Prelim Exam Information

Written preliminary exams are offered each fall and spring semester. In order to take the exam, students must register by Aug. 1 (for the fall exam) or Dec. 15 (for the spring exam).

In order to register, you must have completed the following requirements:

  • All coursework for the major fields must be completed.
  • All incompletes must have grades turned in before the registration deadline.
  • Residency and Research and Responsible Scholarship requirements must be fulfilled.
  • GPA of at least 3.5.

American Exam Framework

US Politics, Institutions, and Policy Exam (USPIP)

Beginning fall 2018, the comprehensive written exam for the USPIP field will be designed as follows.

Students will be required to answer three questions of their choice from a list of at least 15 questions. The list may include questions on any area in American politics, but will typically come from the following sub-fields in American politics.

  1. General. This includes topics that reach across several fields, especially theory and methodology. Questions in the general section may ask about processes and issues that are not limited to any particular subfield, such as political reform or social capital.
  2. National Institutions. This includes questions about Congress, the presidency and the executive branch, and/or the federal court system. There is no guarantee that there will be questions offered about each particular branch of the government.
  3. Political Behavior and Elections. This sub-field is concerned about individual and collective issues raised by the study of public opinion, elections, and campaigns, along with their relationship to the governmental process. Issues related to institutions and governmental procedures may be raised in these questions so far as they concern the ways in which individuals participate in politics.
  4. Political Parties and Organized Interests. This sub-field draws its content from studies of voluntary political organizations and their relationship to the political system. It may include questions about the major and minor parties as well as any of the many different sorts of organized interests.
  5. Subnational. This sub-field deals with research on state and local politics and intergovernmental relations. It may also include questions about special districts, such as school and water districts or other metropolitan organizations.

The directions for the exam will begin with the following statement: “Directions: You must choose three questions to answer. You are expected to support your arguments with adequate citations to appropriate literature, but you are reminded to respond to the questions that are asked. Please be aware that your exam is evaluated both on the quality of the individual answers as well as on its overall quality. Use of the same material to answer several different questions is one sign of weakness in that regard and it may result in a failure in the overall evaluation even though each individual question is considered to be satisfactory. Please limit your answers to approximately 2500 words per question, not including bibliography. We reserve the right to add fields at times of our choosing.”

Comparative Exam Framework

Comparative Politics

From the faculty committee for Comparative Politics Preliminary Exam for the Ph.D., to begin fall 2014.

Introduction: Preliminary examinations are about demonstrating breadth; dissertations are about demonstrating specialized knowledge. Good answers to preliminary examination questions may illustrate critical points with examples from one or many countries so long as case material (regardless of how many countries it involves) buttresses theoretical arguments. Accordingly, an essay should convey that a student is: (1) well-versed in the key literature and (2) able to knowledgeably apply a case or cases of their own choosing to that literature. You must answer one question in each section (Sections I-III). Answers for each question should be no more that 2,500 words. You may turn in your reference pages by 1:00 pm the day after your examination. Your reference pages are not counted in the word limit.

Section I: Comparative Theory In preparation for this section, you should think about comparative theories and how to link them to the big questions in political science. You should be able to diagnose and analyzes various aspects of theory and bring in your own examples. You should be able to derive a question from one of the general theories and think about how to apply it.

Section II: Comparative Methods This section will cover the range of methodological issues that have been raised in the context of comparative politics. This is not a statistics exam, but every student in comparative politics is expected to be familiar with a range of issues, such as conceptual stretching, most different and most similar systems designs, functional equivalence. In preparation for this section, you should be familiar with the various methodological approaches commonly used in comparative politics. In addition, you should be able to discuss past and contemporary methodological debates in the field regarding different approaches to the study of comparative politics.

Section III: Substantive and Thematic Area When you declare your intention to take the comparative politics comprehensive exam, we ask that you declare an area in comparative politics to form the basis of a question in this section. For example, you could indicate “institutions,” “political parties,” or “social movements.” Section III will not be limited to only that area (or specialization) of comparative politics, but there will be at least one question addressing your declared topic of interest.

Public Policy Exam Framework

Public Policy

The Policy Exam has 3 parts.

The first section emphasizes general methodology and theories of policy.

The second section focuses on the stages of the policy process, broadly conceived. The third section is a policy-area specific set of questions. The first two are relevant for all students and the faculty expect that all students should have taken enough coursework to discuss with authority areas such as policy formulation, adoption, implementation, evaluation, as well as the more general issues of methodology and theory.

The third part of the test topic-driven, based on the student's stated area of specailization. Students should seek out the chairperson for the policy examination well in advance of the examination and inform the chairperson of the selection of policy issues. Sometimes students request topical areas that are too narrow or are otherwise inappropriate, and the members of the policy field will make a final determination before the examination is drafted.

The Policy Examination begins with the following: Instructions : Answer one question from each part of the examination for a total of three answers. Please identify the question you are answering at the beginning of each essay. You are limited to 3000 words for answering each question. Strong answers make coherent and forceful arguments, are grounded in scholarly literature, and make use of relevant examples. They show an understanding of current research and issues. Weak answers often fail to make an argument or do so without reference to relevant literature. Exams are graded as a whole; repeating arguments in response to different questions weakens the overall exam. Good luck!

International Relations Exam Framework

International Relations

The IR prelim is designed to:

  1. Assess the student's understanding of questions and debates generally considered to be central in the field of International Relations
  2. Determine the students ability to analyse and synthesize arguments and evidence from different scholars into a coherent, focused, original essay.
  3. Illustrate that the student has developed intellectual independence by going beyond the material presented in their formal coursework, exploring new insights and examining material in greater depth
  4. Evaluate the student's understanding of an array of substantive issues in international relations as embodied in the following five subfields. Questions may fit within one subfield or address issues and concepts that cross multiple fields
    1. International Relations Theory and Methods
    2. Foreign Policy Analysis
    3. International Conflict and Conflict Resolution
    4. International Ethics, International Law, and International Organization
    5. International Political Economy

The IR faculty will compose a list of nine questions, with at least one question from each of these five subfields.  Students are expected to select and answer three of these questions in three essays of approximately 3000 words each, excluding the bibliography.

Advice to the student:  Choose questions that enable you to demonstrate a broad knowledge of history and development of the field international relations. Relevant real world examples, preferably from more than one region should be integrated and important recently published literature should be cited. A good exam is characterized by coherant and forceful arguments based on existing work and evidence in t he field. A weak exam is one where the argument is made in isolation from the literature and/or where no argument is made. Almost all the questions are designed to allow you to take a position on an issue. Do not simply produce an annotated bibliography. In other words, use the questions to show that you can analyze and integrate the relevant concepts and materials and can present an argument as a scholar.

Students should make a concerted effort to consult (early and often) with faculty in the international relations subfield about how best to prepare for qualifying exams. Last updated Dec. 2008.

Political Theory Exam Framework

Political Theory

Recommended Coursework Students interested in the subfield should take POLS 701, Political Theory, which is a survey of topics and approaches. Students should also take POLS 709: Topics in Political Theory when that it offered. There are quite a few 500 and 600-level theory courses -- such as POLS 501 (Contemporary Political Thought), POLS 504 (Milleniarian Movements), POLS 600 (Feminist Theory), POLS 602 (American Political Ideas), POLS 603 (Democratic Theory),POLS 604 (Religion and Political Theory), POLS 605 (Political Thought in Antiquity) , and POLS 607 (Modern Political Theory)-- that graduate students can take, but they will be expected to go beyond the undergradate requirements in such courses. Finally, there are courses in other departments like Philosophy, Sociology, Religious Studies, and Public Administration that might be appropriate for graduate students. Before taking such courses, please clear them with the theory faculty in Political Science.

The preliminary exam in theory has three sections. Students must answer one of about three questions contained in each section.
A general section will cover major theorists and philosophers and important themes in political theory. Major thinkers in the history of political thought include (but are not limited to) Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Machiavilli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Madison, Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, and Weber. Major contemporary theorists include (but are not limited to) Arendt, Strauss, Dahl, Rawls, Habermas, MacIntyre, Foucault, Wolin, and Walzer. Important themes include social contract theory, power, justice, liberty and community, citizenship (rights and obligations), legitimacy, political stability and change, ideologies, and epistemological issues. In general, students will be given questions dealing with such themes and will be expected to discuss and evaluate how major thinkers have contributed to our understanding of these themes.

The second and third parts of the theory prelim will deal with more specialized areas within political theory and will reflect the interests and training of students taking the exam. Examples of areas of emphasis that would be covered in these parts of the exam include (but are not limited to): ancient political philosophy, modern political theory, American political thought, postmodern thought, empirical political theory, democratic theory, theories of justice and jurisprudence, global justice, feminist theory, religion and political theory, Marxism, and liberalism. Students could take course work in these specialized areas at the undergraduate level, in other departments, and through directed readings, but they should understand that they would be held responsible for readings and ideas in these areas beyond what is covered in the particular courses.

The three questions answered on prelims should be distinct. For example, students who indicate that they wish to be responsible for Ancient Political Philosophy on Part 2 of the prelim should not focus on ancient thinkers or themes in the General Section of the exam. Or students who indicate they wish to be responsible for feminist theory on Part 3 of the exam should not focus on post-modern feminists in a broader general question on post-modernism.

Please see the Director of Graduate Studies with any questions.

Previous comprehensive exam questions are available for review to help with exam preparation. Please contact the department at