Vanderbilt University, Department of English

Mark A. Wollaeger

Restructuring Comprehensive Exams to Facilitate Progress toward Dissertation Completion


The English Department ( recently restructured its comprehensive exams to achieve three goals: move students through the examination and dissertation proposal stages by the end of year 3 and enable them to dedicate two full years to dissertation research and writing (Vanderbilt fully funds all PhD students for five years, including summers); better fulfill the twofold purpose of our comprehensive examinations (acquisition of general proficiency in the student’s areas of teaching and scholarship and preparation to write a dissertation that will intervene productively in the field); and make more effective use of each committee’s autonomy and discretion in guiding a student through the examination and proposal processes.

Key Program Changes

In the past, three preliminary exam lists (one each for two major fields, one for a minor field) were due at the end of May of year 2. Final lists were due at the end of September in year 3. Written comprehensive exams were completed in May of year 3—one essay for each list, all written over a ten-day period. A preliminary dissertation proposal was due the first day of classes in year 4, oral exams based on the three essays and the preliminary proposal were completed in September or October of year 4, and the final dissertation proposal was due 1 November of year 4. Dissertation defenses were completed in May or June of year 5. There were several problems with the old system: postexam (ABD) dissertation research and writing time was limited to nineteen months; students lost momentum between the written and oral components of the exam; students often could not compete successfully for external dissertation-year fellowships, most of which have deadlines in the fall of year 4 and require a dissertation chapter.

Changes include the following:

  • Written component of the exams was moved up, from May of year 3 to March of year 3 (mid-semester, over Vanderbilt’s spring break).
  • Deadline for the preliminary dissertation proposal was moved up, from first day of classes year 4 to 15 April of year 3; called a “dissertation abstract,” it is a maximum of five pages.
  • Oral exams were moved up, from September or October of year 4 to the first two weeks of May of year 3.
  • Final dissertation proposal was moved up, from 1 November of year 4 to 15 June of year 3.
  • Formal expectations were established for student-committee consultations during exam reading in fall of year 3. Regular meetings are held to discuss priorities for professionalization and to develop a subset of each reading list that best represents these priorities.
  • Formal deadline for establishing two-tiered lists was instituted. By 15 December of year 3 students must formally distinguish between texts of primary and secondary significance within each list.

Concluding Overview

The new exam structure now integrates the twofold purpose described above by making the discovery and refining of a workable dissertation topic part of the more general goal of acquiring field proficiency. The more structured reading process and the earlier deadlines for the dissertation abstract and final proposal (these last are made possible by the earlier written exams) allow students to make better use of the summer after year 2 (for preliminary reading on their own) and of the summer after year 3 (beginning dissertation writing instead of dithering over the prospectus).


Two years into implementation, we are happy with the results. Students are getting an earlier start on their writing, more are completing in five years, and the dissertations are more developed.

Instituting a Noncredit Publishing Program


The publishing program aims to increase the likelihood that our students enter the job market with at least one peer-reviewed publication. With a five-year program geared to dissertation completion, it is difficult for students to find the time to publish articles. Students take six four-hour courses in year 1, five in year 2, and two in the fall of year 3. They also begin teaching one course each semester (with full instructional responsibility) in the fall of year 2. (Most students have at least one semester free of service in year 5, and many have the entire year service-free.) It would be too difficult to require an entire course dedicated to publishing, particularly since we already require a pro-seminar in the fall of year 1.

Project Publish Overview

Project Publish is a year-long, noncredit, optional program designed to get students to submit an article for publication by May of year 4. It is run by the director of graduate studies (DGS) with support from other faculty members. All students in year 4 are encouraged to participate; students in year 3 may participate if a faculty member has told them that one of their seminar papers is potentially publishable or if they receive permission from their comprehensive exam committee and from the DGS.

The fall semester has three workshops with coordinated assignments:

  1. Introduction and Editorial Survey focuses on how editors think about submissions, making use of a colleague’s database of responses from journal editors to an annual survey.
  2. Journal Review features discussion of targeted journals, in which students come in having devoted some attention to one or two journals that seem appropriate for their article. They are expected to say something about what they’ve found, and three invited faculty participants facilitate discussion of writing for particular journals.
  3. Getting Started looks at the openings of published articles distributed in advance. Students come in prepared to discuss ways of engaging the reader and ways of setting up arguments. They then submit their own opening pages (three to four pages) by early November. These are read and commented on by the DGS, by a second faculty member assigned to Project Publish for the year, and by one expert in the field (recruited from the faculty).

The spring semester includes peer-reading groups, deadlines for drafts, and consultation with committees. The locus of the work shifts to peer-reading groups and dissertation committees: deadlines are set over the semester for meeting with peer-reading groups to discuss initial drafts of the entire article, then for meeting with dissertation committees to discuss revised drafts; then the process repeats, with the goal of submitting an article for publication in May of year 4.

Related Program Changes

Using graduate endowment money earmarked for graduate student professional development, we eliminated a cash prize for best dissertation prospectus and created a first-chapter prize that can be awarded to up to two students. (The dissertation prospectus under the new exam structure is less worthy of being evaluated for a prize.) This prize is designed to work hand in hand with the new exam structure and with Project Publish: when students complete the prospectus in June of year 3, their dissertation committees are enjoined to discuss with them which chapter they should begin writing first, with an eye both to the 1 December deadline for submitting a chapter to the first-chapter prize (open only to students in year 4) and to Project Publish (composed mainly of students in year 4). Ideally, students will begin drafting their dissertations with a chapter that seems most publishable and that they can work on in Project Publish.


We are only one year into having implemented both the new first-chapter prize and Project Publish, so it is too early to say what the effects of the changes have been. But it is already clear that by the end of the fall of year 4, students now have highly polished chapters to submit for external fellowships.

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