Comprehensive Exams

Please contact the Administrative Coordinator of Comparative Literature for a copy of the explicit examination procedures and regulations including time frame and approximate numbers of works included on each examination.  The Administrative Coordinator will work with you and your committee to schedule all of the steps in the examination process.

Problems arising during the process that for whatever reason require intervention or mediation should be directed to the Director of Comparative Literature.


Approximately four months before you write your first comprehensive, we will arrange an hour-long meeting with all faculty members likely to serve on your comprehensive examination committee, the Director of Comparative Literature, and the DGS of Comparative Literature. During this meeting we will review the goals and procedures of the examination and our expectations as well as discuss your time line for achieving these goals. All those present will receive a brief summary of this meeting in writing, and the summary will be kept on file should you for any reason have to find different examiners over the course of the comprehensives.  

Your schedule for the three written examinations and their accompanying oral examinations should be mapped out with the chair of your committee very soon after this meeting. Normally the second and third comprehensives will be completed within five months from the date of the written portion of the first comprehensive. The oral component of each examination should be scheduled for approximately two weeks after the written part.

Comprehensives serve three purposes: 1) to solidify your education as a comparatist, 2) to help you get a handle on a field of expertise generally pertinent to comparatist inquiry and to your work specifically, and 3) to help you lay the groundwork for your dissertation. All three comprehensives are designed with these goals in mind and all three examinations will be tailored accordingly under the supervision of the examination committee chair and with the input of committee members. We also want you to think about how these three examinations are related as you fashion them: the first exam explores the works, contexts, critical traditions, methodologies and theories that define the primary field in which you will position yourself as a comparatist and more specifically as related to your dissertation; the second exam defines, constructs, and develops your expertise in theories and methods, within which you will write, research, and likely also teach as a comparatist. The third comprehensive examination, i.e., the dissertation prospectus, proposes a project in the primary field, conceived of in comparatist terms and addressing certain comparatist debates. 

To this end, the written portion of the first and second comprehensives will consist of three questions, two of which you must answer within a one week period. These questions will be broad in nature and related to the general goals described above as well as to the goals specified below under each comprehensive. The oral examination will follow the written examination in approximately two weeks. (N.B. Proceeding to the oral does not in and of itself indicate a passing performance on the written). The oral examination may include follow-up questions having to do with your performance on the written examination and could include the question that you did not answer. Most importantly, the oral will include questions on works on your reading list that were not treated in your written answers.  Upon completion of both parts of the examination, you will receive both an oral and brief written evaluation of your examination.

The examination committee must make a determination as to whether the performance is a pass or a fail.  In the case of a borderline performance, the committee may, at its discretion, give the student an opportunity to improve the performance, e.g. by rewriting the response to a question, before making the determination pass/fail.  A student who outright fails a portion of any of the comprehensives may retake the exam in question once within two to ten weeks after receiving the failing results.  The requirements for and timing of the retake depend on the student's particular performance -- as evaluated in writing by the examination committee -- and will be determined in consultation by the chair of the exam committee, the graduate adviser (DGS) and the program director.

Reading lists for examinations 1 and 2 will be assembled by the student in question with the advice of his or her committee. All three members of the committee must approve each list.  Examination questions must address the list drawn up for that particular examination.

The three-person examination committee should consist of faculty who are likely to serve on your five-person dissertation committee and who bring pertinent expertise to the examination. The composition of the three-person committee may shift from exam to exam. In most cases, the faculty member likely to become the dissertation director will chair all three examination committees.   

Comprehensive I

The first comprehensive is an examination in your primary comparatist field. It has four purposes: 1) to enable you to think about and become familiar with how a “field” of comparatist inquiry is defined and shaped; 2) to enable you to identify and familiarize yourself with the historical debates and recent criticism that has shaped comparatist inquiry in this field; 3) to provide you with the occasion to work closely on some of the most important works of criticism pertinent to this field; and 4) to re/familiarize yourself with some exemplary primary works in this field. The definition of the “field” is flexible, but should have identifiable historical limits and specificity. Additional attributes of a field might include some of the following: important phases or modes of cultural contact; identifiable literary movements such as naturalism, realism, or modernism; transcultural, transnational, and/or translinguistic reach (drawing on your language training); technological developments (the invention of photography, cinema, digital technologies, etc); a set of questions, issues or concerns, etc. A field should be conceived broadly enough to be well populated with primary work and secondary literature. Your dissertation project should fall within the field broadly conceived. Examples of a field include, but are not limited to, comparative modernism, twentieth-century transnational poetics, early modern comparative theater and performance studies, medieval media theory (orality, manuscript culture, etc.), transnational feminist or queer literary studies, postcolonial literature, Sinophone literature, comparative ethnic literatures, etc. Such comparative fields might well be anchored in expertise in one or two areas (transnational poetics with an emphasis on Latin American poetry, comparative modernism with an emphasis in Chinese modernism, etc). You might also work in a “traditional field” such as Victorian British literature or German Romanticism, in which case we encourage you to think creatively about this field as a comparatist. 

Comprehensive II  (approximately two months after I)

Your second comprehensive tests your familiarity with and ability to talk about methodologies and theories critical to comparatist analysis and asks you to position yourself within the broad discipline of Comparative Literature by specifying particularly methodologies/theories that will likely inform your future teaching and scholarship. For this examination, in consultation with your advisors, you will create a bibliography of key works from three methodologies/theories in which you wish to prove competence. These should pertain to at least two of the four areas of the core requirements and, where possible, be pertinent to your projected dissertation topic. You should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the origins of these methodologies and theories and key debates and practices and you should also be prepared to give examples of applications. Methodologies/theories might include postcolonial theory, performance theory, queer theory, affect theory, comparative performance study, cultural geography, theories of sound, media theory, philology, translation theory, etc. 

Comprehensive III (approximately two months after II)

Your third comprehensive explicitly prepares you to write your dissertation. It consists of a 20-25-page dissertation proposal, including detailed prospectus, primary texts, and critical sources, followed by a defense of the proposal. You will work with your dissertation advisor to prepare the proposal. Once you and your advisor are satisfied with your draft, you will circulate it to your examination committee. The defense will follow approximately two weeks later.

In the defense your examiners will be trying to make the following judgments about your proposal: Is the topic viable? Is it original? Is the central question significant? Do you have the knowledge and skills needed to address the problem? Are the methods sound? Will the theory and methods enable you to make an argument? Are you likely to finish in a timely manner? The proposal generally serves as the basis for your introductory chapter and also serves to guide you through the process of researching and writing your dissertation.

A dissertation proposal challenges you to generate a blueprint of your project. It is usually composed of the following or most of the following elements:

  • Abstract: a two to three sentence summary
  • Introduction: The introduction paints the "scholarly landscape." It addresses such questions as what is the issue or problem you mean to address, how does your inquiry relate to the (sub)field, and how does it fit into the current scholarly conversation
  • Review of scholarship (literature review): A review of scholarship addresses such questions as what have been the major developments relating to your topic, what are some questions that have been left open, and how do these lacunae bring you to your topic?
  • The question: What is the problem or issue your dissertation will address, and what do you foresee as its contribution to the field?
  • Methodology: This section outlines the conceptual/theoretical framework. Which theorists or school/s of thought do you expect to be using and why?  What is comparatist about your study?
  • Research to date: Summarize what you have already done.
  • Preliminary Outline: This section should include preliminary chapter divisions with brief explanations of what is in each (and even how one leads to the next).
  • Timeline for Completion
  • Selected Preliminary Bibliography


Contact the Academic and Administrative Coordinator for Comparative Literature with any questions.

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