Preliminary Exam


Students are required to register for ENGL 592 with their committee chairperson while preparing and researching for the preliminary examination. Students can register for 1-12 credits. If full-time registration is required, students must register for a minimum of nine (9) credits.


At the start of the semester, students then must complete an Independent Study/Research form, which needs to be signed by the professor who will supervise the work, and the Director of Graduate Studies.

At the beginning of the semester in which the examination is to be taken, the student must complete a Committee Recommendation Form, listing all five members of the committee and their departments. It must be submitted no later than three weeks before the take-home weekend. Once signed by the committee chair, it is submitted to the Graduate College, which returns an examination report. This report MUST be present during the student's oral examination.

The program code for doctoral students in the English Department is: 20FS0311PHD.

Structure of the Examination

The UIC English PhD Preliminary Examination consists of three written examination papers, followed by an oral examination on those papers.

Two "Field Examinations" are based upon two separate reading lists and are written in a take-home format. One "Research Examination" is written in the form of a submitted research paper. The latter does not begin from a reading list but rather culminates in a bibliography that is submitted with the research paper. The research paper is the basis for the dissertation prospectus. Each of the two Field Examinations is conducted under the direction of a professor; two professors are assigned to the Research Examination. In consultation with the student, the two Field Exam directors devise Field Examination lists, discuss readings, and finally write the questions for the student's Field Exams. The Field Exam directors should submit their questions via this form no later than one week prior to the take-home weekend.

The third and fourth professors direct the writing of the Research Examination paper: this paper is researched and completed throughout the PhD exam preparation year, and is due to be turned in with the student's other two written exams. One of the directors of the research paper will, in most circumstances, be the proposed director of the student's dissertation. In most circumstances, this professor will also be the Chair of the examination committee.

After the three written examination papers are completed, the student's papers are distributed to an Examination Committee of five members: the four professors described above, plus a fifth member.

Samples of examination questions and reading lists are available for review in the Office of Graduate Studies.

Content of the Examination

The two Field Exams consist of broadly defined teaching fields. These may include work in rhetoric, literature, critical theory, and cultural studies. Each reading list should cover the basic primary and critical texts that a scholar in the field would be expected to know, supplemented by works that would reflect the specific interests of the student.

The Research Exam Paper is conceived as an extended commentary toward a Dissertation Prospectus and should create a coherent set of arguments about a thesis. It is the summation of a year's directed reading in potential themes and critical materials that pertain to the candidate's current and extended research interests. The Research Exam Paper should facilitate a prompt draft of the Dissertation Prospectus. For PhD candidates in the Program for Writers, the research exam paper may examine influences, authors, genres, or narrative strategies that contribute to their creative work. The paper also results in a growing list of primary and secondary texts that culminate in a working dissertation bibliography at the end of the Research Exam Paper process (in contrast to the Field exams, which require a list of texts at the beginning of the process).

The Oral Examination is based on the three written examination papers, the Field Exam lists, and the student's working dissertation bibliography. Generally speaking, this part of the examination will last no more than two hours, with separate parts of the examination devoted to each of the three written papers. The division of time, at the Chair's discretion, is generally divided along the following lines: one hour for the Field Examination and lists, one hour for the Research Examination and bibliography.

Composition of the Committee

As described above, the student's committee consists of five members. Two members devise lists and submit questions for the Field exams, a third and fourth direct the Research Exam paper, and a fifth serves on the oral examination committee. All members of the committee, including the fifth member, review the Field Exam lists and the questions pertaining to them; all members of the committee read the three examination papers and bibliography before the oral examination.

The Graduate College requires five members of the examination committee; three full members of the graduate faculty, and two are required to be tenured. An outside member is recommended but not required. Three of the members of the examination committee must be from the Department of English.

According to the Graduate College, Emeritus faculty cannot chair a committee without the approval of the Graduate College. However, Emeritus faculty can sit on committees, put together reading lists, submit questions for the Field exams, direct the Research Exam paper, and can be fifth readers. Emeritus faculty do not count as full or tenured members of committees in determining if the committee makeup satisfies Graduate College requirements.

All members of the committee examine the student at the Oral Examination.


In order to complete the PhD Prelim Exam in a timely fashion, PhD students should consult with professors about their examinations in the second year of their degree. By the Spring Semester of the second year, students should have professors arranged for their examination committees, and should have their Field Examination lists prepared. Examples of Field Examination Lists are in the Office of Graduate Studies.

Written examinations are conducted ONLY in Week 10 of each semester. Students receive their written questions on the Field Exams at 10 a.m. Friday morning of Week 10 and return the answers by 10 a.m. Monday morning of the following week.

Questions are due to the Office of Graduate Studies no later than one week prior to the take-home weekend. Questions are reviewed by the Chair of the Examination Committee and then circulated to all members of the committee for their review. Questions are submitted to the Program Coordinator in the Office of Graduate Studies no less than ONE WEEK before the questions are given to the student (by Friday of Week 9 of the semester).

The student hands in his or her Field Examinations and Research Examination, plus bibliography, plus lists, in a printed hard copy to the Graduate Coordinator. The Graduate Coordinator distributes electronic and hard copies of the three exams to the five members of the committee.

The two-hour Oral Examination follows after no more than two weeks. The Chair of the Examination Committee is responsible for scheduling the Oral Examination.

To summarize:

  • The lists and committee should be established by the end of the second year, with approximately the next calendar year being spent writing the Research Examination and preparing for the Field Examination.

  • The Field Examination will be scheduled during Week 10 of the semester, ideally during the second semester of the third year.

  • The Oral Examination will take place within two weeks after the Field Examination.

The student is informed of his/her successful completion of the examination after the oral examination.

After successful completion of the PhD Preliminary Examination, the student is relieved of teaching one course, usually in the year after the examination is completed.

Requirements/Expectations for the PhD Prelim Exam

Before scheduling an Oral Examination, the Chair of the Examination Committee consults with all members of that committee and determines whether performance on the exam merits proceeding with the oral component of the exam. If any part of the exam has been failed, the committee may decide that any part of the examination needs to be revised or rewritten; it may decide to resubmit new questions to be answered; it may decide that failure on any part of the exam prohibits progression to the Oral Examination. If a student does not progress to the Oral Examination, he/she may not continue on to PhD candidacy, and is dismissed from the PhD program and from the Graduate College.

As described above, the committee discusses the student's performance on the Oral Examination immediately following that exam. The committee may decide that any part of the examination needs to be repeated; it may decide that failure on any part of the exam invalidates progression to PhD candidacy. Students who do not continue on to PhD candidacy are dismissed from the PhD program and from the Graduate College.

Re-examination on any part, or both parts, of the PhD Prelim Exam can only occur once, and only within one calendar year of the first examination. Any changes to the exam committee must be approved unanimously by the original committee and by the DGS.

To complete the written part of the Field Examination successfully, students should write answers (usually about 10 pages each) to their questions that display a thorough knowledge of the field on which they are being examined, a grasp of secondary texts pertaining to that field, and a coherent argument—an argument supported by particular readings or accounts of the texts for which the student is responsible, and articulated in relation to the relevant critical and/or theoretical writings assigned on the reading list.

Successful completion of the written part of the Research Examination (usually about 20-24 pages) is dependent upon a clearly articulated argument about a chosen group of works or issues, acknowledging and responding to relevant critical and theoretical views of those works or issues. The choice of works—the basis for the working bibliography accompanying this paper—should be guided by a student's anticipated dissertation topic. The Research Examination paper itself should demonstrate the student's familiarity with creative and/or scholarly conversation and debate about the works he/she is studying, and it should make the contribution of the paper to the topic of field of inquiry as clear as possible.

A successful working bibliography should include primary and secondary texts that are relevant for a student's chosen dissertation topic, and it should represent a thorough knowledge of the full range of works related to that topic. Since this paper is expected to form the basis of a Dissertation Prospectus, it may take the form of a prospectus, examples of which are available in the Office of Graduate Studies.

A successful Oral Examination displays a student's ability to discuss, and respond to arguments about, the content of the written examinations (both the Field and Research papers). Committee members may ask a student to explain answers more fully, or may challenge his/her conclusions: the aim is to provoke further discussion and debate about the readings and assertions contained in the written work. A student is expected to display a thorough understanding of the works he/she has chosen to study, and a thorough understanding of the relevant critical and theoretical discussions about those works; a student is also expected to be able to address materials contained in their reading lists and working bibliography that are not addressed in any of the written components of the examination.