Comprehensive Examinations Guidelines

Guide to Comparative Literature Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination Milestone


Comprehensive Examinations (also known as "Comps" or "Comp Exams") 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. 

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 advisor (DGS), and the program director.

  • The Student is responsible for attending all meetings, responding to correspondences, and punctually completing all of the comprehensive examination directions, including answering and submitting responses in a timely manner to The Research Advisory Committee (RAC) and The Coordinator, as well as being in contact with The Primary Research Advisor for progressing through the Comprehensive Examination Milestone.

  • The Primary Research Advisor is responsible for assisting the Student in assembling the three member Comprehensive Committee for the defense, for compiling and delivering written comprehensive examination questions to The Coordinator in accordance to the Comparative Literature program Comprehensive Exam template, and for communicating pass/fail of all parts of each comprehensive examination to The Coordinator

  • The Research Advisory Committee (RAC) should consist of at least three full-time Washington University faculty members who are authorized to supervise PhD students and who have appropriate expertise in the proposed field of study. The RAC is responsible for attending all meetings and examinations regarding the comprehensive examination process for The Student and communicating with The Coordinator regarding scheduling of all meetings involved in the comprehensive examination process.

  • The Coordinator (Academic and Administrative Coordinator) is responsible for coordinating dates, times, and locations of examinations with the Student and Comprehensive Committee, for emailing written examinations to the Student and RAC Committee, for recording pass/file according to The Primary Research Advisor on student milestone tracking, and for submitting appropriate Milestone Forms to the OGS via Portal including the Unsuccessful Qualifying Exam Form and the Successful Qualifying Exam Form.

The OGS provides information on the Comprehensive Examination (called the Qualifying Examination on OGS website).


Before any Comprehensive Examinations can be scheduled, The Student will need to obtain a faculty member to lead their Research Advisory Committee: this member is The Primary Research Advisor. The Student, along with The Primary Research Advisor, will need to identify and secure two additional faculty members to add to their RAC.

Once this three member RAC is established, The Student will contact The Coordinator to arrange a date, time, and place to meet for a preliminary bibliography meeting. This meeting should be approximately 4 months before the first written exam is scheduled. See below for specific elements of the bibliography meeting and the comprehensives themselves. A timeline will be created at this meeting, which The Student and The Primary Research Advisor should share with The Coordinator for ease of scheduling. 

Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2

Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2 consist of both a written and oral portion, both of which are required to be passed before proceeding to the next exam. It is highly recommended to schedule both the written and oral portions of each exam together, in order to avoid both a long delay between written remarks and oral defense, and to avoid unnecessary extension of the overall scheduled time line. It is helpful to have an idea for when you would like your oral portion to occur, and work backwards to schedule the written portion to ensure your and your committee members’ schedules are open (for example, avoiding major holidays, major university and department events, and planned travel). 

The written portion of the first and second comprehensive exams will consist of three questions provided by the RAC, 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 1 hour oral examination will follow the written examination in approximately two weeks. Please note: 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, including a passing or failing mark as well as next steps in the Comprehensive Examination process.

Comprehensive Exam 3

Unlike Comprehensive Exams 1 and 2, Comprehensive Exam 3's written portion is not in response to provided questions. Comprehensive Exam 3 explicitly prepares The Student to write a dissertation. It consists of a 20-25-page dissertation proposal, including detailed prospectus, primary texts, and critical sources, followed by an oral defense of the proposal. The Student will work with The Primary Research Adivsor to prepare the proposal. Once The Student and The Primary Research Advisor are satisfied with a draft, The Student will circulate it to the RAC. The 1 hour oral defense will follow approximately two weeks later.

In most cases, The Primary Research Advisor and RAC will continue and become three members of the five or six member Dissertation Defense Committee (including The Dissertation Director). Please see Ph.D. Dissertation Guidelines for further information


(After coursework is completed/4th year in program)

Approximately four months before you write your first comprehensive, with the help of The Coordinator and The Primary Research Advisor, you will arrange an hour-long meeting including The Student, all faculty members likely to serve on your RAC (3), the Director of Comparative Literature, and the DGS of Comparative Literature. During this meeting, faculty will review the expectations, goals and procedures of the examinations, discuss a time line for achieving these goals, and review your bibliography. The bibliography contains the content that The RAC will base their questions on for in the examinations.  This preliminary step is REQUIRED before the comprehensive examinations can commence. 

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.  

Comprehensive Examination #1

(Approximately 4 months after Preliminaries)

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. 

Written Examination #1

Student Name:
Comprehensive Examination No. 1 (Field)
Committee Members:

This written examination consists of three questions that address the annotated bibliography that you submitted to your RAC for this examination. These questions will be made available to you at a specific TIME on DATE. You will have exactly one week to complete your responses and return your completed work to all the members of your committee, as well as The Coordinator at the exact TIME one week from the DATE. Make sure that you answer all the parts of a given question unless the question gives you license to do otherwise. 

Oral Examination #1

The 1-hour oral examination #1 will follow the written examination #1 in approximately two weeks. Proceeding to the oral examination does NOT indicate a passing performance on the written.

Comprehensive Examination #2

(Approximately 2 months after Exam 1)

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. 

Written Examination #2

Student Name:
Comprehensive Examination No. 2 (Theory/Methods)
Committee Members:

This written examination consists of three questions that address the annotated bibliography that you submitted to your committee for this examination. These questions will be made available to you at a specific TIME on DATE. You will have exactly one week to complete your responses and return your completed work to all the members of your RAC, as well as The Coordinator at the exact TIME one week from the DATE. Make sure that you answer all the parts of a given question unless the question gives you license to do otherwise. 

Oral Examination #2

The oral examination #2 will follow the written examination #2 in approximately two weeks. Proceeding to the oral does not indicate a passing performance on the written.

Comprehensive Examination #3 (aka "Proposal")

(Approximately 2 months after Exam 2)

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 Primary Research Advisor to prepare the proposal. Once you and your Primary Research Advisor are satisfied with your draft, you will circulate it to your RAC. The 1-hour oral defense will follow approximately two weeks later.

Written Examination #3/Proposal

A 20-25 page 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 the following such questions: 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 the following such questions: 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

Oral Examination #3/Proposal Defense

In the 1-hour oral 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 serves to guide you through the process of researching and writing your dissertation.

Title, Scope, and Procedure (TSP)

(Before starting 5th year of graduate study)

Although usually linked with the Dissertation Phase, the Student may want to bring work on their Title, Scope and Procedure (TSP) form as part of their prospectus. You must file your TSP form before starting your fifth year of graduate study.

Your project's "scope" defines its limits—what you intend to cover and what you intend not to cover. Your "procedure" describes the manner in which you intend to conduct your research. By defining the scope and procedure of your dissertation, you provide an initial outline or model for yourself as you research your topic.

You may file your Title, Scope, and Procedure Form as soon as your Research Advisory Committee (RAC) has signed it. The form also serves as a contract between you and your RAC. RACs normally consist of three tenured or tenure-track Washington University faculty members from within your degree program. These three members normally continue to become the core of the larger five-member Dissertation Defense Committee. 

Your dissertation's title, scope, and procedure may change in the course of your research. You are not required to file an amended form with the Graduate School, although getting your committee’s written approval of the changes may be advisable.

More information on the TSP can be found at Dissertation Guidelines

Questions from students may be addressed to The Coordinator or, including for a copy of the explicit examination procedures and regulations including time frame and approximate numbers of works included on each examination. The 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.