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Comprehensive Examination in Experimental Psychology

The university requires that all doctoral students pass a comprehensive examination before beginning work on a dissertation. The aims of the comprehensive examination are to elevate a student's mastery of theoretical and research literature in a chosen area and his or her readiness for advanced research in that area, and to provide an opportunity for broadening and integrating the student's knowledge. Students intending to take the comprehensive examination for the first time must inform their adviser four months prior to the anticipated exam period so that the adviser can form a three-person committee of Psychology Department faculty. The adviser will be one of the members.


The comprehensive committees will strive to make each exam specific to the areas of interest to the student. Generally, this means that the exam content will focus on the student's program of study within the Experimental Section (e.g., Cognitive, Social, Health, or I-O). Coverage within or between these specializations may be further specified by the committee. A reading list may be developed by the student, the committee, or both in cooperation to more clearly indicate the potential topics to be covered in the exam.

Regardless of program, all students will be expected to have conducted and presented research within their area of interest (e.g., through the Research Seminar course, 6980), to have successfully completed the first-year seminar in experimental psychology (i.e., 5710) and the research methods course (i.e., 6120), and to have successfully completed the statistics series through Introduction of Linear Regression Analysis (i.e., 6111; 6112). Indeed, all Experimental students will be expected to have a firm grasp of research methods and statistical analysis by the time of their comprehensive exam. For this reason, students should expect items or parts of items on the exam to solicit their understanding of research methods. Specifically, at least one item will require the student to critique and/or design a study (e.g., students may be asked to review a manuscript as if for a journal and then design a study to address significant flaws found in the research reported in the original manuscript).

Finally, all students will be expected to have taken at least one core course outside of their area of specialization. Expect at least one item to ask students to think beyond their narrow area of specialization when considering a substantive issue.


Exams may be open book, closed book, or some combination of the two. Exams will take no less than two (2) days and no more than ten (10). The exact format of each student's exam will be determined by his or her comprehensive exam committee at least two (2) months prior to the scheduled exam date.



  • Pass: Student has successfully finished all sections of the comprehensive exam.
  • Partial Pass: Student must be reevaluated on certain, identified domains.
  • Fail: Student must retake entire exam.
  • Domain: Any knowledge or skill we deem necessary for being an experimental psychologist within one's specialization. Generally, the domain is narrowly defined as the content of the question(s) or the part (s) of the exam failed.

Steps for Determining Status

Comprehensive exam committees may determine criteria for specific parts or items and criteria for the overall exam. For example, the committee may establish parts that are independent (e.g., passing an item or part guarantees at least partial passing), that passing the exam depends on an average overall performance, or that a percentage of successful parts/items must be passed to pass the exam. The criteria to be used by the committee must be specified prior to the beginning of the exam.

Feedback Regarding Results

Feedback is provided at the faculty member's discretion.


Pass: The student has completed this hurdle on the way to receiving his or her Ph.D.

Partial Pass: The nature of the redress will be determined by the committee, but it will generally be in the form of redoing a part of the exam or answering a question from the same domain that was deemed inadequate.

Fail: The student must retake the entire exam at the next opportunity, which must occur no more than a year later. Two failures will result in an Experimental Section vote to either terminate the student from the program or to permit the student's comprehensive exam committee to set up new conditions for completing the comprehensive examination.

It is highly recommended that a student have an approved thesis proposal by the seventh day of classes in end of the Spring Semester of the student's second year.

Relation of Comprehensive Exams to other Requirements

Students must successfully pass comprehensive exams before forming a dissertation committee. In all other respects, comprehensive exams are independent from other research requirements. For instance, students may complete and receive their M.A. degree without having passed their comprehensives. They may also take and pass their comprehensives before forming a thesis committee, although this is not encouraged.