Comprehensive Exams

Timing of Exams

Exams are offered each August and January.

Candidates for the M.Phil. take written and oral examinations in a major and a minor field in August before the third year of study. Students may be excused from examinations only by permission of the Director of Graduate Studies, who may request documentary evidence of medical or other reasons that prevent a student from taking exams at the scheduled time.

With adviser and Director of Graduate Studies permission, students may take one or more exams in January of their second year.

Exam Fields

The four major subfields for examination are: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Students select a major field from among these. Students select a minor field from among the four major fields, or they may select a defined minor in economics, quantitative methods, political economic theory, or law, or they may petition to pursue an individually designed special minor.

Exam Eligibility

In order to take comprehensive exams, students must

  • Be in good academic standing
  • Have earned the M.A. (or equivalent transfer credit)
  • Maintain a 3.5 GPA in Political Science courses
  • Carry no more than one mark of “IN” on his or her transcript.

Students who have been notified that their progress is not satisfactory and who have not met stated requirements for gaining satisfactory academic standing prior to the exams will not be allowed to take them, and will be considered to have failed the exams one time.

Study Resources

Archived exams and subfield-specific study resources are available here.

There are two parts to the exams, written and oral. Oral exams take place after all grades for written exams have been submitted, approximately two weeks after written exam dates.

Written examinations are administered in an electronic classroom on a specified date for each field. Majors write two essays, take a one-hour lunch break, and then write a third essay. Minors write two essays in the morning.

Each essay is graded by a faculty member who serves as “first" reader for that essay. A second reader is assigned to grade each exam in its entirety. Hence, each essay receives two grades, one from the “first” reader and one from the “second” reader, who reads all three essays of a major exam or the two essays of a minor exam.

Student names are not revealed to faculty graders, and faculty grader identities are not revealed to students.

Oral examinations are conducted by three faculty members. This orals committee recommends a final grade of distinction, pass, or fail for the entire exam, taking into consideration the student’s performance on both the written and oral components.

Passing Comprehensive Exams and Continuation Toward the Ph.D.

If the orals committee awards a passing grade on the comprehensive exams, the presumption is that the student will be approved for Ph.D. candidacy and the dissertation unless the Director of Graduate Studies has identified problems in the student record that require a faculty discussion about the student’s ability to continue in the doctoral program. In such a case the faculty will discuss whether the student shall receive a terminal M.Phil. (contingent on satisfaction of all M.Phil. requirements). In this deliberation, the entirety of the student’s record and performance is considered. The review may encompass all elements of good academic standing: grades, the quality of the student’s research papers, performance at Mini-APSA, and the performance on the comprehensive exams.

Failure on the First Attempt

A student who fails a comprehensive exam on the first attempt will receive written feedback from the orals committee regarding the reasons for the failure and the areas in which improvement is needed (students who pass may see the chair of the oral examining committee for comments). This feedback will be provided by the Director of Graduate Studies no later than two weeks after the student was notified of the outcome of the exam. The feedback will include:

  • copies of all first reader and second reader evaluation forms with the names of faculty graders redacted;
  • a summary statement written by members of the oral examination committee that explains the decision to give the student a failing grade;
  • the names of all the faculty members who served as graders of the written exam.

Students who fail an exam on the first attempt have the right to meet individually with members of the oral exam committee to receive additional feedback.

A student who fails an exam may be re-examined only once, in whichever field was failed. Re-examination must take place at the next examination date. Upon re-examination, a student is guaranteed the right, which he or she may waive, to at least one new member on the orals committee for the second exam.

Failure on the Second Attempt

A student who fails a comprehensive exam a second time is not eligible to receive the M.Phil. and may not continue toward Ph.D. candidacy. In the event of a student failing a comprehensive exam a second time, no sooner than two weeks after the result has been reported to the student the Director of Graduate Studies will confer with the administration of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, typically the dean of academic affairs, regarding the termination of the student's candidacy for the Ph.D. GSAS will proceed with the formal termination of candidacy by sending an official letter to the student and copying relevant faculty and administrators.

Students who wish to file a formal complaint about the outcome of their exam can do so through the Director of Graduate Studies up to two weeks after receiving the result. Appeals to formal dismissal may be pursued according to the GSAS process for appealing termination of candidacy.

Students can register concerns about any aspect of comprehensive exams process with the Director of Graduate Studies at any time.