17 Ph.D. Preliminary Examinations

Ph.D. preliminary examinations are designed to ensure that Ph.D. students have the breadth and depth of knowledge expected of candidates for the highest degree in English. It is at the level of exams that doctoral students creatively define their specialties, which are further developed and more sharply focused in the dissertation. The exam structure is designed to ensure that students master broad fields of study beyond the narrower focus of their dissertations. Students ought to peruse the annual Job Information Lists published by the Modern Language Association and other such sites to get a sense of the range of expertise that colleges and universities are looking for in the faculty they hire.

The Graduate Program office should be notified in the first two weeks of the semester in which a student intends to take exams of which exams the student plans to take. No graduate exams are administered in the summer months. The English Graduate Studies office will announce exam dates in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the College of Graduate Studies. Although faculty readers for standard examination areas remain anonymous, graduate students are encouraged to consult with graduate faculty members in preparing for exams.

Students preparing for the examinations are expected to read extensively in their chosen areas and well beyond the texts covered in their coursework. They should recognize that their course readings, no matter how thorough, reflect only a partial perspective on their exam fields. Course readings alone almost certainly will not be adequate to prepare students for the preliminary exams. One course alone, no matter how well a student performs in it, is not adequate preparation for a preliminary examination in any field.

Current reading lists, which are subject to periodic revision, offer representative major texts in all exam areas and may be obtained from the English Graduate Studies office and through the graduate program website: https://mtsu.edu/english/graduate-students.php. These reading lists serve to guide students toward essential readings. Students are expected to read the works on the lists and demonstrate their knowledge of those works in the written and, if required, oral components of their examinations. In writing answers to exam questions, a student may discuss texts not appearing on an exam list if doing so would effectively supplement a discussion of those that are; however, students must in all cases demonstrate competency in those texts generally accepted as defining the field.

Preliminary exams in the standard areas are read anonymously. One of four grades is awarded for every graduate examination: pass with distinction, pass, low pass, or fail. A student who fails any exam may take it only once more, in the semester following the first attempt. For all exams, students will be on the honor system, and university policy on plagiarism will be in force. The Graduate Program Director will report the results of exams to students and to the College of Graduate Studies. For further information on assessing the quality of graduate examinations, see the list of “Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Graduate Exams” that concludes this section of the handbook.

Special accommodations will be made only for students with documented disabilities and will be limited to the recommendations of MTSU’s Disability & Access Center.

Preliminary examinations consist of a written and, if required by the examiners, an oral component. The written component of exams is administered individually over two days designated by the department, normally consecutive Friday afternoons a week apart. At each of those times students take one four-hour exam in an examination area they have chosen. Two readers prepare and review each preliminary exam. Readers evaluate exams independently of one another, and then confer to determine the outcome. Should the readers agree that the student has passed the written component of the exam, they may at their discretion require an oral exam, which usually will be scheduled within a period of no more than two weeks and always before the end of the semester in which the exam was administered. In some cases examiners in a specific field may require an oral exam as a matter of routine practice for that field; in other cases, examiners may request an oral exam in order to better evaluate the breadth or depth of an examinee’s knowledge, especially if the response to the questions on the written exam was weak or the examiners were split in their evaluations and want to pursue an oral as a way of making a definitive determination.

If the two readers disagree irreconcilably on the outcome of the written exam, the Director of Graduate Studies will appoint a third reader to determine the results conclusively. Should the third reader pass the written exam, all three readers will conduct the oral component of the exam if the readers request one. If a third reader determines that the exam fails to demonstrate adequate knowledge of the area, the exam will be considered to have failed.

If the examiners require an oral exam, the student will be orally examined for up to 90 minutes in the pertinent examination area. The oral component may cover some of the topics addressed in the written exam but may also explore other aspects of the field not addressed in the written portion. Students must be present on campus or via computer conferencing for their oral examination. Students must pass both oral (if required) and written portions of their Ph.D. exams in order to advance to candidacy.


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