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College of Arts & Sciences
Linguistics Program

Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination Policies

The Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam consists of a written and an oral portion, the latter of which includes a presentation and defense of the candidate's dissertation proposal. The exam is prepared by the student's doctoral committee and is individually tailored to the student's experiences and research interests. Successful completion of this exam grants A.B.D. status.

Who Takes the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam?
Design of the Committee
Written Exam (Bibliography)
Oral Exam
Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

Who Takes the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam?

Students who take this exam are doctoral candidates who have completed their required coursework and are ready to proceed with work on their dissertation, as determined by their advisor.

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Objective of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

The main objective of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam is to ensure that the student is adequately prepared to write a dissertation to complete the Ph.D. degree requirements. Being prepared means the following: Examinees must be able to analyze and synthesize information they obtained from coursework and research; examinees must demonstrate specialized knowledge of their primary field of specialization in the program; and examinees must demonstrate adequate background preparation (e.g., knowledge of the relevant literature, description and justification of data collection and analysis, etc.) for the proposed dissertation topic.

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Timetable for the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

After successful completion of Ph.D. Qualifying Exam:

  • Students should determine as soon as possible, if not already done, their primary and secondary fields of specialization in the program.
  • Students should decide in which area they would like to write a dissertation and do a preliminary research/literature review to narrow down a general topic within that area.
  • Students should choose a dissertation director that can help them successfully complete a dissertation in the selected area. The dissertation director becomes the student's advisor for the remainder of their program.
  • In consultation with the advisor/director, student determines the remainder of the dissertation committee. Students are strongly encouraged to approach potential committee members prepared to discuss the probable topic of the dissertation and schedule for its completion before requesting their participation.
  • Student should continue doing background reading and preparation for dissertation.

Toward end of Ph.D. coursework (Timeline may vary by director. Check with your director.)

  • Student prepares a formal dissertation proposal. A suggested outline of the proposal is given below under Format of the Ph.D. dissertation proposal. The specific requirements of the dissertation proposal are determined by the dissertation director, so students must consult with their director as often as necessary to understand what is expected.
  • Student submits full draft of proposal to dissertation director and revises as suggested.
  • Director must approve proposal draft before student distributes it to other committee members.

After successful completion of coursework in the Ph.D. Program:

  • Student and director decide upon time frame within which the entire Comprehensive Exam is to be completed. The exam may be spread over several days or over a semester, depending on the actual format being used and availability of the parties involved. The director advises committee members of the planned format for their approval.
  • Student reports to the Linguistics Program office the dates set for these exams.
  • Student prepares a bibliography for the written exam and circulates them to the committee members for comments on additions and subtractions to what should be prepared in that area. Bibliographies must be circulated at least six weeks before the date on which the student intends to take the exam. Students must receive final approval of their bibliography from the advisor/director four weeks prior to that date.
  • Student is encouraged to discuss possible content of the exam and expectations with each of their committee members.
  • Student must submit their approved dissertation proposal (by the director) to committee members at least two weeks prior to the oral exam, the final part of the Comprehensive Exam. (Note: Timeline may vary by director. Check with your director.)

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Design of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam Committee

The Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam Committee is the same as the student's dissertation committee.

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Format of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

The Comprehensive Exam consists of the following:

  1.  A written exam in the primary area
  2.  An oral exam on the content of (1), along with a presentation/discussion of the student's dissertation proposal

The written portion of the comprehensive exam can take any of the following forms:

  1. A timed, sit-down exam, typically 3 hours.
  2. A take-home exam can be a 24-hour, 48-hour, one-week, etc. exam.
  3. A single-authored paper, either published or of publishable quality, in the appropriate content area. This paper will be read by a committee made up of three faculty members, one of whom will serve as the main adviser for that paper. The student will choose an advisor appropriate to the paper's topic. The student and advisor will consult on the makeup of the committee. In the normal case, the written paper will be substantially revised and rewritten seminar paper, paper from an advanced class, or a project done as an independent study.

Students must indicate which format they prefer to be tested in to their advisor/director, who ultimately decides the format and duration of the exam parts with approval from the committee members.

The oral examination takes place after the written part is completed, giving committee members at least two weeks to read the written part before the oral. The oral exam is no longer than two hours. The first part of the exam consists of questions from the faculty members on the content of the student's written answer from the first part of the Comprehensives. The second part of the oral exam is a formal presentation and discussion of the student's dissertation proposal. Details of the presentation are determined by the director/advisor, so students are strongly encouraged to work closely with their advisor in preparing the presentation.

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Content of Written Exam (Bibliography)

The content of the written exam is based on student's primary area of specialization. This exam is also individualized to the interest and experience of the student based on the prepared bibliography. Students prepare bibliographies for the area in which they will be tested. References for the bibliographies should come from courses they have completed, papers they have written (for class, proposals, etc.) and any other suggested readings from the dissertation committee members. Committee members ensure that references, which have had a major impact on the field being examined, are included in the bibliography. The content on the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam assumes knowledge and understanding of the references listed in the bibliographies. The student is not expected to prepare beyond their final bibliography.

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Content of Oral Exam

The oral exam section includes a defense of the written answer and the dissertation proposal, and may include questions related to the student's program of study. Students should be prepared to discuss their exam answers and motivate their research proposal.

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Format of the Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

The student must write a detailed dissertation proposal in consultation with the dissertation director. Although the exact specifications of the proposal must be determined in consultation with the director, it generally includes the following:

1)      A precise statement of the research problem;

2)      A thorough review of the relevant literature and argument for the importance of student's topic and methodology;

3)      A detailed presentation of the hypotheses;

4)      A detailed discussion of proposed methodology for data collection

a. Students who will be collecting data from human subjects must include a copy of a completed application for review of research on human subjects submitted to the Institutional Review Board (Office of Research Compliance).

b. Students who are working with students from specific institutions (e.g., foreign language departments, local schools, the English Program for Internationals) must have evidence of the institution's approval for conducting the proposed research.

5)      A detailed discussion of proposed methodology for data analyses

a. Students who will be doing statistical analyses should consult with the Statistical Laboratory (Stat Lab) to determine (1) exactly which statistics are appropriate for the research design and questions, and (2) if the research design or methodology should be modified to allow appropriate statistical analyses for the hypotheses/research question.

b. Students must consult with their director before going to the Stat Lab with questions.

6)      A discussion of the relevance and significance of the proposed study.

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Scheduling of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

The exact timing is determined in consultation with the advisor and other committee members. All sections of the Comprehensive Exam must be successfully completed by the end of the first month of the semester following the one in which they took the first section (this means that a student who begins the Comprehensive exam process in the Fall must complete the process by the end of January, and a student who begins the process in the Spring semester must finish it by the end of June). Students who do not meet this deadline may be subject to re-examination.

  • Students may take the individual sections of the written exam in any order, but these sections must be completed at least two weeks prior to the oral part of the exam.
  • The oral exam must be taken within one month of notification of the results of the written exam. Students who do not meet this deadline may be subject to re-examination.

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Evaluation of the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

The written part of the Comprehensive Exam are evaluated by the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam Committee immediately following their submission. The exam is evaluated holistically in terms of the student's demonstrated abilities to analyze, synthesize and clearly relate information addressing the chosen questions. The committee evaluates the exam as either PASS or FAIL. Students are notified in writing by the dissertation director of the final evaluation of the exam as soon as that evaluation is ready. In that written notification, the dissertation director may include relevant comments or questions raised by the committee members. The oral part of the Comprehensive Exam is evaluated by the committee immediately following the oral examination. The director may also provide the student with written notification of this outcome as well as a summary of the committee's suggestions for the dissertation. The Chair presiding over the oral exam section (a committee member other than the director) reports the outcome of the exam to the Program Graduate Coordinator.

  • If all parts of the Comprehensive Exam are given a PASS, the student proceeds working on the dissertation, and is given A.B.D. status
  • If any section of the Comprehensive Exam is deemed unsatisfactory (FAIL), the student may re-take that particular section once. At this point, students are strongly encouraged to consult with all members of the committee individually to clearly understand expectations. A second failure leads to dismissal from the doctoral program. Students who do not already have an M.A. in Linguistics from USC may be eligible to complete an M.A. Students who wish to do this must state their intentions in writing to the Director. Alternatively, a student who fails an exam in the first round may opt to write a dissertation in another area, reforming her/his committee to reflect that change, and starting the Comprehensive Exam process over.

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