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M.A. Comprehensive Examination

All M.A. candidates must take a comprehensive examination. It can be either an oral comprehensive examination, which normally lasts 1-2 hours, or a proctored written examination, taken over 6 hours. Comprehensive exams may include questions about anything that M.A. candidates covered in their course work. The scope of the examination includes knowledge of particular courses as well as the larger historiographical issues. 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. The guidelines for arranging your comprehensive exams apply to both on campus and online MA candidates and cover both oral and written exams. Review the information below entirely before reading the scheduling guidelines. The link to the guidelines are at the bottom of this page.

1.  Prepare for the comprehensive exam from the beginning of your studies. In each of your classes, you need to prepare a written electronic document or series of documents summarizing the argument of every book and article discussed, and maintain a document analyzing the important issues, scholarly debates, and other field-specific concerns raised in your classes.


2.  Form an examination committee no later than the third week of the semester in which you intend to graduate. Consult with the Director of Graduate Studies and other faculty concerning the membership of this committee. Your committee should be comprised of faculty members with whom you have completed coursework. One committee member must serve as the committee chair. The chair of a M.A. Comprehensive Committee must have at least Associate Graduate Faculty status. This committee normally consists of three faculty members, although your advisors may recommend up to five. Not all committee members should be from the same concentration (U.S., European, etc.). 


3.  Provide each member of the committee with a complete list of courses taken, books and articles read, and papers written. With each committee member, you should 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 in the oral exam. 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. In the written exam your field questions will be based on your readings. 


4. Schedule your comprehensive exam.  All MA students have the option of taking a written or an oral exam. Students can choose whichever format—oral or written—they prefer. If you would like to take the written exam, it must be proctored. If you'd like to take an oral exam instead, you'll will coordinate a date, format (in person/Skype/phone) with your committee and with the graduate secretary. There is more information below about the Written Exam Format and the Oral Exam Format. No matter which format you pick, we recommend that you schedule your exam early in the semester.

  • Spring graduation: between February 1st and March 15
  • Fall graduation: between September 15th and October 30th

5. 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.

When assessing the exam (oral or written) the committee will consider the following: 

  • Do your answers demonstrate mastery of historical themes, historiography, and scholarly discussion in the coursework taken?
  • Do your answers demonstrate masterly understanding of the historical content and events and their interrelationships in the coursework taken?
  • Did you clearly explain key historical concepts and handle abstract ideas? Did you successfully synthesize and generalize diverse themes?
  • Are your answers organized and are the arguments well supported? 

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 Director of Graduate Studies. You can get this form at the Graduate School: Graduate School Comprehensive Exam Results

Comprehensive Exam Format

Oral Exam Information

An oral exam lasts approximately two hours. Each committee member will review your booklist and prepare questions to ask you during your exam. During the exam each faculty member, in turn, asks the student questions that generally focus on important books and concepts covered in the courses completed by the student.

Written Exam Information

The written exam must be proctored. It is the student's responsibility to secure a proctor. See next section for more details. Each committee member will review your booklist and submit a question (or several, and you will choose one) for your exam. Each answer (in each of the three sections) should average 2000 words in length, for a minimum total of around 6000 words for the entire exam. The word count on your answers may vary, of course, but be sure to answer each question as fully as possible.

  • You will have six hours to complete your exam.
  • You are permitted to bring a pen and blank sheets of paper with you to the exam. Your book list (submitted in advance) will be provided with your exam.
  • You are permitted four 5-minute breaks during the exam period.

Proctoring Information

Written exams must be proctored. If you live locally, you can contact the University of Memphis to schedule an exam date with their proctors. If you do not live in Memphis, your proctor can be at a testing center in a local university, community college, at a public library, or at any number of public testing centers, which can be found at the National College Testing Association's website. Please note that there might be a fee associated with your proctoring center.

  • If you are having trouble locating a proctor, you can nominate a proctor from your community, such as your employer, an HR representative, a senior officer in the armed forces, etc. In this event, the online director must approve your proctor.
  • The university has a contract with ProctorU. If you'd prefer to download the software and allow a live proctor to monitor you on your computer for the exam, please contact the online program coordinator to submit the IT request.

Once you schedule an exam date with your proctor, forward the information to the online program director. The director will send the exam materials and instructions to the proctor 48 hours before the exam date.

Click this link for a .pdf of the guidelines to schedule your exam