Department of History College of Arts and Sciences
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Guide for Graduate Students

Master of Arts in History

The program
Admission requirements
Nature of course offerings
Requirements and restrictions
Time limitation
Comprehensive examination
Statement of intent to graduate
Timetable for M.A. program
Forms and applications

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M.A. Comprehensive Examination

All M.A. candidates must take an oral comprehensive examination, which normally lasts 1-2 hours, and may include questions about anything that they covered in their course work. The scope of the examination includes both knowledge of particular courses as well as the capacity for larger historical synthesis. Ordinarily the examination takes place in the last few weeks of the student’s final semester in the program, and never before the semester in which the student’s course work and/or thesis are being completed.

You should be preparing for the comprehensive exam from the beginning of your studies. In every graduate class, whether it is assigned or not, you should prepare a written electronic document summarizing and analyzing the important issues, scholarly debates, important books and articles, and other field-specific concerns, which you can later use in studying for your comprehensive exam.

In consultation with the Graduate Coordinator, and other faculty advisors, you must decide on an examining committee and get each prospective member to agree to serve on it no later than the beginning of the semester in which you intend to graduate. This committee normally consists of three faculty members, although your advisors may recommend up to five, depending on how varied your course work has been. Although the Graduate Coordinator may grant an occasional exception, not all committee members should be from the same concentration (U.S., European, etc.). The chair of a M.A. Comprehensive Committee must have at least Associate Graduate Faculty status.

When asking faculty to serve on your examining committee, you must provide them with a complete list of courses taken and for each course a list of books read, and papers written for it. Although this list is limited to books, you are expected to be familiar with the major scholarship studied in each course, both in books and articles. You should then discuss the exam with each examiner and develop a list of questions for which you should specifically prepare. Although the examiners will begin with some of these questions, they will also ask follow-up questions and may ask about other topics that you have studied in your classes. You will be expected to demonstrate not merely factual knowledge but an understanding and an ability to think about the historiography of each field and the major questions animating it.

The committee may judge the student to (1) pass with distinction with a recommendation for Ph.D. work, (2) pass, or (3) fail. Since the official form lists only pass and fail as options, you should remind the committee ahead of time of the third option, especially if you want to continue for the Ph.D., and ask that they note that you passed with distinction in handwriting on the exam form if they support your continuance. A unanimous vote is required to pass or pass with distinction. In the event of failure, the committee will adopt one of the following: (1) permit the student to take a written or oral examination within the same semester (if the student satisfactorily completes this option, the original failure will not be recorded on the permanent record; if not the student will be able to take the exam again under option 2), or (2) permit the student to take a written or oral examination the following semester. Any student who fails to complete the second examination satisfactorily will be dropped from the department’s graduate program. Results of the comprehensive examination must be reported to the Graduate School, with copies to the Department of History and the Graduate Coordinator. You can get this form at

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Last Updated: 3/12/14