Graduate Handbook - Preliminary Examination

The Preliminary Exam intensely explores a student's chosen field of study. It is intended to help the student prepare to write the dissertation by establishing breadth in the student's areas of academic interest and by enhancing the student's ability to carry on a critical, scholarly dialogue. For Plan C students, the Preliminary Exam provides a literary and critical foundation for the creative dissertation and for teaching literature and creative writing. The Preliminary Exam has a written and an oral component.

Students take the Preliminary Exam after completing all doctoral course work or with no more than three credits of doctoral course work remaining. Students cannot take the exam if they have any incomplete or unreported grades or a GPA less than 3.0. Students must also have completed a Program of Study and should have satisfied the second language requirement.

Students must finish the Preliminary Examination within one semester after all course work is completed, excluding the summer session. Students may receive a one-semester extension for additional course work from the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.

Students who fail the exam may retake it once. Students who fail a second time are recommended for dismissal from the doctoral program. Students must successfully complete the preliminary exam within five years of initial enrollment.

Planning for the Preliminary Exam

When students near the end of their doctoral course work (within 3-6 credits), they should establish a Preliminary Examination Committee. The committee consists of the student's advisor and two other graduate faculty members that the student and advisor choose. The Associate Chair for Graduate Studies must approve the committee. For approval of the Preliminary Examination committee, the student will complete the Declaration of Committee form available from the Graduate Student Handbook's online Forms Checklist and Links page. The Associate Chair will inform the student if a Committee member is not authorized to be on student exam committees. All Committee members must also be approved by the Graduate School to be on student committees. Inclusion of the names of at least 3 committee members on a properly filed 'Application for Doctoral Preliminary Examination' form constitutes a request for approval by the Graduate School.

Prior to the beginning of the semester in which they plan to take the exam, students must file an Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination form with the Graduate School. Students should check with the Graduate School Doctoral Specialist for applicable filing deadlines.

  • Students who have completed all doctoral course requirements, and have had a Preliminary Exam application approved by the Graduate School, may enroll for one credit of English 990 during the semester they prepare for the preliminary exam. Students can take English 990 to prepare for the preliminary exam only once.
  • In addition to filing an Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination, students with TA, PA or RA appointments must also file a Graduate Assistant Justification form with the Graduate School before the semester begins in order to keep their full-time student status.

Preliminary Exam Format and Procedure

Students in Plans A (Literature and Cultural Theory), B (Rhetoric & Composition), E (Modern Studies), and H (Media, Cinema and Digital Studies) must prepare a preliminary proposal for approval by their committee and the GPC.

Students in Plan C and Plan G have the option of a Rationale format (please see information below). This option may be chosen after consultation with the student's advisor.

The Proposal Format

In consultation with their advisor, students prepare a preliminary examination proposal (the text portion of which should not exceed 8 pages) and a list of 90-100 scholarly items. An item is defined as a single-author book, a collection or anthology, a film, or special journal issue. For those disciplines in which scholarly articles, rather than books, are the primary form of scholarly publication, a major article in a major journal may be counted as an item. All items must be listed in proper citation form. The exam can be organized in a number of ways: by genre, historical period, theoretical or critical concern or other rationale that delineates a coherent group of texts. The area(s) should be broad and comprehensive. The exam is designed both as an exploration of texts and ideas that will feed into the dissertation project and as demonstration of expertise in a student's chosen areas.

NOTE: Plan A students, please see the Plan A Preliminary Exam Guidelines page regarding special instructions for the proposal format.

Approval Process

The student's examination committee must approve the preliminary exam proposal and sign a Preliminary Examination Cover Sheet (available on the Forms Checklist and Links page). The student must then give the original Cover Sheet and original Proposal along with 1 additional copy of the proposal and cover sheet to the Graduate Program Manager one week in advance of the GPC meeting at which the proposal will be considered. The student must also email a digital copy of the proposal to the graduate program manager by the same deadline. GPC meeting dates and dates for submission of materials for GPC consideration are posted outside the English Graduate Studies Office, Curtin Hall Room 422. The student's advisor or one member of the examination committee attends the GPC meeting at which the student's proposal is considered.

The GPC can reject the proposal and return it for further work. If it does, the GPC must explain why it rejected the proposal and what revisions are required.

Because each proposal is unique and reflects its author's perspective and scholarly strengths and interests, there are no definitive models or templates for a successful proposal. Your advisor or committee members may, however, recommend examples if appropriate. Please note that an approved pre-lim or dissertation proposal will not be circulated or shared with others without its author's express permission.

Written exam

The advisor, committe and student set a date for the written examination. The student has up to three days to write the preliminary exam; these days can be separate or consecutive, by mutual agreement of the student and examination committee.

The written exam is open-book and may be taken at home, at UWM or at another location, with the consent of the committee. Written exams are ordinarily no more than 30-40 pages in length. The student's examination committee will identify appropriate page range for each question.

Oral exam

The oral exam should take place 7-10 days after the written exam. Students should contact the Graduate Program Manager roughly two weeks in advance, so that a room for the oral exam can be found. The oral exam lasts for two hours and covers the written exam, book list, proposal, and plans for the dissertation.

The Rationale Format

Components of the Exam

The preliminary examination consists of field bibliographies with rationale, a set of written questions, and a written and an oral exam. Make sure to check "Plan Guidelines" for requirements specific to your concentration.

1. Field bibliographies

Students prepare a set of field bibliographies, usually consisting of 90-100 items. An item is defined as a single-author book, a collection or anthology, a film, or a special journal issue. For those disciplines in which scholarly articles, rather than books, are the primary form of scholarly publication, a major article in a major journal may be counted as an item. All items must be listed in proper citation form. The bibliographies provide the basis for both the written and oral examinations.

Each plan has developed written guidelines for defining fields and constructing bibliographies. Concentrations may, for example, require a "major field" bibliography accompanied by two "minor field" bibliographies, with the "minor field" including areas either within or outside of the concentration. However configured, the total number of items should conform to the general guidelines.

2. Rationale

The bibliographies are accompanied by a rationale, of approximately 500 words, that describes the fields and explains their interrelationships and/or relation to the student's future work. The field bibliographies and rationale must be approved by the student's committee, the plan Advisory Committee, and the plan coordinator.

3. Written questions

Students prepare a set of three written questions of no more than 100 words each, for each of the three field bibliographies. Plans choosing not to have three equally weighted fields can shift the number of questions accordingly. The written questions serve several purposes: to demonstrate that the student has thought carefully and critically about significant issues or ideas raised by the texts he/she has selected and to help formulate ideas that may lead to the dissertation proposal. The examination committee may choose to ask the student some of these questions during the written or oral examination, if it wishes. Students submit their questions to the examination committee no less than two weeks before the scheduled exam.

Approval Process

In consultation with their advisor, students selecting this option prepare their field bibliographies and rationale. When the entire examination committee approves the rationale and bibliographies, the committee members must sign a Preliminary Examination Cover Sheet (available on the Forms Checklist and Links page). Students then submit the signed form and copies of their materials to their plan coordinator. He/she will arrange for the plan Advisory Committee to review the student's rationale and bibliographies. The Advisory Committee may require revisions, such as the inclusion of additional items on the bibliographies or other specific changes to the lists or rationale. When the Advisory Committee has approved the materials, the plan coordinator must sign the Cover Sheet and return it to the English Graduate Studies Office. Students must give the Graduate Program Manager a final version of the rationale and field bibliographies; these are placed in a student's file.

NOTE: Because it is not easy to schedule plan Advisory Committee meetings at certain times of the year, students are strongly encouraged to inform plan coordinators well in advance as to when they intend to submit preliminary exam materials for approval and intend to take the exam.

Written exam

The student sets a date for the written examination, in consultation with his/her committee. The student has up to three days to write the preliminary exam; these days can be separate or consecutive, by mutual agreement of the student and examination committee.

The written exam is open-book and may be taken at home, at UWM or at another location, with the consent of the committee. Written exams are ordinarily no more than 30-40 pages in length. The student's examination committee will identify appropriate page ranges for each question.

Oral exam

The oral exam should take place 7-10 days after the written exam. Students should contact the Graduate Program Manager roughly two weeks in advance, so that a room for the oral exam can be found. The oral exam lasts for two hours and covers the written exam, bibliographies, rationale and student questions (if the committee chooses).

Specific Plan Guidelines

Plan A: Literature and Cultural Theory

Plan A has developed specific major fields and texts to help students plan their preliminary exams. For instructions, major fields, and readings lists, please visit the Plan A Preliminary Exam Guidelines page.


Plan C: Creative Writing

  1. Students will take their preliminary examinations in one broad field (see below) and two minor fields. One of the minor fields should be construed as an investigation of the kind of work the student will be presenting for the dissertation (for example: historical romance, lyric poetry, detective fiction, and hypertext). Also, one of the minor fields may be a more narrowly focused area of the broad field; the other minor filed should be focused inside a secondary broad field. The broad and minor fields are to be determined by the student, in consultation with the student's committee. Some examples are:
    1. 20th Century American Literature (including African-American and/or other minority ethnic literature)
    2. 20th Century British Literature (including Neo-Colonial literature)
    3. Modern Fiction (19th and 20th Centuries)
    4. Modern Poetry (19th and 20th Centuries)
    5. History and Theory of Criticism
    6. Earlier Periods of Literature (at least two centuries)
    7. History and Theory of Drama
    8. Forms of Nonfiction Prose from the 17th Century to the Present
    9. History and Theory of Women's Literature from the 17th Century to the Present
    10. Another field of similar breadth, defined by the student and approved by the Creative Writing Advisory Committee
  2. The bibliography for the broad field should contain 40-45 texts, with 20-25 in each of the minor fields. At least 20 secondary texts should be included overall.

Plan G: Professional Writing

Plan G should consult with an advisor regarding guidelines.