Preliminary Field Examinations


“Prelims” constitute an important stage in the progress of a History graduate student.  Having completed coursework, students are called upon to demonstrate a comprehensive command of historiographical issues and scholarship in three fields, showing their readiness to teach in broad fields. The process of constructing lists for these exams, reading in the lists, organizing the information and interpretations gleaned from this reading into a broad conceptualization of each field, discussing these concepts with examiners, and then completing each exam constitutes an important pedagogical moment distinct from coursework, on one hand, and dissertation research and writing, on the other.

Passing or better results on written and oral prelims convey the department’s confidence in 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.

Preliminary written examinations consist of three fields, one major and two minor. Four courses must be taken for the major field and two for each of the minor fields. Exam fields are broad fields of study (see the current list), not specific topics or research interests. Not all reading for preliminary examinations is usually satisfied in the courses taken for each field. The major field exam requires a substantial background in the 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 and consult regularly.

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. Please make sure to submit the preliminary exam schedule by the last day of the semester prior to the semester you plan to begin taking preliminary examinations. You must be registered the entire semester for your preliminary exams and oral defense.

All coursework for your fields must be completed at the time you begin your exams and your PhD Portfolio approved. It is acceptable to be finishing a final requirement or two if they are not courses required for a prelim exam you are taking during the same semester. Language requirements must be completed before the oral exam.

Students may take the course labeled 597P (with the DGS) during the semester preceding or during prelims as directed readings preparatory to prelims.

Once students complete all three written preliminary exams and pass the oral preliminary defense they are officially advanced to candidacy.

Files of previous exams are available on the Department Forms web page under "Written Preliminary Exams." Some prelim committees will have specific core bibliographies and directives regarding the exam; others expect students to prepare their own lists in consultation with the examiners. See below for more details.

Most important, since different faculty have different approaches, be sure to consult with your examiners regarding lists, the content and format of the exam, and expectations.

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: Thematic/comparative fields should not be wholly contained in any one geographical/chronological field, and must contain significant subject matter from at least two geographical/chronological fields. Such fields should not be constructed narrowly.

  • “constructed fields”: a field designed in consultation with the primary 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 taking a constructed field must submit a one-page description of the field and a sample bibliography with their PhD program plan (the "portfolio"). Constructed fields should be of comparable breadth to existing approved fields.

  • One field outside the department: Students wishing to take a field outside the department, which we welcome and encourage, should discuss their plans with their primary advisor(s).

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:  The prelim fields must be structured so that collectively they satisfy the following distributional 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.

  • At least one must involve a substantially different geographical area than the major field (if the major field is geographical-chronological).

Examination Committees:  Each field is examined by a committee of two faculty members, chosen by the student preferably 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.  

Each written prelim is composed by a separate committee selected by the student and their advisor. Many faculty will not serve on a prelim exam with students who have not taken a course with them.

All preliminary examinations, including the oral exam, must be completed within two successive semesters, not including summer. The precise timing should be developed by the student in agreement with their primary advisor and the DGS, within these parameters:

  1. Exams should be scheduled between the first day of classes and the end of the final exam period for fall semester and between the first day of classes and  April 15 for spring semester;

  2. Exams should be scheduled for Tuesdays or Thursdays.

It is the student’s responsibility to contact the two examiners in each of their three fields and arrange an appropriate date for the written exams, and submit this schedule to the graduate secretary before the end of the semester prior to that in which the first exam is to be taken.

Preliminary Examination Reading Lists:  Some fields have master lists agreed upon by all the faculty who serve on exam committees in that field.  In other cases individual faculty have lists that they supply to students interested in working with them on a particular field, or they will encourage you to formulate a list, as part of your prelim preparation, and then work with you to refine it. Students should consult the field pages and their examiners for information on lists.  The HGSA is considering a site for posting recent lists in various fields.

Usually the process of preliminary exam preparation involves tailoring lists, or constructing them from scratch, to reflect the balance between broad field preparation and specific research interests of the student that is expected of a preliminary examination. Students and examiners should begin this process early through a series of meetings that precede the exam.  This work can begin as early as a student identifies specific fields for the prelims and faculty who will serve his/her prelim exams in those fields. 

Structure and Administration of Exams:  Preliminary Examinations themselves take a variety of forms but there are some departmental conventions.  The exam may be divided into several sections, chronologically or thematically distinct, with a choice of questions to answer in each section.  Or the exam may feature five or six questions from which the student is to choose.  Most exams ask for the student to answer three questions.

Preliminary exams are offered on a take-home basis and examiners expect you to spend seven hours thinking and writing. The exam is to be picked up in the history office at 8:30 a.m. (leaving time to return to your work location) and must be emailed to the Graduate Secretary by 4:30 p.m. If alternative arrangements are needed for a place to take the exam, we will strive to provide a space in the department when possible.   

Any substantive exceptions to the normal procedure and timing of written exams must be petitioned to the DGS at least one month prior to the scheduled exam.

In case of failure in an exam, the student may petition the Graduate Studies Committee, via the DGS, to retake the exam. A petition must include a written recommendation from the primary advisor and the approval of the field examiners. Failure to take a scheduled exam will be treated as a failure on the exam.

Preliminary Exam Preparation Guidelines and Expectations for Examiners and Examinees

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 agreement on the scope and function of prelims, and also areas where faculty differ in ways that are fruitful for our scholarly life.  The important thing is for students and examiners to communicate and clarify reasonable expectations, even if these vary somewhat across exams.

Guiding Assumptions

Preliminary examination fields are FIELDS, not topics or research interests.  The reading lists, however constituted, are accordingly deep and wide-ranging so as to provide the basis for a demonstration not only of mastery of specific interests but also knowledge of general historiographical trends and important scholarship in the field.  Faculty have varied approaches to the question of what kinds of material should be included in a prelim field list.   The scope of the field, its inclusion of work in related disciplines, the potential significance of theoretical or methodological works, etc. are issues that should be discussed with examiners while preparing field lists for each exam.

Coursework in a field cannot completely prepare a student for a prelim.  Though you will have done much reading in problems courses taken to fulfill field requirements, these courses fulfill many other functions: provocation of scholarly debate on topics that are smaller than fields, exploration of recent historiographical turns that may not represent the full extent of scholarship over time, etc.  Students should therefore expect to do significant additional reading in preparation for prelims.  The department regards this process of reading and knowledge production as an important pedagogical process of its own.

Our faculty’s varied interests and scholarly methods are expressed in their diverse approaches to prelims, from the questions of field construction addressed above to the kinds of answers they look for.  Some expect answers that demonstrate the student’s familiarity with historiographical debate, others expect a narrative that relies upon but doesn’t foreground historiography.  The department does not legislate on these issues.  Faculty and students should meet to clarify expectations about a prelim during the planning stages.

Expectations of Examiners

Examiners will either have available a list of books for each field in which they participate, whether it be an agreed upon field list or an individual list from which the student’s particular field list will be constructed, or be ready to guide student-initiated construction of a list.

Examiners will be reasonably accommodating to students seeking their participation in an exam in their field.  Though it is certainly desirable that the student have taken a course with each examiner, this cannot be generally held as an absolute requirement, as exam preparation is a departmental responsibility of all faculty and our generous leave policies eventuate in faculty not always offering courses when students who would like to work with them are doing coursework.

Examiners will meet regularly with students for whom they have committed to writing an exam.  At least three meetings are recommended, more are desirable.  The initial meeting at which a faculty member initials the Preliminary Examination Planning form should include a discussion of a future meeting schedules.  In addition, the examiner should make note of when the prelim is scheduled to ensure they are available to prepare the exam in consultation with the other examiner (a week before the exam) and 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; discuss the knowledge and issues the student is gleaning from their reading, and discuss expectations with regard to the exam itself.  These should include the general structure of the exam (how many questions, whether they will be divided into categories, etc.); as well as the kind of information that the examiner will be looking for in answers (narrative with minimal historiographical discussion, or primarily a discussion of historiographical debate, etc.). It is the responsibility of the examiner as well as the student to schedule these meetings.

Expectations of Examinees (students)

Students will pay attention to paperwork required for the scheduling of exams, including the Ph.D. Portfolio Review which must be submitted prior to the Preliminary Examination Plan.  The Preliminary Examination Plan must be submitted to the Graduate Secretary by the end of the semester BEFORE the semester in which the student plans to start taking preliminary examinations.

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

Students will work with examiners to schedule appointments to discuss the crafting of a list for the field, to discuss the knowledge the student is gaining from reading the list, and to clarify expectations for the exam.  It is the responsibility of the student as well as the examiner to schedule these meetings.

Examinees will carefully prepare themselves on the basis of the lists prior to the exam day.  The take-home administration of prelims in no way diminishes the importance of careful reading, note-taking, synthesis, and discussion of your reading. The time allowed for take-home exams and availability of books and notes DOES NOT permit extensive consultation of sources.  Critical reading and interpretive synthesis of the materials on each reading list needs to take place in the several months prior to each exam and exams should reflect such preparation.

Note that every student must sign an honor code statement before taking prelims, as follows:   “In composing written preliminary examinations for the Department of History, I agree to abide by University regulations concerning academic integrity, particularly with regard to the use of pre-written material in this exam.  I understand that I may not insert pre-written blocks of text into the exam.  I have clarified any uncertainties about this honor code statement with the DGS.”  You should be aware that promising not to insert pre-written blocks of text means promising not to paste OR type material that you have already composed.  THE PRELIM MUST BE COMPOSED OF TEXT NEWLY WRITTEN ON THE SCHEDULED DAY OF THE EXAM