Preliminary Field Examinations

Overview

“Prelims” constitute an important stage in the training and preparation of the professional historian.  Having completed their coursework, students are called upon to demonstrate a comprehensive command of historiographical debates, trends, and scholarship in three fields, one major and two minor.

Preparation for each examination, regardless of the chosen format, involves a substantial amount of work and some degree of stress for every student. Close coordination between examiners and students are essential for the success of the prelims process, as well as for an individual exam’s outcome. Clear communication about standards and expectations, as well as regular consultation and discussion, are required of all parties.

Passing or exemplary performance on all of these examinations is evidence of a student’s readiness for teaching responsibilities in the examined fields, participation in debates involving those fields within the larger discipline, and independent research and writing of the dissertation.

Four courses must be taken in preparation for the major field and two for each of the minor fields.

Exam fields (see the current list) are broad fields of study, not specific topics or research interests. As such, not all reading for preliminary exams is typically satisfied by the coursework in each field. The major field exam, in particular, requires a substantial background in the historical literature of the field. Minor fields generally require a survey knowledge of the field and familiarity with major historiographical and thematic issues within it. Students should consult with their examiners early in the  process about the appropriate preparation for each of their field examinations.

Students entering with an MA typically take prelim exams during their third year in the program. Students entering with a BA typically complete exams during their fourth year. All should be sure to submit the Preliminary Examination Schedule by the last day of the semester prior to the semester when they plan to begin the exam process. Students must be registered the entire semester when taking preliminary exams and preparing for the oral defense of their dissertation proposal.

All coursework for the examined fields must typically be completed by the time exams begin, and the PhD portfolio should be submitted and approved the semester before. It is acceptable to be completing  a final requirement or two, if these are not courses required for a prelim exam being taken during the same semester. Language requirements must be completed before the final oral exam.

Students may take the course labeled 597P (under the CRN of the DGS) during the semester preceding or during prelims, in order to prepare for exams.

Once students have passed all three field exams and the oral preliminary defense of the dissertation proposal, they are officially advanced to PhD candidacy (ABD or “all but dissertation” status).

Files of previous exams are available on the Department Forms webpage under Preliminary Exams. An archive of exam reading lists is also available. Some field examiners will maintain core bibliographies; others expect students to prepare their own lists in consultation with the examiners. In all cases, reading lists may include primary sources and pedagogical materials, digital resources, seminal articles, and films as well as books. As affirmed by an official vote of the faculty in May 2021, major field lists should typically consist of ~80-100 items; minor fields of ~40-50 items.

 

Types of Fields Examined

  • geographical/chronological: Examples of this type of field include Modern Europe, Africa, China, Latin America, and United States history since 1830.
  • thematic/comparative: These fields should not be wholly contained in any one geographical/chronological area and must contain significant subject matter from at least two geographical/chronological fields. Such fields should not be constructed narrowly.
  • “constructed fields”: This is a field designed in consultation with examiners and with the approval of the student’s advisor. The constructed field may overlap, either chronologically or topically, with one or more of the standard examination fields, but it may not be wholly contained within any of them. Students proposing a constructed field must submit a one-page description and a sample bibliography with their PhD portfolio, the semester prior to beginning the exam process. Constructed fields should be of comparable breadth to existing fields.
  • external field: Students wishing to take a field outside the department, which we welcome and encourage, should discuss their plans with their primary advisor(s).
  • unexamined field: students who take at least two additional courses in a particular field may identify it as a third minor, unexamined field.

 

Geographical, Chronological, and Thematic Requirements

 Prelim fields must be structured so that, collectively, they satisfy the following requirements:

  • at least one must be geographical/chronological.
  • at least one must be comparative/thematic.
  • at least one must, in whole or substantial part, cover a period prior to 1815 (U.S) or 1798 (Europe).
  • At least one must involve a substantially different geographical area than the major field (if the major field is geographical-chronological).
     


Examination Committees and Reading Lists

Each field is examined by a committee of two faculty members, chosen by the student in consultation with their  advisor.  The members of each examination committee make their commitment to the student’s exam by initialing the Preliminary Examination Schedule (see Departmental Forms). Only 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.  

It is the student’s responsibility to contact the two examiners in each of their three fields, to consult with them on the format of the exam, and to arrange an appropriate schedule for writing exams or submitting portfolios and essays.

The process of preliminary exam preparation usually involves tailoring existing reading lists or constructing them from scratch, in order to reflect the balance between broad field preparation and the specific research, teaching, an professional goals of the student. Students and examiners should begin this process early through a series of meetings that precede the exam.


Timing of Exams

All preliminary examinations, including the oral exam, must usually be completed within two successive semesters, and can include the summer semester. The precise timing should be developed by the student in agreement with their primary advisor and their examiners, within the following parameters.

  1. Exams, in all formats, should be completed between the first day of classes and the end of the final exam period during the fall semester and between the first day of classes and April 15th during the spring semester. (This deadline enables timely evaluation of the exam before the department determines the student’s eligibility for funding; this is especially important for students who plan take up an ABD fellowship in the coming year – although exemptions can be granted via petition.)  Exams during the summer semester must be completed by the last day of the final exam period in August.
  2. Take-home exams (see below) should be scheduled for Tuesdays or Thursdays only.

 

Preliminary Examination Formats  

 In consultation with the examiners, students will select one of the following options for completing each of their major and minor field exams. The format should be determined during the formulation of the reading list for each field.

Questions about graduate and undergraduate pedagogy may be part of any exam format.

I. Major Field Exam

  • Alternative A: completion of a take-home exam over an 8-hour period, usually beginning at 8:30am and ending at 4:30pm on a Tuesday or Thursday, sent and received by email. The number of questions and topics can vary, but the total length of responses is typically about 6,000 words (~24 double-spaced pages). Students will be asked to affirm in writing that they have not prepared any portions of the exam in advance, and they should not be given the exact questions in advance. Students who need an accommodation to allow for more time can petition the DGS and GSC. The department also works with DRES and honors those accommodations as appropriate.
     
  • Alternative B: an historiographical essay (about 10-15,000 words) written over the course of a single semester and due by the last day of of the final exam period (fall and summer semesters) or by April 15th (spring semester). The essay will analyze and synthesize the reading list, identifying major themes and trends in the history of the field and the current state of research. Students are welcome and encouraged to share drafts of the essay with examiners and to incorporate their feedback in the final product.
  • Alternative C: an oral examination up to two hours in length, to be scheduled by the last day of of the final exam period (fall and summer semesters) or by April 15th (spring semester).

II. Minor Field Exams

  • Alternative A: completion of a take-home exam over an 8-hour period, usually beginning at 8:30am and ending at 4:30pm on a Tuesday or Thursday, sent and received by email. The number of questions will vary, but the total length of responses is typically about 4,000 words or 18 double-spaced pages. Students will be asked to affirm in writing that they have not prepared any portions of the exam in advance, and they should not be given the exact questions in advance. Students who need an accommodation to allow for more time can petition the DGS and GSC. The department also works with DRES and honors those accommodations as appropriate.
     
  • Alternative B: an historiographical essay of approximately 6-8,000 words, written in response to the examiners’ prompt (or choice of prompts) during the course of a single semester, due by the last day of of the final exam period (fall and summer semesters) or by April 15th (spring semester). Students are welcome and encouraged to share drafts of the essay with examiners and to incorporate their feedback in the final product.
     
  • Alternative C: an oral examination up to 90 minutes in length, to be scheduled before the last day of classes (Fall semester) or by April 1st (Spring semester).
     
  • Alternative D: a portfolio of materials for teaching the field or engaging in public-facing scholarship and education in the field, due by the last day of classes (Fall semester) or by April 15th (Spring semester).
    • For teaching, such a portfolio should include a detailed and annotated syllabus for an upper-level undergraduate class, with additional readings for graduate students. It should include the topics of all class meetings; sample assignments, prompts, and exams; and a narrative explaining the theory and desired learning outcomes that shape the structure and contents of the course. It should also include a statement of teaching philosophy for approaching this particular field, including a reflection on how the course meets standards and goals for diversity and inclusion. Students are welcome and encouraged to share drafts of portfolio materials with examiners and to incorporate their feedback in the final product.
    • For public-facing scholarship and education, the student should develop a plan and written prospectus in consultation with the examiners, outlining in detail the components of the portfolio, which could include both written and creative elements (digital humanities, oral history, media, performance, etc.); and agreeing on the goals for the portfolio and the standards for determining its success. As with any other exam format, examiners must have the necessary expertise for evaluating the quality of the work and its engagement with the field.
       

Evaluation of Exams

Exams, in any format, will be graded Pass or Fail, with an exceptional performance designated as Pass with Distinction.  In the case of failure, the student may petition the Graduate Studies Committee, via the DGS, to retake the exam and even to change the format of the exam. A petition must include a written recommendation from the primary advisor and the approval of the examiners.

Students also deserve meaningful feedback on their exams, in addition to knowing whether or not they have passed. Examiners may coordinate in offering comments or may do so individually, in either written or oral forms.

 

Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines and Expectations for Faculty and Students

Agreement on guiding assumptions and expectations of the student and examiners is vital to the successful completion of exams.  There are areas of broad departmental consensus on the scope and function of prelims, and also areas where individual faculty differ in ways that are fruitful for our scholarly life.  Our faculty’s varied interests and scholarly methods are also expressed in their diverse approaches to prelims, from the questions of field construction to their ways of evaluating a student’s success.  The important thing is for students and examiners to communicate and clarify reasonable expectations, even if these vary to a certain degree.

 

Expectations of Examiners

Examiners will either have available a list of books for each field in which they participate or be ready to guide student-initiated construction of a list.

Examiners will be reasonably accommodating to students seeking their participation in an exam.  Though it is certainly desirable that the student have taken a course with each examiner, this cannot be an absolute requirement; exam preparation is a departmental responsibility of all faculty. Indeed, our generous leave policies inevitably eventuate in faculty not offering courses when students may need them.

Examiners will meet regularly with students whom they have committed to examining.  An initial meeting, at which faculty initial the Preliminary Exam Scheduling Form should include a discussion of a future meetings, the scope and construction of the reading list, and the appropriate format of the exam (see above).  In addition, the examiner should make note of when the prelim is scheduled, in order to ensure that they are available to prepare the exam in consultation with the other examiner and to evaluate the exam in a timely fashion (normally within one week).

Meetings between examiners and examinees will be used to shape a list that is broad, serviceable to a student’s needs, and reflective of the examiner’s views of the requirements for field proficiency; to discuss the knowledge and insights that the student is developing; and to discuss expectations with regard to the exam itself.  These should include the general structure of the exam as well as the examiner’s standards for evaluating its successful completion.  

 

Expectations of Students

Students attend to the paperwork required for the scheduling of exams, including the Ph.D. Portfolio which must be submitted and approved the semester before the exam process begins, and the Preliminary Exam Scheduling Form, which must be submitted to the Graduate Secretary by the end of the semester before the first exam.

Students will seek out potential examiners well before the start of their exams, to obtain or generate field lists and to discuss the potential examiners’ general approach to that field, and to establish the examiners’ willingness to work with the student in the field.

Students will then work with examiners to determine the format of the exam and to craft the reading list, to discuss the student’s is gaining from reading the progress, and to clarify expectations for the exam.  It is the responsibility of the student as well as the examiner to schedule these meetings.