Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

The Ph.D. Field Examination - Past Cohorts


The Ph.D. Field Examination


By March 1 of their third year, students take a field examination which is meant to give them 1) an intensive knowledge of their teaching and research fields, and 2) a strong basis from which to craft a dissertation prospectus. The field exam will be given by a committee of three faculty, who must be members of the graduate group and who are chosen, with their agreement, by the student. One of the committee members should be designated Exam Chair. In preparing for the exam, students choose one primary and two contributing fields, or areas of specialization; assemble a reading list of about 30 texts for the primary field and 20 texts for each of the contributing fields; and write a rationale of one-half page (approximately 250 words) for each field. The field lists may include primary and secondary sources, and they should be discussed and assembled in close consultation with the student’s field exam committee. 

The primary field is typically organized by historical period, textual genre, and/or geographic area; the contributing fields are typically organized by theoretical tradition, literary or cultural thematic, or critical problematic. 

Rationales should be very brief descriptions of the field, and should include key questions or problematics to be examined. 

Preparation for the Field Exam 

In spring of the second year, students should choose an Exam Chair. In conversation with the Exam Chair, students develop a preliminary field list consisting of 40 works that will form the core of the exam. This list, accompanied by an indication of primary field and likely contributing fields as well as by the Exam Chair's signature, is submitted to the Graduate Executive Committee (GEC) by April 15 for approval.

During the summer between their second and third years, students should systematically read the works on the preliminary list. They should also assemble their field exam committee, decide on their contributing fields, draft their rationales, and construct the three lists. Please note:together, the three lists should not contain more than 70 works total.

By September 23, students will submit their titled reading lists and rationales, signed by all three committee members, to the GEC for approval. In evaluating the field exam proposal, the GEC will take into consideration the coherence of each field, the potential relationships among the fields, the depth and breadth of each reading list, and the clarity of each rationale. The GEC will approve or request revisions by early October. 

During the fall of third year, students should continue reading through their lists, meeting regularly with their committee members to discuss progress, questions, and concerns. It is often helpful—though not required—for the student to compose brief, informal write-ups of key texts or groups of texts during the course of their reading, and to submit those write-ups to the field committee members prior to regular (at least once a month) meetings. This allows students to assemble notes for their field exam preparation, and to apprise the committee members of their intellectual development during their exam preparation. 

The student and the committee should set an exam date no later than the middle of February. As the exam date nears, the Exam Chair should go over the parameters of the exam with the student, including the start time and any special instructions agreed on by the committee.

The Exam

Written: The members of the committee will compose three questions for the exam. The exact form of these questions will be determined by the committee, in consultation with the student. It is recommended—though not required—that the committee members solicit potential questions from the student in advance, as the process of formulating questions is itself a helpful way of coming to terms with a field. The committee chair, with the help of the Graduate Program Coordinator if necessary, will submit the three questions to the student no later than noon on the day of the exam. The student will choose two of the three questions to answer, and will submit her written answers to her committee members and to the Graduate Program Coordinator no more than 24 hours later. The student may consult books and notes, but the exam must be written during the exam period only; no cutting and pasting of previously drafted material is permitted. Unless the committee stipulates otherwise, exam essays should be no more than 3,500–4,000 words each. Typically, the student will spend at most eight hours composing her answer, and devote any remaining time to studying the questions and revising and proofreading the answers.

Oral: Within two weeks of the written exam—i.e., by March 1—the Exam Chair must arrange a two-hour meeting with the student and the rest of the committee to discuss her performance on the written exam, to cover any follow-up questions the committee may have for the student, and to discuss the student’s potential dissertation topic. After this meeting, the committee will confer briefly without the student to assign a grade of high pass, pass, or fail. Should a committee decide that a student has not passed the exam, the student may retake the exam with the approval of the committee and the Graduate Chair.

By March 15, a brief report on the student’s performance must be written by the Exam Chair and submitted to the Graduate Chair.

Timeline Summary

•    By April 15 of the second year: secure Exam Chair; submit preliminary field list (~40 works) to the GEC with approval of Exam Chair

•    Summer between second and third years: read works on preliminary list; assemble full field lists, rationales, and exam committee.

•    By September 23 of the third year: submit reading lists and rationales, signed by all committee members, to the GEC for approval. 

•    By February 15: take the written exam, followed within two weeks by a two-hour follow-up with the committee to discuss the exam. 

•    By March 15: Exam Chair submits an exam report to the Graduate Chair.