Comprehensive Oral Examinations for PhD Candidates

Comprehensive Oral Examinations Registration:


After PhD students complete their coursework, students register for the comprehensive oral examination reading period by enrolling in 105Q.  Students can register for up to two semesters of 105Q, and a minimum of one semester, after which they will sit for their comprehensive oral exams. Typically, a PhD student in English sits for the comprehensive exam after one semester and part of a second semester of preparation; other alternatives include a semester and a summer’s worth of preparation. In certain exceptional cases a student may elect to sit for the exam after one semester of preparation/reading.


Students may not register for the comprehensive exam if they have an INC grade on their transcript, have a GPA below a 3.0, or have more than one semester of coursework left to complete.


NB: Students in 105Q (0 credit) are eligible for full-time status to defer their loans, but must file a form with the Graduate office to certify their full-time status (and hence keep their loans in forbearance):

Departmental Process:

Students will file a form, “Oral Comprehensive Exam Proposal” with the DGS in the semester prior to the date the student intends to take the exam (or at the latest at the start of the semester in which the student intends to sit for the exam). The form requires three signatures of the three faculty members who are reading with the student, which signifies that they approve of the reading list and rationale attached.  The student will attach the three reading lists and rationale to the form; on the day of the exam, the student can resubmit the final three lists (if any changes have occurred across the reading/preparation period).


Guidelines for the Comprehensive Oral Exam Process

This is a pass/fail exam.

The committee will set the parameters of the exam, but in general students can expect a 90 minute to 2-hour oral exam process. At the conclusion of the oral exam, the committee will confer privately and decide whether the student has passed the entire exam, or has failed either the entire exam or specific portions of the exam.  For example, a student may pass two out of three lists, and be asked to retake one. The student may thus only have to re-take a portion of the exam, or s/he make be asked to retake the entire exam.  

Per University guidelines, student may re-take the failed exam once.

If the student fails one or two of the three lists, the student will be re-examined in the failed list(s) only.   All three faculty members, however, will attend the retake of the exam.

If a student passes upon retake, the DGS or Chair will file a “P” (pass).

If the student elects not to re-take the exam, or fails the exam a second time, then after this a permanent X is a ssigned to the transcript, and the student will not progress in the degree program.


The student should plan to re-take the failed exam (or portion of exam) by the end of the next semester following the failed exam, and no longer than one year later; a student may elect to take the exam sooner. 

The presumption is that students will stay with their first exam committee.

If the student decides to change their academic direction and thus change the content of the lists, then the following rules will apply:

For the sake of continuity, a minimum of one member of the first committee must remain on the committee that re-examines the student.  

— The student must meet with the DGS and/or Chair if the committee is going to change. This consultation is required.  The student should plan on meeting with the former committee members as well as new possible committee members, and the DGS should be consulted in that process.  The student should provide a brief rationale (1-2 pages) explaining their change in direction, to be filed with the DGS along with the revised lists.

— The new readers should reflect the new direction, though there may be some cross-over between the original lists and the new ones.  Students may not use the same lists with different examiners.                                                       

In most cases there is continuity between the Comprehensive Oral Exam Committee and the Dissertation Committee, but some students may choose to constitute the committee differently, and are not required to keep the same committee.  

Additional Resources

The community of scholars at St. John’s University is supportive. We want you to succeed, and are therefore committed to providing students with the tools they’ll need to prepare for doctoral work. Our community has put together a password protected resource page to help you navigate your comprehensive oral examination, which you can receive by contacting the DGS or Lana Umali in the English department office.