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Comprehensive Exam and Dissertation Proposal

It is strongly recommended that students take the Comprehensive Examination no later than six months after successful completion of the Qualifying Examination.

In order to prepare for the Comprehensive Exam, a student must first form the dissertation committee and produce a dissertation proposal.

The dissertation committee consists of five faculty members, including at least three faculty members from American Studies and one outside member. The committee chair must be a full graduate faculty in American Studies. The outside member must be a full graduate faculty in another department in UHM. In certain circumstances and with the approval of the Graduate Chair, the outside member may be a faculty member at another university. Students should consult with the Graduate Chair as well as the committee chair as they form the committee so that the committee as a whole would provide a range of expertise and support that would be useful for the dissertation project.

A strong dissertation proposal is critical to successful completion of the dissertation, as it becomes the road map for the research and writing in the coming years. The dissertation proposal also becomes the basis for applications for research grants and fellowships. Students should thus take the proposal very seriously and put a great deal of effort into it. A solid proposal requires multiple revisions, and students should work closely with the committee in the course of producing the proposal. The content and format for the dissertation proposal vary depending on the nature of the project, but all proposals must include: (1) project overview, describing the topic, research question, argument, and significance; (2) sources and methods, identifying the key primary sources and describing the methods to be used for analysis; (3) literature review, summarizing the findings and arguments made by other scholars and writers on relevant issues and discussing what the dissertation would add to existing scholarship; and (4) chapter outline, summarizing the materials to be addressed and arguments to be made in each chapter. The proposal must also include a bibliography listing both primary and secondary sources. While there is no minimum or maximum length for the proposal, typically a solid proposal is no less than 15 double-spaced pages, not including the bibliography.  Samples of successful dissertation proposals submitted by previous or current graduate students are available for review for registered students.

Once the entire committee has approved the proposal, the student must schedule the Comprehensive Exam with the Graduate Chair. The Comprehensive Exam is an oral discussion of the dissertation proposal with the entire dissertation committee. The purpose of the exam is to evaluate the rigor and significance of the proposed research and the student’s preparedness for undertaking the project. During the exam, the student may first make a brief oral statement about the proposed research. The committee members will then ask questions and make comments and suggestions on the proposal, and the student is expected to defend her project.

Upon successful completion of the Comprehensive Examination, students earn ABD (All-But-Dissertation) status and proceed to dissertation research and writing. The Office of Graduate Education rules state that any student who fails the Comprehensive Examination twice will be dropped from the PhD program.