Doctoral Program: Comprehensive Phase

Comprehensive Phase | Overview Phase | Dissertation Phase

By the beginning of the third year—or the beginning of the first year for students entering with a master’s degree in Sociology—the student selects a comprehensive examination committee consisting of three faculty members. Of these, two faculty members should be from the student's major area of specialization, one of whom acts as chair, and a third from the student's minor area of specialization (who may be from outside the department if necessary).

Comprehensive Examination Procedure and Policy

Purpose and Connection to Goals and Assessment

The comprehensive examination is a key point in assessing graduate students' progress toward three of the learning outcomes we have articulated:

  1. Apply principles and techniques of sociological inquiry to empirical problems and disciplinary debates.
  2. Convey the findings of research to a variety of audiences.
  3. Use expertise in specialized disciplinary literatures to guide conceptual, methodological, and empirical practices of research.

The comprehensive examination is designed to provide students with an opportunity to apply what they have learned about disciplinary principles and techniques to the task of identifying and characterizing debates and puzzles, to use written and verbal skills to convey their ideas and the findings of their engagement with sociology, and to develop expertise and use concepts, methods, and the findings of previous research to guide their own inquiries.

Assumptions and Procedures

Students entering without a master's degree should have some ideas about the issues, puzzles, and problems they plan to address in their dissertation research by the end of the second year. It is at this point that the graduate student selects a comprehensive examination committee. Students who enter with a master's degree and whose theses have been accepted by the department differ with respect to their certainty about their doctoral research: Some have already done extensive background research on the subject, including a master's thesis, while others can only describe a general domain of interest. Therefore, some are able to select a comprehensive exam committee within a matter of weeks, whereas it takes others well into the second term before they have narrowed the focus of their interest sufficiently to identify the faculty most relevant to that subject. But it is expected that all students entering with a master's degree will have selected a comprehensive examination committee by the end of their first year in the program.

The comprehensive examination committee consists of three faculty members. One, the chair of the committee, must be a member of the graduate faculty with a primary appointment in sociology. The other two members must hold graduate faculty appointments in the university, and at least one must be a PhD sociologist or hold a primary appointment in the Sociology Department. In special cases, the graduate student and chair of the examination committee may petition the graduate committee to have a faculty member from another local university who has special qualifications serve as the third member. It is expected, though not required, that these three faculty members will form the core of the student's dissertation committee.

In the comprehensive examination, students are expected to identify, analyze, and integrate the conceptual, methodological, an empirical literature relevant to the central puzzle or question driving their dissertations. Continuous consultation with the members of the examination committee, especially during the initial explorations of the literature, will provide guidance concerning the focus and scope of the project.

Students are permitted to take six credits of directed study with their committee members in preparing their comprehensive essay. Whether these six credits of comp essay directed study are taken—and if so, how they are distributed throughout the third year—is up to the student and her/his comp committee. It is strongly suggested that each three-credit directed study (nominally with the chair of the committee) requires meeting that member at least every other week. But beyond any formal requirement about meetings, students should be communicating frequently with all committee members, especially during the first months of the project when a great deal of time and energy can be lost or saved through active faculty guidance.

Guided by her/his committee, the student is expected through the essay to demonstrate both broad and deep acquaintance with the literature that defines the domain or issue the student has selected. In the course of this reading and frequent interaction with the committee, it is expected that students who lacked a clear focus for their dissertation research will have constructed one as well as developed an outline for the paper they will produce based on their critical overview of the literature. This paper must be of professional quality and usefulness: it must critically analyze and interpret significant work in the relevant literature, in historical context, emphasizing conceptual, methodological, and empirical problems and lacunae as well as substantive and methodological progress. Finally, the paper should point to a particular problem or gap in our understanding about an issue or phenomenon that warrants clarification. Thus, the critical analysis and interpretation of the literature that constitutes the comprehensive examination should connect seamlessly with the dissertation phase.

Most papers will probably range between 35 and 50 pages (including references), the goal being to approximate manuscript length, style, and quality. The purpose and focus of the comprehensive essay is to develop a research question, based on the state of the literature that can frame and focus a subsequent dissertation proposal. The written essay is evaluated as Pass with Distinction, Pass, or Revise. In the case of Revise, the committee gives written suggestions for improving the student's preparation of the examination document. Students who entered the program without a master's degree must pass the written component of the comprehensive examination by the end of August of their third year; for those who came with a master's degree, completion of the comprehensive essay must occur by the end of August of their second year in residence to be considered making satisfactory progress towards their degree. These are outside limits in the amount of time necessary to reach successful completion of the comprehensive essay; the department expects most of its graduate students to fulfill this requirement considerably sooner. It would be especially desirable, moreover, if comprehensive examination committees attempted to bring their students' projects to completion by the end of the Spring Term, since faculty-student interaction tends to be somewhat sporadic over the summer months.

Upon completion of the written part of the comprehensive examination, the student will be required to give an oral, conference-style presentation of the results of her/his written comp project. On a specified date in a given year all graduate students who have completed their comprehensive essays in the current (or previous) academic year will prepare and deliver an 8–10 minute, conference-style presentation to their committee, the comprehensive committees of other students presenting that year, the DGS, and Chair, as well as other interested faculty and graduate students. The objective of this event is to give each of the students completing their written essay the experience of presenting their findings to a disciplinary audience. The oral presentation of findings is not intended as an oral examination; its purpose is to expose students to new and different, albeit not necessarily subject-matter competent, perspectives on the sociological domain the student has been investigating. This oral presentation is the required final component of the departmental comprehensive examination.