Graduate Program Guidelines for Comprehensive Exams

About these guidelines

These guidelines are intended as an overview to taking comprehensive exams. They are not intended to supplant arrangements you make with your committee. Individual professors may make arrangements with you that take precedence over these guidelines.

Basic exam information

Political Science graduate students who choose the comprehensive elective to fulfill their culminating experience requirement must take two separate exams in two of the following three subfields of political science: American politics, political theory or comparative politics.

Students who wish to take the comprehensive exams must have taken both the core seminar in that subfield as well as one graduate-level elective in that same subfield.

No additional credits are offered for taking the exams, although sometimes students do supplement their reading by enrolling in PLSI 899 (independent study) with the appropriate faculty member. Taking an 899 does not change the requirement to take a graduate elective in the subfield.

In general, exams must be taken during the regular academic year, in fall or spring semesters.

Committee selection

Students are responsible for selecting an exam committee, which consists of two faculty members from the Political Science Department. Each committee member will be responsible for one subfield exam. It is best if committee members are faculty members who taught the student in either the core or elective seminars in the subfields in which the student is taking the exams. Be aware that sometimes faculty members may not be able to work with you because of time constraints or other factors. For this reason it is a good idea, where possible, to take at least one subfield elective from an instructor other than the individual who taught the core seminar.

Students should generally expect to meet with their committee members individually at least two or three times throughout the semester to discuss expectations for the exams and review assigned materials.

Readings: content and number

Material included on the exams will include books, scholarly articles and other literature from the chosen subfields. Usually these are considered key texts in the field. Texts will be drawn primarily from the core seminar and electives taken in this subfield. Additional materials may be added to the list by the instructor, student, or both. Depending on the instructor and the subfield, a typical number of texts per subfield might range from 15 to 45 (which would include at least 10 books, in addition to book chapters and articles).

Students should expect to be able to identify and evaluate the significance and/or main argument of the texts, and discuss them in some detail.

Format and length of exams

Exams are conducted on a written, take-home format. Students and committee members will arrange a suitable time. Depending on the instructor, students normally seven to 14 days to complete the exam for a subfield. Exams should be taken in the same semester, and often (but not always) are arranged so that students will take them back-to-back. For example, they take one exam in one subfield in one week, and the next exam in the next subfield the next week.

Faculty members vary in the number of questions they ask students to answer, but most will ask two or three questions. Students are usually, but not always, given a choice of questions to answer (i.e., they are asked to answer three out of five questions). Exam questions are usually drafted by faculty members, sometimes individually or sometimes in coordination with the other committee members, although sometimes the student may be involved in drafting an exam question. Depending on the instructor and the arrangement between student and instructor, these questions will be emailed or collected in hard copy by the student.

Exam essays are generally between 10 - 15 pages each, depending on how many questions the students are asked to answer. Total writing for exams in both subfields usually works out to between 60 and 80 pages. Students should work closely with committee members to ensure expectations are clear; in general, essays should demonstrate mastery of the assigned literature, make connections across topics, and provide critical comment.

At the discretion of the committee members, if a student fails an exam he or she may be permitted to take that exam again. Failure to pass the exam a second time will result in a failure to receive the degree. Note that there is no guarantee that committee members will permit a student to take an exam again, especially in cases of plagiarism.


Exams are graded pass or no pass. If students are taking an indepedent study course (PLSI 899) in conjunction with an exam, this grade for the course will be given as a letter grade.