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Student Guide: The Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination


The comprehensive examination is a critical part of the GPIS PhD program. You should not view it simply as a bureaucratic hurdle to pass over on your way to the dissertation. Instead, before embarking on narrowly focused dissertation work, the comprehensive examination establishes that you have the broad familiarity and expertise with the field that is the mark of a doctoral education. It is the checkpoint that confirms that you are ready to pass from being a student to a scholar. 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. It is also critically important for embarking on the dissertation. The best dissertations are effectively connected to the central questions and literature of the field. Unless you have developed an integrated overview of the field you will not have the necessary foundation for dissertation work.

The Comprehensive Character of the PhD Examination

It is important to note that the comprehensive PhD examination is not simply a test of your cumulative knowledge of seminar materials. It is, rather, a test of your preparation to work as an independent scholar at the highest level. By now you should be functioning like a scholar, and not just like a student. You should be aware of the major journals in your field and should be paying attention to them. You should know what the most important books, articles, and debates are regardless of whether they were used in your classes. It may have been a few years since you took IR theory, but it is unlikely that the scholars who work in that area have stopped pushing the field forward to wait for you to get through the comprehensive exams.

The Written Comprehensive Examination Process

The written comprehensive exams are usually scheduled for a Friday and Monday the weekend before the start of the new semester. You will do your major field on one day and your minor field on the other. We will try to schedule your major field for Friday and your minor field for Monday, but the order will be determined by the scheduling needs of the full set of students taking the written comprehensives on a given day. You will have eight hours to complete each part of the exam. The exam is closed book and no notes or other aids of any kind are allowed. For each of your fields you will be given five questions from which you will choose two to answer.

The Written Exam Grading

The exam will be graded by the appointed Doctoral Candidacy Examination Committee. The committee will usually, but not always, include the Committee Chair, and directors of the relevant tracks. It will usually take about two weeks to get the written exams graded.

Passing the Written 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 familiarity and facility with the important literature, and an ability to integrate theory and empirical cases.

To pass the comprehensive exam, students must not receive more than one failing evaluation from a committee member.

Failing the Written Comprehensive Exam

Our goal and expectations are that every student will pass the comprehensive examination. The exam is not designed to be a barrier. It is meant to be a straightforward assessment of the student's command of their declared fields and their preparation to move on to the challenges of writing the dissertation. Nonetheless, and precisely because the exam is conceptualized as an assessment of this preparedness to move on, it plays a very important role in your doctoral education. Students who do not demonstrate an effective grasp of the relevant literature and empirics or who do not effectively and explicitly answer the questions as asked will not pass.

Students who do not pass the written portion of 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 going on to write a dissertation. At the discretion of the examination committee, the failing student may be awarded the MA degree if the performance and coursework so merit, and if they do not already have a GPIS MA.

The Oral Comprehensive Examination process

Doctoral candidates are expected to be able to communicate effectively and knowledgeably both in writing and orally. Thus, the comprehensive examinations have both a written and an oral component.

The oral portion of the comprehensive examination will take place about three weeks after the written. Three to five faculty members will administer the examination. The examiners will usually, but not necessarily, include the Director or Associate Director of GPIS and the track coordinators from the student's major and minor fields. The examination will last about one hour. Each examiner will have a chance to ask questions, but the format will often shift between relatively structured questioning and a more free-flowing discussion.

The discussion will center on the student's answers for the written exam (students may use their written exam). The scope of the exam is not, however, limited to that material. The examiners will be looking to fill in any perceived gaps in the written work, and to assess the student's facility more generally with the literature and empirical material.

Passing the Oral Comprehensive Exam

Passing the oral comprehensive exam is a matter of convincing the committee members that you have an appropriate mastery of the central material of the field and are prepared to go on to focused and independent work on a dissertation. To pass, you must not receive more than one negative vote from a member of the examining committee.

Failing the Oral Comprehensive Exam

Students who do not pass the oral exam will be asked to return in one month for a second oral exam. Students who do not pass on the second attempt will not be allowed to continue for the PhD.


Tips for Preparing for the PhD Comprehensive Exam

The most important preparation for the PhD 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 further suggestions for effective preparation for the comprehensive examination, and for ensuring a strong examination performance.

1. Take appropriate classes

In consultation with your adviser and other faculty, be sure to select a variety of classes that will give you the broad background you need for the comprehensive exam. It is particularly important that you choose classes that will help you gain both a breadth of field knowledge, and a depth of knowledge in a few critical areas. The seminar papers you write should particularly help you develop depth in a few critical areas.

2. 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.

You may find it useful to develop reading notes at different levels of depth. There may be a set of books and articles for which you will have 2-3 page summaries. There may be a second, larger, group for which you have paragraph length descriptions. Finally you should have a third very large group for which you have a sentence for each reading that gives you the central thrust of the argument.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Identify some important literature with which you will be particularly familiar

You need to have a good feel for a very broad range of literature. For a lot of books and articles, remembering the author and the central thrust of their argument and evidence will serve you adequately for the comprehensives. But, just as it is essential that you have a greater depth of knowledge about a few historical episodes are critical issues, you will want to have a set of books and articles that you know extremely well. You should have an identified set of readings that you are confident you can apply to a reasonable range of questions and that you know very well and can talk about with some depth and sophistication.

7. Practice for the exam

Using the material in this booklet, you should write some practice exams. At the beginning you may want to take several hours and write an answer with open book resources. By the end you should be practicing with closed notes and a two-hour clock to simulate exam conditions. Such practice will not only help you think about how you will engage in the actual task of taking the exam, but will give you collection of sample answers that may be easily adapted to the real test questions. Just be careful that you don't mistakenly provide the answer to a similar old question and miss the slightly changed terms or requirements that are likely to show up in the real test.

The process of preparing practice exams is another area where working in groups can be extremely helpful. Having a study group can give you a larger stock of practice answers and will allow you to get feedback and to discuss the appropriate sources and arguments for a given question.

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.

2. 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 and facility with a range of the 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 and outline 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.

5. Make an argument

As a scholar prepared to embark on independent thesis work, it is important that you demonstrate an ability to effectively articulate your own views. The comprehensive exam is not just about knowing the literature. It is also about demonstrating that you can think about international issues critically and come to your own conclusions. Avoid wishy-washy answers that simply describe some of the ideas extant in the field and then conclude that they are all correct. Take a stand and defend it with appropriate theoretical, analytical, and empirical material.

6. Make choices

You will notice that most of the questions are a lot bigger than can be fully answered in the two-hours you will have on average during the written exam. You have to make choices on how you will answer so that you can display your breadth and depth of knowledge while satisfying the committee that you have effectively addressed the question. It usually helps if you can be explicit about how you are managing the question ("While there are, of course, idiosyncratic elements in the complex relationship of each President to his national security team, I will focus in this short essay on the difficult relationship between Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance because it effectively illuminates the problems every foreign policy team must face"). It is rarely a good strategy to try to present a broad and superficial survey of too many things ("In this essay I will discuss the relationship of each Post-WWII American president with his respective Secretaries of State and Defense").

7. 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 to move onto writing a dissertation who fundamentally misunderstands some essential literature, or who demonstrates a wanton disregard for historical accuracy.

Tips for the Oral Examination

1. Attitude matters

Attitude is important in the oral examination, just as it will be for the remainder of your career as a scholar. As a doctoral candidate, you should be able to present your views with confidence, but without becoming defensive. The examiners are likely to push against your views and expect to see you defend them effectively, but not irrationally.

The best way to figure out the right attitude is to attend the presentations of others at research workshops, dissertation defenses, and conferences. Start paying attention to the style as well as the substance. Take note of how other scholars deal with difficult questions and criticisms. What works and what doesn't work? What makes them sound defensive? What makes them sound arrogant? What makes them sound indecisive?

2. Being nervous is inevitable

It is likely that you will be nervous. How you perform when nervous is not irrelevant to your career as a scholar. You need to demonstrate that despite being nervous you can engage in appropriate scholarly discussion.

3. We probably know more than you, but knowing everything isn't required

It is likely that all together, the three to five professors conducting the examination know some things that you don't. With some pushing, they will probably be able to find out what some of those things are. We don't expect you to know everything. We do expect you to communicate effective knowledge of a broad range of subjects, and explicit and deep knowledge of a few selected areas.

4. Practice

The best way to practice for the oral exam is to speak up and engage in discussion in your seminars, in research workshops, and at conferences. If you aren't prepared to express and defend your views in the seminar setting, it is unlikely that you will be prepared to do so in the oral exam.

5. Work with other students

Again, preparing for the comprehensive examinations with other students will help you both with the substance and with the process. Scholarly discussions of exam questions with other students will give you the chance to practice articulating and defending your views with appropriate references to the literature and empirical facts.


This examination will be conducted in a BAL Computer lab. In an emergency, you must inform the proctor immediately.

  • You may take short breaks (5-10 minutes) as needed
  • You are not permitted to leave the building under any circumstance
  • Food and beverages should be consumed during the exam
  • Save your work often on the flash drive provided
  • If any problems occur, notify the proctor immediately
  • The examination is closed book and no notes or other aids including cell phone 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 must sign and return the honor pledge provided

The ODU Honor Pledge will be strictly enforced, and you will be asked to sign off on this pledge on the date of the exam:

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 arrive 5-10 minutes early to log into the computer and be ready to start promptly at 8:30 a.m. when the exam questions are distributed.

You will receive the exam questions, a flash drive, a blue book for notes and the honor pledge to sign and return to the proctor. Use the flash drive to save your work and give to the proctor at the end of the exam.

The examination consists of two parts.

Part 1 - questions will be on your MAJOR concentration

Part 2 - questions will be on your MINOR concentration

On both days you must answer TWO out of five questions. 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 4:30 p.m. and all answers must be saved on the flash drive and turned in.

Guidelines to Answering Questions

(These are the instructions that come with the exam)

  1. There will be five questions. You must answer two.
  2. The exam lasts a total of eight hours. Allocate your time accordingly and make sure that each question has a concluding section.
  3. Also make sure that you:
    1. answer the questions as they are raised and not as you wish they had been raised
      b. illustrate your answer with appropriate empirical examples
      c. cite relevant sources
      d. make proper references to important interpretative debates, when appropriate
  4. Your answers will be reviewed in terms of:
    1. how effectively you address each of the questions
      b. how well you know and manage your facts
      c. how soundly you handle and cite the literature
      d. how well you have developed and organized your argument
      e. the quality of your writing
  5. Failure to pass the exam may include, but is not limited to, the following shortcomings:
    1. errors of fact
      b. misattribution of arguments in text and/or citation
      c. spurious citation of literature
      d. presentation of answer in bullet point format
      e. failure to develop coherent argument

Past Field Questions


  1. According to Henry Kissinger, "It is an illusion to believe that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience.... The connections that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume" during their time in office. Explain and discuss this assessment, which Kissinger made after he had served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, with explicit references to two high level foreign policy practitioners during the two decades that followed the US intervention in World War II (1941-1961).
  2. "Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead," recently observed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "must be based on a marriage of principle and pragmatism, not rigid ideology, on facts and evidence, not conviction or prejudice." Explain and discuss in the context of two high level foreign policy practitioners during the immediate postwar decade (1945-1965).
  3. Identify TWO crises, events, or issues that best characterize the latter part of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath (from January 1981 to January 2001). Do NOT describe any of these crises, events or issues at length but single out the features and patterns that best explain why these are so closely identified, in your judgment, with this initial post-Cold War period.
  4. Describe and discuss the evolution of U.S. policies toward any country (except the USSR/Russia) or region of your choice during a 6-year period of your choice, extended from January 1981 to January 2001. To introduce your answer, explain your choice of the period you wish to discuss. To conclude, explain the relevance of that region or country to current U.S. interests and policies.
  5. Whatever might be said about the events of September 11, 2001 and the wars that followed, their consequences have been epochal - meaning, system changing. After a quick review of these events, examine the conditions of what has been called a new "post-American world." What do you think of this emerging world: first, from the narrow perspective of U.S. interests, capabilities and purpose; but also, next, from the broader perspective of power and order during the coming decade? 2. "The United States," it has been noted, "never experienced what other nations experienced in achieving a position of world power. It moved within a very brief period from a position of isolation to one of global leadership, it has never been a mere nation among other nations." Explain and discuss the influence of the nation's distinctive past on the US role in the world in the twentieth century.


  1. Great speculation exists on the extent to which the United States is in decline. Drawing on the central concepts and knowledge of the track, and on your broader study in the program, to what extent do you believe America is in decline? What factors could hasten or reverse this decline at the global level, insofar as you see it in play?
  2. To what extent, if any, is the world safer in the post-Cold War era? In what measure have transnational threats (terrorism, migration, energy interdependence, etc) replaced the threats inherent in the Cold War?
  3. Drawing on your coursework in this program, and especially on your courses in this track, to what extent do you think that the effects of anarchy can be tempered or lessened in world politics?
  4. Realists tend to assume that world politics is cyclical; and that the basic elements of world politics do not change much over time (such as power, balance of power politics, the centrality of states, and conflict). To what extent do you agree with this key realist assumption?
  5. To what extent, if at all, does interdependence decrease inter-state conflict in world politics?


  1. From World War II to the present, states have constructed regimes to manage some-but not all-aspects of the international economy. A once-strong regime to manage trade has weakened since the 1990s. Likewise, with the abandonment of dollar-gold convertibility in 1973, a robust regime to manage monetary relations collapsed. Conversely, states originally left finance unregulated but in 1988 created and progressively have strengthened rules to manage international banking. And in production, the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment collapsed in 1998 without ever securing necessary multilateral support. What explains these variations in institutions, both across issue areas and over the course of the last 65 years?
  2. The integration of gendered analyses of globalization has led to a substantive body of literature within the field of international studies. Imagine that an international studies department hires you to design and teach a graduate seminar on gender and globalization. What theoretical and empirical movements within the field would your seminar emphasize? How would you elucidate the central connections between gender and globalization? In your essay response, please explain how your choice of authors, themes and content provides an innovative approach to teaching graduate students about the complex interconnections between gender and global restructuring.
  3. After the May 2010 parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, one observer wrote: The outcome in Britain underscores a problem roiling so many democracies. The economic change brought about by globalization and technological advances is not creating the happy, unified world of progress its promoters keep promising. Instead, it is splitting regions within nations that are fully part of the global market from those left behind. Does globalization foster or undermine democracy? Your answer should address at least one of the following dimensions of democracy: political behavior, democratic institutions, responsiveness, equality, and legitimacy. Please illustrate your argument using one democratic state of your choice.
  4. Numerous scholars argue that historical experiences condition a nation-state's contemporary political economy. That is, a state's past policies for economic development may profoundly affect its contemporary prospects for industrialization, the reduction of poverty, and the development of political institutions. To what degree are development and democratization path-dependent processes? Can states in the contemporary political economy escape the tyranny of their history? If so, how? If not, why not?
  5. Developing states face different economic, political and social challenges than do the wealthiest and most powerful states. Can international political economy offer us a coherent set of theoretical tools to explain such diverse problems in the global economy? Or must it rely upon ad-hoc, degenerative hypothesizing to accommodate such empirical challenges? To illustrate your theoretical argument, please compare at least one developing and one developed state.


  1. For a region of your choice identify two instances of cooperation between states that advanced/improved the regional security environment. Explain your selections in detail. Choose your examples from the last decade.
  2. The spread of nuclear weapons is often cited as a major challenge to the international community. How might this threat best be countered? Your answer should critically review state policies and institutional responses.
  3. In an increasingly global security environment it is far from obvious how security should be organized. Reflecting on what you have learned, how would you conceptualize a 21st century security order? Why would you conceptualize it this way?
  4. To what extent does the transatlantic security community exist? Is it strong and if so, why? Is it weak and if so, why? What factors/developments are likely to determine its future?
  5. For a region of your choice, discuss two events or developments over the past decade that have significantly affected regional expectations about conflict and cooperation. In your answer, make sure to demonstrate familiarity with the scholarly literature and debates at the policy levels.
  6. Virtually absent from national policy agendas since the end of the Cold War, arms control is back. From a scholarly perspective and against the background of Cold War arms control, how do you evaluate the return of arms control, the emerging arms control agenda, and arms control's contribution to international peace and stability?
  7. How useful are policies of deterrence in a global security environment?
  8. From your understanding of the scholarly literature, single out two contributors whose work(s) you think have been critical in advancing the field of Security Studies. Carefully explain your choices.
  9. Critical theorists have issued a number of challenges to traditional understandings of peace and security. Identify three such challenges and discuss. Ultimately, do these challenges represent anomalies, in the Kuhnian sense, or are they the products of normal science?


  1. Both Rational-Choice and Political-Culture theories are prominent approaches in the field of comparative sociopolitical studies. What are the similarities and differences between these two approaches in terms of their intellectual geneses, theoretical assumptions, and major arguments (or hypotheses)? Discuss the major strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
  2. New Institutionalism is believed to have succeeded the so-called "Old" Institutionalism in comparative sociopolitical studies. Explain the intellectual genesis, theoretical assumptions and major arguments (or hypotheses) of the New Institutionalism. In what respects is the New Institutionalism similar to and different from the Old Institutionalism? Do you think that the New Institutionalism has helped advance comparative sociopolitical studies? Why or why not?
  3. Some analysts of comparative studies have advocated Statism, emphasizing the profound role of the state in shaping socioeconomic and sociopolitical developments in various countries. Explain theoretical assumptions and major arguments (or hypotheses) of Statism. Do you agree with Statism's arguments for the importance of the state (vs. society)? Why or why not?
  4. The following three thematic topics are central to comparative sociopolitical studies. Review and evaluate the major theoretical approaches in one of these three topical areas. Cite evidence from any region(s) or country (countries) with which you are familiar to illustrate your evaluation.
    • Social movement and revolution
    • Democratization
    • Social capital
  5. To study socioeconomic development in different regions or countries, scholars have developed two distinct approaches: Modernization Theory and Dependency Theory. Briefly explain these two approaches in terms of their fundamental assumptions and theoretical arguments. Which theory do you prefer when studying socioeconomic development in developing countries? Use evidence from any region(s) or country (countries) with which you are familiar to support your reference.


  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.

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