Graduate sections

Graduate Studies

Letter from the Chair

Departmental Forms and Guidelines

Preliminary Exams Demystified

This basic sheet on “prelims” summarizes guidelines that are described in more detail in the “Degree Requirements” section of the Graduate Studies page on the History Department Web Site.  See also the “Graduate Work Timeline” which focuses on prelim exam planning, including the forms and deadlines involved.  Students approaching their second year should consult the document,  “Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines for Examiners and Examinees,” which addresses prelim preparation in more detail.

Basic Structure and Rules

Fields and Coursework:  Preliminary examinations consist of three fields, one major and two minor.   Four courses must be taken for the major field and two for each of the minor fields. Exam fields are broad fields of study, not specific topics or research interests.   Not all reading for preliminary examinations is usually satisfied in the courses taken for each field, which are often topical.  Some preparation must be undertaken independently or in discussion groups with others facing prelims. 

Some of this preparation can be done in ONE course in ONE field that is taken as a “Prelim Preparation” course with reduced writing requirements.  Some can be done by taking “Readings Courses” if there is room in your schedule (usually for students entering with a BA).

Geographical, Chronological, and Thematic Distribution:  The prelim fields must be structured so that collectively they satisfy the following distributional requirements::

  • at least one must be geographical/chronological
  • at least one must be either thematic/comparative or a field outside the department (may be a constructed field; if so a description must accompany the Ph.D. Program Plan)
  • at least one examined field must, in whole or part, cover a period prior to1815
  • at least one examined field must involve a geographical area different from the other two  (except students with a major field in Medieval History).

Examination Committees:  Each field is examined by a committee of two faculty members, chosen by the student preferably in consultation with his/her advisor.   The members of each examination committee make their commitment to the student’s exam by initialing the “Preliminary Examination Planning Form.”  No more than one faculty member may serve on two prelim committees for a single student; each student should preferably have six examiners with a minimum of five.  Students and examiners should refer to “Guidelines for Preliminary Examiner/Examinee Relations” for more detail on the process of prelim preparation.

Preliminary Examination Lists:  Some fields have master lists agreed upon by all the faculty who serve on exam committees in that field.  In other cases individual faculty have lists that they supply to students interested in working with them on a particular field, or they will encourage you to formulate a list, as part of your prelim preparation, and then work with you to refine it  Usually the process of preliminary exam preparation involves tailoring these lists to reflect the balance between broad field preparation and specific research interests of the student that is expected of a preliminary examination, resulting in lists of varying length.  Students and examiners should begin this process early through a series of meetings that precede the exam.  This work can begin as early as a student identifies specific fields for the prelims and faculty who will serve his/her prelim exams in those fields.  For further information on this process, see the document “Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines for Examiners and Examinees.”

Structure of Exams:  Preliminary Examinations themselves take a variety of forms but there are some departmental conventions.  The exam may be divided into several sections, chronologically or thematically distinct, with a choice of questions to answer in each section.  Or the exam may feature five or six questions from which the student is to choose.  Most exams ask for the student to answer three questions, sometimes four.

Administration of Exams:  As of Fall 2007, preliminary exams will be offered on a take-home basis.  The exam is seven hours, with a half-hour added at the beginning to pick up the exam and take it home. Each student will arrange personal or computer-lab space.  We will make suggestions as to on-campus facilities for those who do not have home access to a computer or suitable work space.  We will also strive to provide back-up spaces in the department when possible.   For more details see “Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines”

Timing of Exams and the Prelim Exam Planning Form:  Students entering with a BA usually begin their exams at the end of their third year and aim to complete them no later than the Fall semester of their fourth year; students entering with an MA usually a year earlier.  Many factors, however, can affect this timetable; please refer to the “Graduate Work Timeline “ accompanying this document.  Coursework should be completed at the time you begin your exams, though it is acceptable to be finishing a final requirement or two if they are not courses required for a prelim exam you are taking during the same semester.  Exams are offered in four exam periods during the year:  September, November, February, and April.  For students entering Fall 2005 and later, exams must be completed in two consecutive exam periods; for others within two consecutive semesters.  THE PRELIMINARY EXAM PLANNING FORM MUST BE SUBMITTED BY THE END OF THE SEMESTER PRIOR TO THAT IN WHICH THE FIRST EXAM IS TAKEN.  AN APPROVED PH.D. PORTFOLIO REVIEW MUST BE ON FILE BEFORE THE PRELIMINARY EXAMINATION PLANNING FORM IS SUBMITTED.

ORAL EXAM:  The oral prelim should be scheduled as soon as the result of the last written prelim is known.  It is mainly a defense of the dissertation proposal, though sometimes involves questions on the written exam fields.  The dissertation proposal should be circulated to Oral Exam Committee members prior to the exam.  The Oral Prelim committee consists of at least one member from each prelim committee for the written exams, your advisor, and anyone else that might help you formulate your dissertation proposal.  It must have at least four members but can have more.  It can become the dissertation committee but is not necessarily the same.  All language requirements must be fulfilled before completing the oral prelim exam.

**The Graduate College requires paperwork submitted to them three weeks prior to the scheduled exam.

Approved Spring 2006; Amended Summer 2007 (11/07/2007)