Graduate Handbook | Qualifying Exams
The Qualifying Exams (colloquially known as “quals”) cover the Major Field, Minor Field, and Area of Specialization. Your preparation for these exams will be based upon reading lists, developed in collaboration with the members of your guidance committee, for each of these subject areas. The exams themselves take place in two parts: first, a written portion consisting of three four-hour sessions covering, respectively, the Major Field, Minor Field, and Area of Specialization; second, a two-hour oral exam that may include discussion of the written exams. Students with a single failed written response or two low-pass written responses will not be allowed to sit for the oral session. The opportunity to retake one or more written portions, or the oral exam itself, is at the discretion of the guidance committee.
When establishing your guidance committee for qualifying exams, keep in mind the following guidelines set forth in the Graduate School section of the University Catalogue:
- The committee is composed of at least 5 members
- All members of the committee must be of the rank of assistant professor or above
- At least 3 of these members must be from the History Department, at least one of which must be a tenured professor
- One member (the "outside member") of the committee must be from outside the History Department but within USC. A faculty member who holds a joint appointment in the student's department may only serve as an outside member when the primary appointment is in a department or school outside of the student's degree objective. The outside member serves as the representative of the Vice Provost for Graduate Programs. As such, the outside member determines if the qualifying examination and dissertation processes are conducted at a level that warrants awarding the Ph.D. degree. The outside member also ensures that the student is justly and fairly treated by a committee and department.
Following are the basic administrative steps for the qualifying exams process. For further details or questions regarding the procedural steps, please consult with Joe Styles and/or the Director of Graduate Studies.
- Establish Your Guidance Committee – This step must be completed at least 2 semesters in advance of your exams. The department recommends completing this step during the first semester of the second year. To do so, download and complete the “Appointment of Committee” Form here. Be sure to check the box marked “Ph.D. Guidance Committee.” The POST (Program of Study) code for the History Ph.D. is 144. This form and those following should be submitted to the office of the History Department Chair.
- Change of Committee – If you need to change the composition of your committee, download and fill out the “Change of Committee” form here.
- Formal Request to Take Qualifying Exams – At least 30 days before the start of your exams (first written e), submit the “Request to Take the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam,” available for download here.
- Administrative Meeting – In the months preceding your exams, meet with Joe Styles and Lori Rogers to review the “Checklist for History Department Quals-Takers” (PDF), confirm that all requirements have been met, and schedule future steps regarding the exams.
- Master of Arts in History – If you wish, you may receive an M.A. as a result of the qualifying exams process (the last stage in completing requirements toward the M.A.). To do so, meet with Joe Styles prior to your exams for instructions regarding the necessary forms and procedures.
- Set Date for Exams – Establishing the actual dates for the written and oral portions of the exam is the responsibility of your Guidance Committee Chair. As you approach your exams, inform your Guidance Committee Chair of the approximate time period within which you hope to take your exams and the desired time lapses between written and oral portions. Keep in mind that all portions of your qualifying exams (written and oral) must be completed within 60 days. Generally, it is recommended that you complete your exams over the course of a few weeks as this will make the overall process less emotionally taxing. At least one month prior to the first written examination, Lori Rogers needs to know the details of your exam schedule. Specifically, she will need the following:
- Date and time of the oral exam
- Dates and times for the written sessions exams, by field of study.
- A list of which member(s) of your guidance committee are responsible for providing questions for each written exam.
With this information, she will schedule a room for each exam and gather the questions for the written exams from the members of your guidance committee.
The process of preparing for and taking your qualifying exams is, of course, much more intense and intellectually demanding than simply following the above steps. Below are the key steps you will need to undertake in preparing for this milestone in your professional development. The American Historical Association has also composed a PDF document of Preparation tips for Comprehensive Exams.
Approaching Potential Committee Members – In considering potential members of your guidance committee, talk frankly with your Counselor or Major Professor. Ideally, you will be able to choose for your committee faculty members from whom you have taken (or will take) courses. The structure of a course provides a good framework for establishing a productive scholarly relationship and the initial discussion of the central works in your fields. In some circumstances, however, it will be necessary to approach professors with whom you have not yet worked and ask them to serve on your committee. In either case, be prepared ahead of time to convey a clear understanding of the role you want them to fill on the committee. For instance, will you be asking them to be your primary adviser in a particular area (Major Field, Minor Field, Area of Specialization), to work with others in developing questions for one or more written exams, or to serve simply as an additional member of the committee? If you want someone to direct your study in a particular field, how are you defining that field?
Establishing Reading Lists – Once your committee has been established, the next step is developing the readings lists for your exams. In the course of your preparation, you will establish separate (though sometimes overlapping) reading lists for your Major Field, Minor Field, and Area of Specialization. Professors handle this process differently, so work closely with the members of your guidance committee in determining not only which books and articles to include in your reading lists, but also how these lists themselves will develop over the course of your preparation. Understanding their expectations early in the process can save you a great deal of worry and stress as your preparation proceeds. You will, of course, have some understanding of the shape and scope of your Major Field, Minor Field, and Area of Specialization when you establish your committee. But the process of developing these reading lists and using them to prepare for your exams is designed to expand your knowledge of these subject areas in order to qualify you for teaching and scholarship, so be ready for your initial ideas to be refined and expanded.
Studying for Qualifying Exams – This months-long process can be daunting for any student. Here are some basic tips for tackling your reading lists.
- First, remember how much you have already read and draw on that developing expertise. In all likelihood, you have already read and discussed many of the major works in each of your subject areas as part of your regular course work (including undergraduate work). If you have taken good notes, you may not need to read these works again.
- Keep your reading focused. Remember that your purpose is to master a field of scholarship, not to become an expert on e evidence provided by each author. In general, you should read those sections most carefully that will give you a clear understanding of an author’s argument, including structure, use of evidence, theoretical grounding, and relation to the larger historiography. Speak with the members of your guidance committee for further clarification about how closely you should be reading the works on your lists.
- Group your lists into manageable subfields. Start by reading the central work(s) addressing a particular historiographical debate, period, or theme. You will then be able to tackle subsequent related works with increased ease, skill, and comprehension.
- Book reviews are a helpful tool but not a replacement for personal familiarity with an author’s work. Especially where several are available from qualify sources, reading reviews can give you a sense of the major contributions, contentious points, and historiographical positioning of a given work. Such information can help to focus and inform your own reading.
- Working closely with members of your guidance committee as you progress through your reading lists is essential. Some professors set specific assignments for you to complete as you finish various sections of your reading while others take a less hands-on approach. Whatever the case, be sure to discuss your reading with members of your committee as your preparation proceeds. Doing so will add to your understanding of the field, highlight areas in which the reading list may be further developed, and assist you keeping on-track for your exam dates.
- Speak with fellow graduate students about your preparation. Those working on similar fields can provide some wonderful intellectual support and suggestions for other reading. Those working in other areas or who have completed their exams may also have important additional suggestions for successfully completing the process.