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 at least two months in advance of taking 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–typically no later than the fall semester of the student’s third year in the program. The core exam consists of two parts.
Part 1. Portfolio and Reflective Essay (50%)
For the PhD core exam, the student should submit a portfolio of work that pertains 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.
At least one week prior to the date the student receives the questions for the one-week take-home exam, the student must submit a copy of the portfolio to both the chair of the guidance committee and to the graduate secretary.
Part 2. Take-Home Exam (50%)
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 developed by the student and her/his guidance committee. The process works as follows:
- At least two 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.
- The student then develops a list of 4-6 topics, issues, or questions arising from their PhD core course work and on which they wish to be examined. The topics should show that the student is making connections across and between the core courses.
- At least one month before the scheduled take-home exam, the student submits this list to the guidance committee.
The guidance committee revises the student’s list into a set of appropriate exam questions. If there are substantial changes to the student’s original list, the committee chair communicates this to the student.
- On the agreed-upon date, the guidance committee sends 3 of these revised questions 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 to which to respond, and has one week to prepare responses, each limited to 15 double-spaced pages or the equivalent. 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 not consult directly with other people, nor seek personal help in preparing the exam responses.
- One week (7 calendar days) after receiving the exam questions, the student submit 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 response to 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).
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.
Part 2. Review of Literature Essay and Annotated Bibliography (50%)
The second half of the concentration exam consists of two parts: a literature review essay (25 double-spaced pages) plus annotated bibliography (40-70 sources) addressing a topic, issue, or question within the concentration.
The purpose of this literature review essay is not only to test the student’s knowledge of key sources within the concentration, but also to provide an opportunity for the student to situate her/his own work in this area within the discipline, and to serve as a segue to the dissertation. In fact, the review might well (but does not have to) become a chapter in an eventual dissertation.
The literature review essay should:
- collect, review, and evaluate research and scholarship related to a question or issue of significance to the discipline and of interest to the student;
- include a reflective essay that shows the student synthesizing knowledge gained across the core courses;
- functions as an implicit 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;
- be limited to 25 double-spaced pages or the equivalent, not including the annotated bibliography; and
- draw research and scholarship from the annotated bibliography.
This 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 guiding questions on a focus topic within the concentration area.
2. Two months prior to taking the concentration exams, the student submits to the guidance committee a short proposal (no more than one single-spaced page) indicating her/his plans for the literature review: What topic, issue, or question will be discussed? How is that matter of significance to the field? What key sources will the student consider? What is the student’s general approach, methodology, or theoretical framework for understanding the matter?
3. The proposal must also include a timeline for exam submission.
4. At this stage, the guidance committee may recommend that the student consult additional sources or adjust the direction of the review.
5. Once the guidance committee approves the proposed plan, the student sets a date by which both parts of the concentration exam will be submitted.
6. The student submits both parts of the concentration exam (portfolio, and literature review essay and bibliography) to the guidance committee chair and to the graduate secretary.
7. 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.
8. The guidance committee chair completes and signs the appropriate section of the Examination Record form.