Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts
Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive Exams

Doctoral students are required to take comprehensive examinations after they complete required coursework. The goals of the comprehensive exams are to evaluate students’ mastery of their chosen field and to determine whether they are prepared to succeed in their dissertation research. Comprehensive exams are to be scheduled within a year after the completion of coursework but no later than five years after the passing of the Qualifying Exam. All comps are administered, overseen, and evaluated by a student’s Ph.D. committee. Each member of the committee writes a question that assesses a student’s knowledge of a content domain, broadly defined. Whereas some questions might ask students to look backwards and summarize aspects of course content they encountered, other questions might ask students to look forward and propose extensions to existing research and novel research ideas.

The format of the exam should be discussed with each committee member and can take one of several forms. Comprehensive exam questions can range from a timed, in-house exam that can be closed book, open book, open note, on so on. They can also be presented in the form of a paper on a topic written over the course of days, weeks, or months. For any paper written over a given time period, the scope and expectations for the finished product vary based on the timeline. If a student is enrolled in a dual-title degree program, the requirements of that program must be incorporated into the Comprehensive Exams, and the dual-title faculty representative must be a part of the examination process.  

To be eligible to take the comprehensive exams, students must be in good academic standing and be a registered student during the semester in which comps are taken. Students must also have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and not have any deferred or missing grades. A favorable vote from at least two-thirds of the Ph.D. committee is required to pass the comprehensive exams. If a period of more than six years elapses between the passing of the comprehensive exams and the completion of the program, the student is required to pass a second set of comprehensive exams before the final oral defense can be scheduled.

Comprehensive Exams: Additional Details 

The student drafts and submits written answers to questions from each committee member based on their intended areas of academic expertise and subsequently participates in oral evaluation of those written answers with the committee as a whole. (Each student works with their permanent advisor and the department’s graduate program assistant to schedule their examinations and oral defense ahead of time.)  

  • The format of comprehensive exams varies across areas of the department and across advisory committees. Questions can range from timed in-house exams to a paper on a topic written over the course of days, weeks, or months.  

  • Consists of written and oral portions  

  • Must be registered for credits during the semester the exams are taking place (even during summer session)  

  • Written portion should be scheduled with Graduate Staff Assistant three weeks prior to the oral examination  

  • Graduate Staff Assistant will collect questions from committee members  

  • Graduate Staff Assistant will schedule room and computer for written portion (if needed)  

  • Student will pick up questions as scheduled from the Graduate Staff Assistant and return upon completion with response  

  • The Graduate Staff Assistant, in consultation with the student or advisory committee, will complete the comprehensive exam cover page for each question.   

  • Graduate Staff Assistant will distribute all responses to all committee members  

  • Student will secure day and time from committee members for oral defense  

  • Student will notify graduate staff assistant of oral defense time (must have at least two weeks’ notice)  

  • Graduate Staff Assistant will schedule room, notify committee members and Graduate School  

  • Graduate School will prepare all required paperwork and forward to department