reading and knowledge production as an important pedagogical process of its own.

READING LISTS:  Some major fields have standing reading lists.  Others, especially comparative fields, are constituted for each student by the particular examiners chosen, or by the student him/herself in consultation with examiners.  Those examiners may each have their own provisional lists that provide the basis for each student’s reading list in a particular field.  Lists vary in length, expectations regarding this should be discussed between students and examiners.

Our faculty’s varied interests and scholarly methods are expressed in their diverse approaches to prelims, from the questions of field construction addressed above to the kinds of answers they look for.  Some expect answers that demonstrate the student’s familiarity with historiographical debate, others expect a narrative that relies upon but doesn’t foreground historiography.  The department does not legislate on these issues.  Faculty and students should meet to clarify expectations about a prelim during the planning stages, as follows:

Expectations of Examiners and Examinees

Expectations of Examiners

Examiners will either have available a list of books for each field in which they participate, whether it be an agreed upon field list or an individual list from which the student’s particular field list will be constructed, or be ready to guide student-initiated construction of a list.

Examiners will be reasonably accommodating to students seeking their participation in an exam in their field.  Though it is certainly desirable that the student have taken a course with each examiner, this cannot be generally held as an absolute requirement, as exam preparation is a departmental responsibility of all faculty and our generous leave policies eventuate in faculty not always offering courses when students who would like to work with them are doing coursework.

Examiners will meet regularly with students for whom they have committed to writing an exam.  At least three meetings are recommended, more are desirable.  The initial meeting at which a faculty member initials the Preliminary Examination Planning form should  include a discussion of a future meeting schedules.  In addition, the examiner should note WHEN the prelim is scheduled and WHETHER s/he is likely to be on campus at that time.  If the faculty member is likely to be off campus or later plans a research trip for the prelim time, s/he should make arrangements with the examinee and the graduate secretary for how the exam will be prepared, delivered to the department, evaluated, and reported.

Meetings between examiners and exmainees will be used to shape a list that is broad, serviceable to a student’s needs, and reflective of the examiner’s views of the requirements for field proficiency; discuss the knowledge and issues the student is gleaning from his/her reading, and discuss expectations with regard to the exam itself.  These should include the general structure of the exam (how many questions, whether they will be divided into categories, etc.); as well as the kind of information that the examiner will be looking for in answers (narrative with minimal historiographical discussion, or primarily a discussion of historiographical debate, etc.). It is the responsibility of the examiner as well as the student to schedule these meetings.

Examiners will promptly formulate exams, read exams and return completed written result forms (which are issued when the prelim is distributed for evaluation) to the graduate secretary.  For more details see “Preliminary Exam Scheduling and Reporting Procedures.”

Expectations of Examinees (students)

Students will pay attention to paperwork required for the scheduling of exams, including the Ph.D. Portfolio Review which must be submitted prior to the Preliminary Examination Plan.  The Preliminary Examination Plan must be submitted to the Graduate Secretary by the end of the semester BEFORE the semester in which the student plans to start taking preliminary examinations.  For more details, see “Preliminary Exam Scheduling and Reporting Procedures.”

Students will seek out potential examiners well before the start of their exams to obtain or generate field lists and discuss the potential examiners’ general approach to examinations in that field, and to establish the examiners’ willingness to work with the student on the field.

Students will work with examiners to schedule appointments to discuss the crafting of a list for the field, to discuss the knowledge the student is gaining from reading the list, and to clarify expectations for the exam.  It is the responsibility of the student as well as the examiner to schedule these meetings.

Examinees will carefully prepare themselves on the basis of the lists prior to the exam day.  The take-home administration of prelims initiated in Fall 2007 in no way  diminishes the importance of careful reading, note-taking, synthesis, and discussion of your reading.  The time allowed for take-home exams and availability of books and notes DOES NOT permit extensive consultation of sources.  Critical reading and interpretive synthesis of the materials on each reading list needs to take place in the several months prior to each exam and exams should reflect such preparation.

Note that every student must sign an HONOR CODE statement before taking prelims, as follows:   “In composing written preliminary examinations for the Department of History, I agree to abide by University regulations concerning academic integrity, particularly with regard to the use of pre-written material in this exam.  I understand that I may not insert prewritten blocks of text into the exam.  I have clarified any uncertainties about this honor code statement with the DGS.”  You should be aware that promising not to insert prewritten blocks of text means promising not to paste OR type material that you have already composed.  THE PRELIM MUST BE COMPOSED OF TEXT NEWLY WRITTEN ON THE SCHEDULED DAY OF THE EXAM.  See the Prelim Exam Schedule form for exam-day procedures.

Oral Prelim

The Oral Prelim should be completed by the end of the semester in which the final written prelim is successfully completed.  Planning for the oral exam should be organized with the graduate secretary, as soon as the student has been informed of a positive result on the third written prelim.   The graduate secretary needs at least three weeks to order paperwork in advance of an oral prelim date, so please plan accordingly.

The committee for the Oral Prelim must consist of at least four members, including the student’s advisor and at least one examiner from each of the written prelims.  The Chair of the prelim committee must be a member of the graduate faculty, and the members should represent a variety of field specialties.  This is NOT necessarily the dissertation committee, which is formally constituted within a year of the oral prelim, as the pre-defense of the dissertation is planned. 

The Oral Prelim is usually primarily a defense and discussion of the dissertation proposal, although some examiners may want to revisit issues from the written prelims for more elaboration.   Therefore a well-developed proposal should be circulated to the advisor and other members of the Oral Prelim committee well before the scheduled date for the prelim.  Many advisors expect to see and comment on several drafts of the proposal prior to the Oral, so expectations about when the proposal should be drafted and the procedure for handling revisions prior to the Oral should be discussed between student and advisor in advance of completion of written prelims.

The Oral Prelim is a two-hour meeting. The  student and ALL examiners are expected to attend for its entire duration, and give all questions and answers their full attention.  Usually the student is asked to leave the room at the beginning of the exam so examiners can confer about (among other things) the proposal, the need to discuss written prelims, and the order in which they will question the student and willingness to have others chime in during their “time” with related questions.  The student is then usually invited to return and  initiates discussion by briefly describing the origins of their interest in their dissertation proposal topic, their work on the topic so far, and their own assessments of its strengths and weaknesses.   Examiners ask questions in sequence, usually ending with the advisor/chair of the exam.  At the end of the two-hours the student is asked to leave the room again so the examiners can confer on the result.  The result is conveyed orally to the student immediately, and in writing on the forms provided by the graduate secretary which must be promptly returned .

Approved Spring 2006
Amended Summer 2007