A graduate with a PhD is expected to be able to conduct a program of their own research, as well as to be able to teach and supervise others who are formulating research.
The A exam is intended to ensure that the PhD student is making appropriate progress toward these goals. Thus the exam has both a backward-looking and a forward-looking purpose, assessing mastery of material already covered and preparation for conducting independent dissertation research. Upon passing the A exam the student is admitted to candidacy for the PhD.
Timing of the A Exam
Normally, the A exam is taken in the fall or spring of the third year of the PhD program. By special arrangement with the committee, the exam may be taken in the summer before the third or fourth year. By Graduate School rules, the A exam may not be taken before two semesters of registration as a doctoral student, but it must be taken before the student begins the seventh semester of registration. The A exam may not be scheduled if there are any outstanding incomplete or missing grades, or if their committee is not complete.
Content of the A Exam
The A exam is a comprehensive breadth and depth review of the theoretical and methodological material the student has studied over the last few years. Normally, the exam will test at least the following:
- knowledge of theory development and methodology, including epistemology of social science;
- knowledge of a broad range of communication theory relevant to the student’s work; and
- depth knowledge of the theory, research, and methods in the student’s area of specialization.
The student’s special committee will determine the specific content of the A exam. The Field recommends that the student meets with the full committee to agree on the scope of the exam questions and the procedures to be followed. The chair of the committee will coordinate this process to ensure that questions achieve the goals set for the A exam. This coordination may include defining areas of inquiry and recommending reading lists.
Procedures for the A Exam
The A exam consists of a written examination and an open oral examination by the special committee. Generally, students should set the approximate date of the oral exam (which comes after the written exam) approximately three to six months in advance. The student must formally notify the Graduate School seven calendar days in advance of the oral part of the A exam via the Schedule of Exam form and must follow all other Graduate School rules regarding A exams. It is recommended that students initiate the schedule form at least one week before the A exam scheduling form is due to ensure there is time for the signatures to be collected. To track signatures, students will receive emails when someone signs off on the form and they can log into Dynamic Forms to see the progress.
Together, members of the special committee usually give three to four closed or open-book questions with a normal expectation of not more than 100 double-spaced pages of text in total. Exam questions may come in one or more of the following formats:
- literature review,
- theoretical paper,
- synthesis of a field or subfield,
- methodological exposition,
- grant proposal,
- publishable journal article,
- dissertation proposal,
- policy paper, or
- multimedia project.
Other forms are also welcome that suit the candidate’s area of research and career orientation. They may also set other rules for the nature of materials and equipment the student may use in the examination. If students are allowed to refer to the literature and other written material as well as their own notes, they must not receive any other form of outside help that would compromise the assumption that the A exam is the student’s own work.
Typically, the committee will set a definite deadline for the A exam, then each committee member will give the student a question that requires two to four weeks of work to complete serially or in parallel. Committee members may request revisions of the answers before the oral exam. Students should circulate exam responses to all committee members at least two weeks before the oral defense; committees may request additional time to read exam responses. Graduate School rules require that the oral part of the A exam be open to all members of the Field.
Evaluating the A Exam
To pass the exam, the student must demonstrate a mastery of the material and the ability for independent thought. The members of the special committee will adjust their expectations for the length, breadth, depth, and level of detail of the written responses based on the form of the exam given. The determination of whether the student passes or fails rests exclusively with the special committee, and all members of the committee must approve. If a student fails the examination, re-examination is allowed if the special committee grants approval. A re-examination may be given no earlier than three months after the failure. The Results of Exam form must be submitted within three days of the oral exam taking place. Upon successful completion of the A exam, students are eligible to receive a non-thesis master's degree. They should confer with their committee chair before the results form is processed as the chairperson is the only one who can check the box to indicate whether the student will receive a non-thesis master's or not. Students are able to track signatures on the results form through Dynamic Forms.