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Qualifying Exams

The Qualifying Examinations constitute a critical stage in a PhD student’s development as a scholar. After completing the exams, the student should have mastered two fields of specialization, be prepared to teach general American Studies courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and laid the groundwork for dissertation research. American Studies students must demonstrate scholarly competence in three fields: a general survey of the discipline and two specialized fields of the student’s choice. There is a written and oral component to the examinations. Full-time students should finish their exams within six months of completing their coursework, generally at the end of their third year of study.

Part I: Preparation and Approval of Fields

a) General Field:
The general field of the Qualifying Examinations tests students’ mastery of American Studies as an academic discipline. To do so, the student works with a faculty field advisor to produce a mock syllabus for a year-long graduate survey course in American Studies. The syllabus should address major themes, events, problems, and concepts in American culture and society from at least the seventeenth century to the present. It should include a reading list of approximately 100 books.

In order to prepare the syllabus, the student should work closely with her field advisor. The first step is for the student to present a syllabus proposal. It should consist of a preliminary reading list and an introductory essay (no more than two double-spaced pages) that lays out the main themes, questions, and objectives of the graduate course. Note that the syllabus model is designed to help student organize a large number of readings thematically and chronologically. The end product is a mock rather than a teaching syllabus, thus it need not include precise segmentation by date, page numbers, assignments, etc.

Once the syllabus proposal has been approved by the field advisor, the student should complete all of the readings and prepare the final version of the syllabus. The final version of the syllabus should be delivered to committee members at least one week prior to the start of the written examination.

b) Specialized Fields:
Two additional fields allow the student to develop expertise in two specialized areas related to American Studies. At least one of the fields should help the student prepare for her dissertation research. The student should define the scope of her chosen fields by working closely with two faculty field advisors, one for each field.

In general, the scope of a field should be narrow enough to allow the student to master the principal scholarly literature in the topic area and broad enough to define an undergraduate course. Examples include: U.S. Women’s History, Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Historic Preservation, U.S.-Native American Relations, African American Literature, Hawai’i History, American Arts, American Cinema, American Environmental History, etc. Within each field, students may choose to develop special expertise on a narrower subtopic. For instance, a student preparing for a U.S. Women’s History field may choose to place special focus on third-wave feminism; another might emphasize film noir within an American Cinema field, or architectural modernism within a Historic Preservation field.

For each field, the student should prepare a preliminary bibliography. The scope and content of this reading list should be worked out with the student’s field advisor. For most fields, it will consist of approximately fifty books. Students should consult regularly with their advisor as they work through the book list.

c) Fields & Syllabus Approval:
Only the Graduate Chair can schedule the Qualifying Exams. When the student has successfully prepared preliminary booklists for all three fields in consultation with their faculty advisors and has read through much of the material, she should contact the Graduate Chair to review and formally approve the booklists. Upon approval, as signified by completion of the QUALIFYING EXAM APPROVAL FORM, the student can work with the Graduate Program Coordinator to set up a date and time for the written and oral components of the exam.

Note that a final copy of the syllabus and field lists should be submitted to all committee members and to the Graduate Chair no later than one week prior to the written examination.

Part II: Field Exams

The exam has both a written and oral component, with the latter taking place no more than two weeks after successful completion of the former.

Written Exam:
After the field lists have been approved by all committee members and the Graduate Chair, the written portion of the exam will be scheduled. The student is responsible for coordinating a date and time with the committee members. Once an agreed upon time has been confirmed by all members of the committee, contact the Graduate Program Coordinator to schedule a room for the exams.  Each field advisor will prepare two questions for the student (two per field for a total of four questions), which the student must answer within a 96-hour period. There will be no extensions. To begin the exam, the student will receive her questions electronically or pick them up at the office at the designated time. A typed, double-spaced copy of the completed exam is due electronically or in the Department office ninety-six hours (4 days) later. The submission package should be delivered in hard copy or in PDF format (unless otherwise instructed) and should include four components:

  • Final version of the field lists
  • Questions posed by the faculty advisors (four in total)
  • Student’s answers to the questions
  • Final copy of the syllabus for the General field

The student’s answers should be clearly written, analytically sophisticated, organizationally cohesive, and carefully edited. There is no minimum or maximum length for the written exams, but successful students generally write something like 2,500 words or 10 pages per question for a total of roughly 40 pages (10,000 words).

The committee member in charge of each field determines whether the student has successfully completed that portion of the written exam.

Oral exam:
The final stage of the Qualifying Examinations is the oral exam. To undertake the oral exam, the student’s final syllabus must have been approved and the student must have passed each section of the written exam. Once these requirements have been met, the student can undertake the ninety-minute oral examination.  The exam can be scheduled in consultation with the Graduate Program Coordinator using the same procedure outlined above.

The oral exam covers all three fields. The first portion deals with the student’s syllabus for the General field. The second section is devoted to the two fields of specialization. The student may be asked to clarify or elaborate on their written exam and/or asked to discuss other issues covered by the reading lists. Afterwards, the committee meets privately to determine the student’s performance on the basis of “Fail,” “Low Pass,” “Pass,” or “Pass with Distinction.”


Students planning to take their Qualifying Exams in the spring semester should submit their preliminary reading lists and syllabus proposal to their examination committee by October 15 in the semester prior to the exam. Students planning to take their exams in the fall semester should submit their materials by April 1. Final versions of the annotated syllabus and field reading lists must be submitted to all committee members and to the graduate chair at least one week before the written examination.