PHD Candidacy

PhD students achieve Candidacy when they have

(a) completed all required course work,

(b) passed the Comprehensive Examinations, and

(c) had a prospectus approved by their supervisory committee.

Comprehensive Exams

At admission, the Graduate Advisor will assign the candidate to a supervisor. In the beginning of the student’s second year, the supervisor and the candidate, in consultation with the Graduate Advisor, will propose the fields in which the candidate will be examined in the comprehensive examination and the names of two other faculty members to be members of the candidate’s committee (Research Supervisory Committee form).

The candidate will be expected to be examined in at least three fields, which will normally be:

a) Major or General Field, namely the branch of study in which the candidate’s research is expected to lie, e.g., Chinese poetry;

b) Minor Field (I), namely a sub-category of (a), from which the thesis topic is expected to emerge, e.g., Shi poetry of the Song period; and

c) Minor Field (II), which falls outside (a) but is relevant to the candidate’s research interests, e.g., history of the Song Period.

The Ph.D. Comprehensive Examinations Committee is a three-member committee responsible for examining the candidate in the candidate’s selected fields. The major field is normally examined by the student’s primary supervisor in the Department of Asian Studies. The other two committee members will be composed of faculty members drawn from the appropriate fields, and can include colleagues from other departments, if sufficient justification is provided to the Graduate Advisor. The composition of the examination committee will be determined through consultation among the student, the student’s primary supervisor, and the Graduate Advisor.

Ph.D. candidates must sit three written examinations for the Comprehensives.

Exam Topics:  In consultation with the supervisory committee (and the Graduate Advisor, if desired), three fields—that is, three areas of reading—are decided upon that will form the basis of the Comprehensive Exams.  The student then formulates a reading list for each of the exam fields. (See below for details on the parameters of the lists.) The intent of the reading list is to allow the student to situate him/herself as a scholar in a chosen field and to provide evidence of depth and breadth of knowledge in that field. In consultation with the supervisor (and Graduate Advisor, if desired), the student chooses among the three exam formats listed below. (Format number 3, the course syllabus, may be used for only one of the three fields.) Students may choose a mixture of formats, if the supervisor agrees (i.e. one essay and two 24 hour exams, etc.).

Format 1: Essay. After the student has finished reading the materials on the reading list for the exam field, s/he writes an original paper on a topic arising from the readings. The field supervisor should agree with the candidate in advance on a specific topic, which may be an up-to-date bibliographic survey of the key positions and issues in the designated field, or may be more focused on a specific thematic or methodological question in that field. The paper should be of near-publishable quality. It is normally assumed that the resulting paper will play at least a minor role in the student’s future dissertation, but perhaps even a major role (e.g., a section or chapter), and/or the paper may form the core of a publishable journal article. Students have one month to complete the paper after finishing the readings for that exam field. Each paper should be maximum 40 pages long, including notes and bibliography. The ideal length is 25-35 double-spaced pages.

Format 2:  24-hour Exam. The student sits a take-home examination. If the student is using this option for more than one of the Comprehensive Exams, a week should be allowed between exams. After the student has finished the reading list for that field, the examiner will come up with five appropriate questions and mail them to the Graduate Secretary at least four days before the exam is to take place. On the designated day, the Graduate Secretary gives the questions to the student, and s/he answers three of the five questions and returns her answers to the Graduate Secretary and the Graduate Advisor within 24 hours. (Another option: the examiner presents three questions of which the student chooses one.) Recommended length of the paper is 20 pages.

Format 3: Course Syllabus. In this format the student creates a course syllabus directed to teaching at a senior undergraduate or graduate level.  This will be approximately 25 pages long, double-spaced, and will include a rationale for the course (2-3 pages, double-spaced); course learning objectives and goals; introduction to the course (purpose and intended audience); comments on pedagogical activities and approach; detailed description of assignments and evaluation; outline of all the classes with the themes and assigned readings (full bibliographic details).  A short summary of each reading for each class is to be provided together with a rationale for its use. The syllabus should be completed within one month from the time the student finishes the readings for that exam field.

Sample formats

Comprehensive Exam Process:

  1. Submit a research supervisory committee form (signed by the Grad Advisor) to the Program Administrator
  2. Have all reading lists approved by the committee members and the Graduate Advisor (email from each committee member approving his/her list needs to be forwarded to the Grad Advisor). All three lists must be submitted to the Graduate Advisor for approval BEFORE any reading of the lists is begun
  3. Submit a Permission to proceed to comprehensive exam form
  4. Submit a written format for each exam
  5. Complete each field in sequence:
    1. Start reading, in consultation with the committee member
    2. Complete the exam and receive the committee member’s approval (some revision may be asked for)
    3. Repeat for all three fields
  6. After the third field exam is completed, share the three completed exams with all committee members and schedule the oral comprehensive exam
  7. Hold the oral exam
  8. After a successful exam, fill, collect signatures and submit Recommendation for Advancement to Candidacy form to the Program Administrator
  9. Schedule a prospectus defence for a date within six weeks of the oral exam. Note that the composition of the committee may change at this point, and additional members may be added
  10. At least a week before the prospectus defence, submit the prospectus to the supervisory committee members
  11. Defend the dissertation prospectus
  12. Submit approval of dissertation prospectus form.

Reading lists

Each reading list typically consists of between 30 and 50 items. There are two types of items:

1) Complete books

2) Shorter items: a journal article, or chapter from book; excerpts (no more than 2-3 chapters) from a single book

Each list must contain no more than 1/3 of type 1 items (complete books).

It is expected that in the student’s primary field (and possibly in relevant secondary fields) the reading list will include items in the original Asian language(s) appropriate to the student’s topic.

Each field’s list should be developed in consultation with the comprehensive exam committee member for that field. Once the list is completed, the committee member should send an email message communicating approval of the list to the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary.

Field examiners should advise the Graduate Secretary when the student has completed the readings and is planning to begin writing the 24-hour exam, essay or syllabus.

The comprehensive exams should be started and finished within 12 months. Typically the student spends 3-3.5 months on each exam field, doing the readings and then writing the essay, exam, or syllabus. The remaining 1.5-3 months gives the committee members time to read the essays/exams/syllabi and the student time to prepare for the oral defense.

Students must receive  Permission to proceed to Comprehensive Exam Form form, signed by both the Graduate Advisor and Primary Supervisor, before starting comprehensive examination.

Preconditions for permission to proceed to comprehensive exams are the completion of:

– Three preliminary reading lists/bibliographies approved by the Graduate Advisor and the candidate’s Comprehensive Examinations Supervisory Committee Membersa)

– all coursework and language requirements


As each comprehensive exam field is completed, the committee member in charge of that field—having read the student’s essay, exam, or syllabus—should send a message to the Graduate Advisor and Graduate Secretary indicating their approval of the essay/exam/syllabus. Approval indicates that the essay/exam/syllabus is ready for the oral defense with no further revisions. (More revisions may be required after the defense.)

While no grade is assigned for the Comps*, the committee must deem the essay/exam/syllabus to be first class (80% or above). Criteria for success will be clear evidence of wide reading, sophisticated critical and interpretive skills, and the capacity to conceptualize issues.  Each of the papers and the course syllabus may be written only twice.  The second attempt is to be made within four to six weeks of the committee member’s response to the first attempt.  Any second attempt should respond to the comments and criticisms provided by the committee member on the first versions of the essay/exam/syllabus.  Failure to achieve first-class standing at this stage will result in the student being required to withdraw from the program.

The Oral Exam

Within four weeks of the last written examination, candidates will take an oral examination, to be based mainly on the candidate’s three written field examinations. All of the questions posed on the written exams are open to oral questioning. Other questions relevant to the field reading lists also may be expected.

Step one: the examiners need to agree in the first instance if the candidate’s answers (papers) are of sufficient quality to pass and thus merit an oral exam. This information must be conveyed to both the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary.

Step two: assuming all three examiners are satisfied that the written portion has been passed, the oral examination is scheduled. The Graduate Advisor appoints a Chair for the oral exam. All members of the comprehensive exam committee must be present in person or via Skype.

The oral exam itself is a free-wheeling conversation with the candidate designed to probe (again) for breadth and depth of knowledge of the subject areas. Examiners ask questions in turn, starting with the field most distant from the Major Field, and ending with the Major Field exam. After each examiner has had sufficient opportunity to ask questions about his/her field, all examiners are free to ask questions based on the other exam papers.

The exam takes about 2-3 hours. The student does not give a presentation; instead the examiners start right in with questions. Each examiner poses questions or makes whatever comments they have on the written exam that s/he supervised, for about 15-20 minutes each. Then there can be another round of that if the examiners want it. Often toward the end it gets into a general discussion about the exams and how they inter-relate, or about the student’s thesis topic.

Then the student is asked to leave the room. The chair asks each of the examiners in turn to certify that student has passed the oral defense. If everybody agrees that student has passed, student is informed that s/he will be admitted in the PhD candidacy as soon as s/he presents and defends the dissertation prospectus (which is supposed to be done within 6 weeks).

The written and oral examinations in each field will receive one grade: pass/fail. At the end of the defense, the committee deliberates on whether the papers and the oral defense merit a pass. If any of the comprehensive exam fields is judged as less than first class (79% or below), the student will be asked to re-do the paper for that field.

If a student fails a minor field, the student fails the examination and must repeat both the written and oral examinations in the minor field. A student who fails the major field or both minor fields must repeat the written and oral examinations in all fields. No substitution of fields at re-examination will be permitted. A student will be allowed to re-sit comprehensives only once, and will be required to withdraw from the Ph.D. programme upon a second failure in one or more fields.

A students needs to provide all three examiners, the Graduate Advisor and the Graduate Secretary with copies of all three exams papers.

The Graduate Secretary asks the Oral Exam Chair if s/he wants copies of the exams (papers).

4. Dissertation Prospectus (Department-internal procedure)

This will build on the groundwork laid by the Comprehensive Exams.  It develops an argument proposing the direction in which the student expects the research to develop.  The Dissertation Prospectus, prepared in consultation with the supervisory committee, must be defended within 6 weeks of the comprehensive exam oral defense. The Prospectus should be written in such a way that it makes good sense to academics outside the area of specialization.  It should, accordingly, include relevant explanation and detail at every stage; it is closer to a grant application or book proposal than a research essay.  The Prospectus should be approximately 10 to 15 pages (not including bibliography), double-spaced.
Ideally, the defense of this document should take place in a face-to-face discussion with the Supervisory Committee.

There is normally no Chair for the Prospectus defense. The Prospectus defense allows the supervisory committee to communicate with each other and with the student about specific expectations regarding the timing and strategy of dissertation research and writing, and any emendations to the research plan or bibliography. Approval of the Prospectus will be determined according to such criteria as the originality and value of the project, quality of research, and care of preparation.  Should the supervisory committee decide at this stage that the program of research has not yet been adequately described and rationalized, it will invite the student, in consultation with the supervisory committee, to revise the relevant portions of the Prospectus for a second delivery within six weeks.  If, on this second occasion, the committee remains dissatisfied, the student will be required to withdraw from the program. Candidacy is achieved only after the Prospectus has been approved and the appropriate paperwork (Approval of Dissertation Prospectus Form) has been given to the Graduate Secretary.