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Student Guide: The M.A. Comprehensive Examination

Examination Procedures

Congratulations on reaching this important step in your graduate education!

The comprehensive examination is a critical part of the GPIS MA program. You should view it not simply as a hurdle to pass over on your way to graduation, but instead as an opportunity to pull together the material you have covered during your graduate education. The process of preparing for the comprehensive exam should help you organize and reflect on the variety of things you have learned over the past few years. While to this point, each of your seminars has been a distinct learning experience, you now can think about how your interdisciplinary work in international studies fits together. Preparation for the comprehensive exam should help you become better able to integrate and utilize the knowledge you have gained in your graduate study.

The Comprehensive Examination Process

The comprehensive exams will be scheduled for a single day each semester. You will have four-and-a-half hours to complete the exam. GPIS will arrange for a place for you to take the exam, usually in a computer lab. The exam is closed book and no notes or other aids of any kind are allowed.

Exam Grading

The exam will be graded by a committee of GPIS faculty. The committee will usually, but not always, include the directors of the relevant tracks and the director and associate director of GPIS. It may take up to two weeks to get the exams graded.

Passing the Comprehensive Exam

Different examiners may read the exams in different ways, and it is the student's responsibility to write answers that are generally accessible and appealing across the variety of GPIS faculty. Most readers will be looking for a clear and direct answer to the question, evidence of reasonable familiarity with the important literature, and an ability to integrate theory and empirical cases.

To pass the comprehensive exam, students must receive passing evaluations from a simple majority of the committee members.

Failing the Comprehensive Exam

Our goal and expectation is that every student will pass the comprehensive examination. The exam is not designed to be a barrier to graduation. It is meant to be a straightforward assessment of the student's ability to handle the basic concepts they will have been exposed to in their graduate education. Nonetheless, and precisely because the exam is conceptualized as an assessment of basic abilities, it plays an important role in our willingness to certify a student as having achieved the necessary level of ability to be recognized as an MA graduate.

Students who do not pass the exam on the first attempt will have to retake the exam in a subsequent semester. Failure on the second attempt will prevent the student from receiving the MA degree. A student who fails twice on the exam will still have a transcript attesting to their performance in their GPIS graduate seminars, but they will not be able to receive the MA degree.

Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

The best preparation for the MA comprehensive examination is the GPIS coursework you have completed. Reviewing the notes and materials from your seminars and trying to organize it around some integrative themes is essential preparation. The following pages offer some suggestions for effective preparation and for the effective writing of a comprehensive examination.


Tips for Preparing for the M.A. Comprehensive Exams


  1. Take appropriate classes

In consultation with your advisor and other faculty, be sure to select a variety of classes that will give you the broad background you need for the comprehensive exam.

  1. Keep effective class notes and reading notes.

You should be thinking about preparation for the comprehensive exams from the beginning of your program. Keeping your seminar and reading notes in an organized manner will allow for more effective comprehensive exam review. You will particularly want to be careful about the material in the core classes.

  1. Work on exam preparation in groups

Working with others can help you share the labor of summarizing and reviewing material. You can work with others on identifying the critical literature and on developing answers to hypothetical test questions.

  1. Pay particular attention to the broad literature of international relations theory that will help you in answering a wide variety of questions.

Many of the questions across the different tracks will benefit from an effective understanding of the broad currents and debates of international relations theory. One of the things a graduate education should help you do is to apply general theory to a variety of specific situations. Displaying that ability on the comprehensive exam is a good idea.

  1. Identify some historical periods and important episodes and issues around which you will develop a particular expertise.

Alas, no one can know everything about everything. You will see in this collection of sample questions that it is relatively rare for a question to demand knowledge of a particular event or historical period. Nonetheless, you will also see that you are often called upon to identify a critical historical period or event. You will be expected to evince in depth knowledge of some issues or areas. Effective in-depth knowledge of a few critical issue areas or historical episodes can help you generate appropriate material for a wide variety of questions. You should also pay attention to current events of critical importance and be able to place them in historical context.

Tips for Writing an Effective Comprehensive Exam


  1. Make sure you answer the questions explicitly and clearly.

The most common comprehensive exam mistake is to not explicitly and clearly answer the question. Read the question very carefully and make sure that you offer an explicit answer to the question. Do not rely on the readers to draw out implicit answers.

  1. Make appropriate reference to the literature and relevant scholarly debates.

You will not, of course, be expected to provide detailed citations. But, you should demonstrate familiarity with the basic literature. You should be able to appropriately reference the scholars whose arguments are relevant to a particular issue. You may occasionally include the name of a book or article and the date of its publication.

  1. Make appropriate use of theory and of empirical and historical knowledge.

If appropriately done, it is particularly effective to use theory to inform answers on history questions and history to inform answers on theory questions.

  1. Write full answers that are structured with an introduction and conclusion.

As in all writing, structure and organization are important to effective communication. Just because it is a time-limited exam is no excuse for jumbled, incoherent writing. Take the time to think through your argument and its structure before you write. As in all writing, signposting, headings, and clear explicit language can help communicate your ideas. Provide a clear introduction and conclusion that can help you summarize your central point and will reassure the readers that you have, in fact, explicitly answered the question.

  1. Don't make big mistakes

This, of course, is common sense, but I can't overemphasize how difficult it is to certify someone as ready for an MA degree in international studies who fundamentally misunderstands some essential literature, or who demonstrates a wanton disregard for historical accuracy.


This 4 ½ hour examination will be proctored on campus and you MUST be present.

  • You may take breaks as needed but you may not leave the building
  • Save your work often on the thumb drive you were provided with
  • If any problems occur, notify the proctor immediately
  • The examination is closed book and no notes or other aids are allowed
  • You will be given a blue book, pen, and pencil for writing notes
  • Once the exam begins the computer browsers will be locked down
  • You are not permitted to use your cell phone or any other electronic device
  • You sign and return the honor pledge provided

The ODU Honor Pledge will be strictly enforced:

I pledge to support the Honor System of Old Dominion University. I will refrain from any form of academic dishonesty or deception, such as cheating or plagiarism. I am aware that as a member of the academic community it is my responsibility to turn in all suspected violations of the Honor Code. I will report to a hearing if summoned.

~Honor Pledge

On the day of the exam report to the assigned classroom and be ready to start promptly at 8:00 a.m. when the questions are distributed.

The examination consists of two parts:

  • Part 1 answer ONE question for International Relations Theory and ONE question for U.S. Foreign Policy.
  • Part 2 answer ONE question for Cultural Studies.

The questions are written broadly, but your essays must remain explicitly responsive to what is asked; simply referencing texts is not sufficient. Time is ample and running out of time is not an option. Ending early is also not advised. The examination will conclude at 12:30 pm and the thumb drive must be turned in to the proctor.

The examination committee consists of faculty from the major concentrations, and the designated GPIS chairperson. Form M5 must be completed and submitted prior to the examination.

Good luck!


(These are the instructions that come with the exam)

  1. You must answer three questions.
  2. The questions are meant to be answered in about one and a half hours each. Allocate your time accordingly and make sure that each question has a concluding section.
  3. Also make sure that you:

answer the questions as they are raised and not as you wish they had been raised
illustrate your answer with appropriate empirical examples
cite relevant sources
make proper references to important interpretative debates, when appropriate

  1. Your answers will be reviewed in terms of:

how effectively you address each of the questions
how well you know and manage your facts
how soundly you handle and cite the literature
how well you have developed and organized your argument
the quality of your writing

Past Questions


  1. Describe and discuss the evolution of U.S. policies toward any country (with the exception of the Soviet Union) or region of your choice during a 6-year period of your choice, extended from January 1961 to January 1991. To introduce your answer, explain your choice of the period you chose to discuss. To conclude, describe the legacies of the Cold War on that region or country ever since.

  2. Describe and discuss the policies of any U.S. President and/or National Security Advisor, OR Secretary of State and/or Secretary of Defense during the period 1989-2008. To introduce your response, please explain your choice in terms of his/her/their role and the time when she/he/they assumed that role. To conclude, assess their/his/her legacy relative to current U.S. interests and global conditions.

  3. "The Cold War was remarkably stable and predictable."Explain and discuss this statement with a general assessment of the conditions that framed (or denied) such stability and predictability in superpower and alliance relations during the Cold War. As you proceed with your analysis, make sure that explicit references are made to specific events. To conclude, introduce briefly your views on the conditions of post-Cold War stability.

  4. "I am probably the first president who is young enough that the Vietnam War was not at the core of my development," reportedly said Barack Obama when reviewing his decisions concerning the war in Afghanistan. "I grew up with none of the baggage that arose out of the dispute over Vietnam.... So a lot of the policy frames through which these debates are being viewed don't really concern me." Explain and discuss the nature of the "Vietnam baggage" and explain the "policy frame" such baggage imposed on policymakers for the balance of the Cold War. Did those have an impact at all, and if so how do you assess that impact. Conclude with a brief discussion of President Obama's disclaimer about his own sensitivity to Vietnam and its legacies on specific issues he now faces.


  1. To what extent does world politics resemble a prisoner's dilemma game?

  2. Of the three primary schools of IR theory--realism/neorealism; liberalism/neoliberalism; and constructivism--which one offers the best guide to understanding world politics? Why so?


China maintains a fixed exchange rate of 6.5 Chinese yuan per U.S. dollar. A number of OECD nations claim the yuan is currently undervalued by 50% and this artificially low price of yuan has had adverse effects on the international economy. As a result, China has been under increasing pressure to abandon their fixed rate and allow the yuan to appreciate on the world market.

(a) Explain the potential benefits to China of maintaining a fixed exchange rate. What does this mean for other countries?

(b) How can the Chinese central bank hold the yuan/dollar exchange rate fixed? What does the central bank have to do in order to hold the exchange rate fixed?

(c) If China maintains a fixed exchange rate, what does this mean for fiscal and monetary policy?

(d) Using two separate IS/LM/FE graphs, show the effect of fiscal and monetary policy upon GDP, exchange rates, and the balance of trade.

Question 2:
Relative to the world market, the United States is a producer and importer of sugar.

(a) Using a demand-supply graph of the U.S. market for sugar, illustrate and explain the effects of an import tariff on U.S. sugar prices, levels of production and consumption, and domestic welfare.

(b) Some senators argue that free trade is harmful to the United States and the use of protectionist trade policies (such as sugar tariffs) is the best way to protect domestic sugar producers from foreign competition. Is this argument economically valid?

(c) Would the use of protectionist trade policies be justified if they were implemented to reduce the level of unemployment? Explain.


  1. Modernization theorists and dependency theorists offer vastly different explanations for conditions in developing countries. Discuss (a) the points of agreement and divergence between dependency and modernization theories; and (b) what role each theory attributes to international organizations. Support your response by drawing upon the experience of a country or region that you know well.
  2. Hegemonic Stability theorists argue that only a hegemon can provide the various public goods that are the foundation of an open international economic order-a convertible currency, enforceable tariff limits, and liquidity during global financial crises. Is hegemony necessary for global free trade? Would declining hegemony likely result in greater protectionism?
  3. During the recent past, most countries in the developing world have adopted neo-liberal, market-oriented economic reforms. Describe these reforms in detail. What explains this convergence in policy reform? What are the differential impacts of such reforms on domestic groups?
  4. Although Realism is a theoretical approach more typically applied to security affairs, its proponents claim that it is equally useful in explaining global political economy. Evaluate the extent to which Realism represents an effective theoretical construct for understanding the contemporary global political economy.
  5. International economic institutions are continually gaining power and authority at the expense of national and local governments. Describe how the increased power and authority of international economic institutions both enhances and impedes the prospects for genuine democracy in the world. Be sure to provide evidence to support your position.
  6. When first introduced, Dependency Theory challenged traditional approaches to the study of development and developing countries. Today, however, many critics charge that Dependency Theory is out of date and fails to effectively explain contemporary economic and social conditions in the developing world. Do you agree or disagree with this critique? Explain. Be sure to support your position by drawing upon the experience of a country or region in the developing world which you know well.
  7. The expansion of free trade and the movement of people and ideas around the globe has been a hallmark of the liberal agenda for international relations. yet, globalization has generated significant and vocal opposition. Please assess the liberal and anti-globalization positions with regard to one of the following issues:


  1. Does economic integration make the state stronger or weaker?
  2. Define globalization. What are the most significant indicators or measures of globalization? In what ways does globalization impact the sovereignty of nation states?
  3. Modernization and dependency theories have long been the major paradigms for explaining conditions in the developing world. Describe and critique these theories. Be sure to outline the major strengths and weaknesses of each perspective.
  4. It is frequently argued that we are living in an era of globalization. Define globalization. Is the contemporary era fundamentally distinct or unique from previous periods? Explain. Do you feel the process of globalization contributes to the intensification or amelioration of inequalities between and within countries? Explain.
  5. Prepare an essay describing the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement. "Grand theoretical approaches to the study of development (e.g. Modernization and Dependency theories) are of little use for understanding contemporary socio-economic conditions in the developing world. Scholars should proceed with more historically-specific and context-specific studies."
  6. Prepare an essay describing the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement. "The contemporary era of globalization calls into question the dominant theoretical approach (e.g., realism) to the study of international relations."
  7. Prepare an essay describing the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement. "Grand theoretical approaches to the study of development (e.g., modernization and dependency) are of little use for understanding contemporary socio-economic conditions in the Global South. Scholars should proceed with more historically-specific and context-specific studies."
  8. There is little consensus regarding the relationship between globalization and democracy. Some scholars contend globalization increases the prospects for extending and strengthening democracy in the world while others suggest globalization undermines democracy. Describe and evaluate the arguments presented on both sides of this debate. Which argument is stronger?
  9. Prepare an essay describing the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement. "Past theories of development have been far too narrow. To fully understand and appreciate the complexities of the development process we should adopt an eclectic approach which incorporates elements from various theoretical perspectives."
  10. The appropriate mix between the roles of the state and the market is one critical area of controversy surrounding democracy. Some argue that democracy requires a free market economic system with minimal state intervention in economic activity. Others argue that democracy requires at least a mixed economy. Given this controversy, write an essay explaining how economic liberalization that has unfolded since the early 1980s has impacted the scope of democracy.
  11. There are claims that globalization has significantly altered development theory. Supporting your arguments with evidence from a country or a region of your choice, explain why you agree or disagree with this contention.
  12. It is frequently argued that we are living in an era of globalization. Define globalization. Is the contemporary era fundamentally distinct or unique from previous periods? Explain. Do you feel the process of globalization contributes to the intensification or amelioration of inequalities between and within countries? Explain.
  13. How has the idea or definition of "development" evolved over time? Drawing upon the experience of a region in the developing world which you know best, outline the role which the state (government) and civil society (non-governmental organizations) have played in either promoting or impeding "development".


  1. Based on your research and writing over the course of your program, how has scholarship in Security Studies evolved? Specifically, what are scholars trying to explain? Are new schools of thought gaining ground? Choose scholarly works/arguments you have studied to illustrate your own argument.
  2. How do nuclear weapons 'fit' into the 20th century security environment? What are the implications of this 'fit' for the future of deterrence and non-proliferation? And, how should policy-makers take account of these implications when dealing with state and non-state actors?


  1. Both Rational-Choice and Political Culture theories are considered prominent approaches in comparative sociopolitical studies. What are the major differences between these two approaches in terms of their intellectual geneses, theoretical assumptions, and major arguments (or hypotheses)? What criticism has each of these approaches drawn? What comments do you have on the criticism?
  2. Both the former USSR (now Russia) and China introduced socioeconomic reforms during the 1980s. Describe major differences between the two countries in their reform strategies and results. Then, explain sociopolitical factors causing such differences.
  3. Both Rational-Choice and Political-Culture theories are considered prominent approaches in comparative sociopolitical studies. Which of these approaches is more likely to be useful for policy makers thinking about democracy and democratization?
  4. The following three analytical themes have been frequently tackled in comparative sociopolitical studies. Select one of them and explain and comment on what you see as the most effective theoretical approach to it.


  1. Explain the social construction of culture(s) and its significance to current political economic realities.
  2. Cite a case study of a post-colonial critique of nationalism. Explain the role of the imperial power and how that is legitimized or not.
  3. How is the concept of "nation" constructed in Modernity? How is this construction relevant to issues in international studies? Cite case studies where appropriate.
  4. Explain how cultural studies theories are important to the study and practice of international relations.
  5. Explain the importance of the media in the construction or reflection of the identity of immigrant, multicultural or diaspora communities.


  1. To what extent have the sources of power changed in world politics over time?
  2. The director of the US National Security Council recently said that America has never faced a greater array of threats than it faces today. Do you agree?
  3. Debate exists on the extent to which interdependence, globalization and transnationalism have transformed international relations. What is your view?
  4. To what extent have the sources and nature of power changed in world politics over time?
  5. Based on your studies in the TIP track, what are the global forces that threaten global security and what are the global forces that enhance security? Which forces are now stronger?

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