4.0 PhD in Rhetoric & Writing: PhD Exams

PhD Exams: Requirements and Philosophy

PhD students must pass two comprehensive written examinations—one in the Rhetoric & Writing core, the other in the student’s selected concentration—and a third, the pre-dissertation prospectus exam. We highly recommend that students complete their exams in this order: core, concentration, prospectus defense. On rare occasions, a student’s guidance committee might wish to alter this order; in those cases, the committee chair should consult with the program director about the implications of such an alteration for the student’s success.

Students should arrange exam scheduling with their guidance committee during the regular process of annual review but well enough in advance of taking each exam that the committee has ample time to assist and advise the student for successful completion of each exam.

PhD students must also successfully complete an oral defense of the dissertation prospectus and preliminary bibliography and pass a final oral examination in defense of the dissertation. Students must be enrolled for at least one credit the semester in which they take the final oral examination. See “Standards for Maintaining Good Academic Standing” in Section 5.0 for information on exam assessment.

In this program we view exams as important for helping students develop professional knowledge and expertise about their core field and areas of specialization. Exams are designed to:

  • help students review, assimilate, synthesize, and reflect on their knowledge and learning at a more advanced, professional level of understanding than individual courses typically achieve;
  • show the student’s ability to reflect on and synthesize knowledge gained;
  • to develop new knowledge and expertise;
  • and to present knowledge and to advance an argument within the field at large, not simply for an individual instructor.

Exams are also opportunities for reflection and integration that move students forward as scholars and teachers. In short, we use exams to promote each student’s professional development. Given our view of exams, it should not be surprising to learn that portfolio work constitutes a significant portion (50%) of the PhD core and concentration exams.


PhD Core Exam

The core exam is based on the core courses in the PhD program. Thus, the core exam should be taken as soon as possible after the student has completed the core course requirements in the program. The core exam consists of two parts. Ideally this happens immediately following the second semester of the student’s second year in the program.

Part 1. Portfolio and Reflective Essay (50%)

For the PhD core exam, the student should submit a portfolio of work that draws from to the PhD core courses. This portfolio should provide samples of the student’s learning in those core courses, typically 3-5 papers. It must also include a reflective essay that shows the student synthesizing knowledge gained across the core courses.

The student must submit a copy of the portfolio to both the chair of the guidance committee and to the graduate secretary before s/he receives the questions for the take-home exam.

Part 2. Take-Home Exam (50%)

(15 pages each, double-spaced, not including works cited)

The take-home portion of the core examination consists of two essays in response to questions that engage and focus on the student’s experiences in the core courses. The essay questions will be cooperatively.

The process works as follows:

  • Several months before taking the exam, the student should discuss the schedule for core examination with the guidance committee. The ideal time for this discussion is during the student’s annual review at then end of their first year. Finalizing dates for the exam should happen as a part of discussions with the committee chair throughout a student’s second year.
  • Early in the semester prior to the scheduled date for the exam, the student develops a list of 4-6 questions arising from their PhD core coursework. (For example, this list might first be shared with the committee chair in January/February for an exam scheduled in May.) The questions should show that the student is making connections across and between the core courses. (Sample questions are available upon request from the graduate secretary.)
  • Once the chair and the student have revised the questions to the chair’s satisfaction, they submit this list to the guidance committee, leaving plenty of time for finalizing the questions well in advance of the exam date. (For example, this might happen no later than March for an exam scheduled in May.) The guidance committee provides comments and a list of finalized, appropriate, and answerable exam questions are established. The student should be provided with this larger (4-6) list of questions at least a month in advance of the exam date. It is highly suggested that the student prepare outlines for answering these questions in advance of their exam (consultating with their chair as appropriate).
  • On the agreed-upon date, the student submits his/her portfolio and, upon receipt, the guidance committee chair sends 3 of these questions (selected by the entire committee) to the student. This begins the clock for the week-long exam. At this time, the guidance committee chair should also send a copy of the complete set of exam questions to the graduate program secretary, indicating which 3 have been chosen for the exam.
  •  The student selects 2 of the 3 questions, and has one week to prepare responses, each limited to 15 double-spaced pages. Full bibliographical references should be included but do not count towards the 15-page limit per question.
  • The student may consult notes, electronic materials, print readings (journals, books, etc.), in preparing her/his responses. The student may also consult directly with the chair of his/her committee, and with other committee members, to ask questions and determine scope for her/his responses.
  • One week (7 calendar days) after receiving the exam questions, the student submits her/his response to the guidance committee chair and to the graduate program secretary.
  • Within 2 weeks of receiving the student’s exam responses, the guidance committee must submit a written assessment of the exams to the student and to the graduate secretary. The guidance committee chair also completes and signs the appropriate section of the Examination Record form (which is prepared by the graduate secretary and kept in the student’s file).

See Section 5.0 of this handbook for details on how the PhD Core Exam is assessed.

PhD Concentration Exam

The concentration exam is based on coursework the student has taken in a specialized field. Thus, the concentration exam should be taken as soon as possible after the student has completed the core exam, and the required nine credit hours of concentration coursework. The concentration exam is developed and evaluated by the student’s guidance committee. The exam itself consists of two parts.

Part 1. Portfolio and Reflective Essay (50%)

For the PhD concentration exam, the student submits a portfolio of work that pertains to the concentration. This portfolio should provide samples of the student’s learning in the concentration courses, typically, 3–5 products (course papers, syllabi and instructional materials, electronic material, conference presentations, any outside work that pertains to the student’s development in the concentration, etc.). It must also include a reflective essay that shows the student synthesizing knowledge gained across the concentration courses and that narrates the products included in the portfolio.

Part 2. Review Essay and Annotated Bibliography (50%)

The second half of the concentration exam consists of two parts: a review essay (25 double-spaced pages, maximum, not including works cited) and an annotated bibliography (40–70 sources) addressing the topic, issue, or question that has been designated as the focus of the review essay.

The review essay should:

  • review, and evaluate research/scholarship related to a question or issue of significance to the discipline, and of interest to the student, related to the concentration; the essay should make an argument based on the student’s use & understanding of the sources contained in the annotated bibliography; the essay should NOT merely summarize or survey those texts.
  • function as an argument for the relevance of selected literature in understanding the chosen concentration area as an area. The review essay is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of research and scholarship in the selected area, nor of all the texts on the annotated bibliography; instead, the essay should use a selection of those texts in a meaningful way.
  • be limited to 25 double-spaced pages or the equivalent, not including the Works Cited or the annotated bibliography; any essay that is over, or substantially under, the 25 page limit will not be accepted for purposes of the exam.
  • draw research and scholarship primarily from the annotated bibliography.

The annotated bibliography should:

  • be a list of 40–70 sources;
  • be vetted by the guidance committee;
  • include short (1–2 paragraph) annotations that describe and suggest the relevance of each entry to the guiding question/topic for the literature review;
  • be organized in a rhetorically meaningful way, suggesting possible themes or issues to be mapped out or taken up in the review essay.

The Process for completing the concentration exam is as follows:

1. In consultation with her/his guidance committee, the student develops a guiding topic, issue, or question on a focus topic within the concentration area.

2. This process of consultation is informal but contains some important components: first, the guidance committee has a chance to consult with the student regarding the scope of the guiding topic, issue or question in order to insure it is narrow enough to be completed within the limits of the concentration exam requirements; second, the guidance committee has a chance to respond to a draft of the student’s list of sources to be annotated for the exam; third, the student will propose a timeline for the exam submission, generally within 12-15 weeks after the guiding topic, issue or question has been approved by the guidance committee.

3. When the review essay and annotated bibliography are completed, the student submits both parts of the concentration exam (portfolio, and literature review essay plus annotated bibliography) to the guidance committee chair and to the graduate secretary.

4. Two weeks after the exam is submitted, the guidance committee submits to the student a written evaluation of the exam. See Section 5.0 of this handbook for details on how the PhD concentration exam is evaluated.

5. The guidance committee chair completes and signs the appropriate section of the Examination Record form.