2: Comprehensive Exams and Dissertation Tips

All PhD students are required to take comprehensive exams and to write a dissertation. These processes and documents are different for every degree program.
Use the information below and your graduate handbook to help you develop a plan for approaching and/or completing your comprehensive exams and/or dissertation.

Comprehensive Exams
1) Find out how many components your comprehensive exam has. Do you take more than one exam? Will the exam(s) take place in a specific location? How much time do you have to complete the writing? Will the exam be long- or short-essay questions? Will you be responsible for writing your own exam questions? Is there an oral component to the exam?

2) When do students usually take their comprehensive exams? Many programs have students taking their exams in the second or third year of study. Make sure you know what is normal and that you are on track.

3) Put this information together to form a timeline and a plan to approach your comprehensive exams with confidence. Refer to the tips in the appendix for more direction.


1) Find out the processes and structures for dissertations in your discipline. Do you need to write and defend a prospectus/proposal? How are dissertations in your discipline structured? How many chapters do they have? Consider reviewing completed dissertation proposals by checking them out from the library and seeing their content and structure.

2) When do students usually being their dissertations? How long will you have to complete your dissertation? How might this affect the research methodologies you would like to employ?

3) Use this information to develop a timeline and plan to approach your topic selection, proposal/prospectus writing, and dissertation writing with confidence. Refer to the tips in the appendix for more direction.