RPC Preliminary Examination
Doctoral candidates in Rhetoric and Professional Communication must take the preliminary examination, which is composed of two parts -- the comprehensive written examination and the specialized oral field examination.
Before students begin the dissertation, they will take the preliminary examination. Although this examination may be taken during the last semester of course work, most students spend considerable time following their course work reading and otherwise preparing for the prelims. The student and POS committee should discuss what procedures will be in place should a failure occur for all or any parts of the written or the oral preliminary examinations.
If for any reason a student wishes to request a change in the procedure for the preliminary examination, the student must write a memo to the Director of Graduate Education before the date of the exam specifying the request and providing a rationale for it. The Director of Graduate Education will decide whether or not the request will be granted.
Purpose and nature
The preliminary examination serves two important functions. First, it certifies that students have the general knowledge necessary to engage in conversations of the discipline. Comprehensiveness is required by both the Graduate College and the RPC program. Second, the examination helps students prepare themselves for work on the dissertation. To fulfill these two functions, the preliminary examination consists of two parts:
1) The comprehensive examination component
The comprehensive examination is the first part of the preliminary examination and consists of a written exam. There are two purposes of the comprehensive examination. The first is to demonstrate the student’s ability to make scholarly arguments involving the comprehensive range of knowledge sufficient to engage the conversation of the discipline. The second is to prepare the student to write a dissertation proposal and pursue dissertation research.
2) The specialized examination component
The specialized examination is the second part of the preliminary examination and consists of a written and oral component. The specialized exam also serves as the university’s Preliminary Oral Examination, which is required of all PhD candidates here at Iowa State. As formulated within the English Department, the specialized exam is designed to help students prepare for dissertation work in a specific research area of their choosing. Though the format can vary widely, the specialized exam often consists of a dissertation prospectus and reading lists on which the student gives an oral presentation during a POS committee meeting.
Both types of exams are discussed in further detail in other sections of this document below.
Students must meet the requirements outlined in the Preliminary Examination Requirements section in order to take their prelims.
The comprehensive examination component
Overview of Comprehensive Examination
The Comprehensive Examination is a multi-stage process that takes approximately a semester to complete. To accurately determine an appropriate timeline for this process, students need to consult the RPC Exams Scheduler in setting up a calendar for exam events to ensure that a proper amount of time is scheduled between events within the process. The overview that appears below is followed by more detailed sections about various stages of the process.
1. Checking for POS Committee and POS Form Approval Status -- Student is responsible for ensuring that approved POS Committee and POS forms are on file with the Graduate College by checking with the Graduate English Office.
2. Checking potential exam dates -- Student discusses potential exam dates with POS Committee members and determines dates of exam. Student notifies the Graduate English Office of the planned exam dates. Before setting dates, students should be aware that certain restrictions exist concerning scheduling dates and times for the exam. For more information, see the section labeled “Scheduling the exam” below.
3. Negotiating and Submitting the Reading List -- Compiling a reading list and having it approved as the basis for the student’s exam is a dialogic process involving the student, the POS Chair, the POS Committee, and the RPC Examinations Committee. The reading list needs to be compiled and approved before exam questions are negotiated and submitted. For more information on the list, see the section labeled “Reading List” below.
a. Submitting proposed reading list -- Student submits a proposed reading list to his or her POS Committee.
b. Revising the reading list -- Student revises list according to POS Committee comments in line with the Committee’s deadline. The list receives POS Committee approval.
c. Evaluating reading list -- POS Chair submits reading list to RPC Examinations Committee for its approval. The RPC Examinations Committee meets and recommends revisions if necessary.
d. Finalizing reading list -- POS Committee, with the student, makes revisions and finalizes the reading list. Student prepares a cover memo and obtains approval signatures from all POS Committee members.
e. Submitting approved reading list – Student submits approved reading list and cover memo with POS Committee member signatures to the Graduate English Office.
4. Negotiating and Submitting the Exam Questions
a. Submitting potential exam questions -- Student and POS Committee members submit possible exam questions to the POS Chair. For more information on the exam questions, see the section labeled “Exam questions and structure” below.
b. Revising and selecting exam questions -- After the student’s reading list has been approved, the POS Chair (without the student’s involvement) coordinates the revision and selection of exam questions with the POS Committee.
c. Evaluating exam questions -- POS Chair submits exam questions to RPC Examinations Committee for evaluation; the RPC Examinations Committee returns them to the POS Chair with any recommendations for revision.
d. Revising exam questions -- If warranted, the POS Committee revises the questions (without the student’s involvement) and finalizes the exam.
e. Submitting approved exam questions -- Once the questions are approved by the POS Committee, the POS Chair submits the exam questions to the Graduate English Office in electronic format at least three (3) business days in advance of the date the exam is to be distributed to the student.
a. Forming an exam evaluation committee -- The POS Chair and the Chair of the RPC Examinations Committee are responsible for determining the 5 members of the student’s exam evaluation committee (for information on the composition of this committee, see the section labeled “Evaluation Committee” below).
b. Picking up the exam -- Students pick up the exam from the Graduate English Office at the designated date and time (note that exams may begin only when classes are in session). The student has 17 days to answer the exam questions, which allows for the inclusion of three weekends, depending on the date of the exam and the day of the week it is distributed to the student. For more information, see the section labeled “Taking the exam” below.
c. Returning the completed exam -- On the 17th day by the designated time, the student returns the completed exam questions to the Graduate English Office, making sure that all pages of the exam include a running header containing the question number, student name, and page number.
d. Summer exams -- Because faculty are not available during the summer to sit on evaluation committees and because we want to avoid long delays in evaluating exams, comprehensive exams may not be submitted for evaluation during the summer. They may, however, be turned in during the first week of the Fall semester. Effectively, this means that comprehensive exams may be picked up from the Graduate English Office 17 days before the first day of Fall classes. In order to ensure both speed and continuity in evaluation, exams committee members from the previous year will sit as representatives on comprehensive exams submitted during the first week of Fall classes.
6. Evaluating the Exam
a. Distributing the completed exam -- The Graduate English Office distributes copies of the student’s completed exam as well as a copy of the exam questions to the student’s exam evaluation committee and the POS chair. Generally, members are given two weeks to read the exam prior to the evaluation meeting.
b. Scheduling the evaluation committee meeting -- The POS Chair is responsible for scheduling a meeting of the student’s exam evaluation committee and ensuring that all members as well as the POS Chair are present, either in person or via distance participation.
c. Evaluating the exam -- Members of the evaluation committee meet to discuss and evaluate the student’s exam. For the student to pass, a minimum of four out of the five evaluation committee members must vote to pass the exam. For more information, see the section labeled “Evaluation” below.
d. Communicating the exam results -- Following the evaluation committee’s decision, the POS Chair will write a letter to the student indicating a pass or fail of the exam. The POS Chair will file a copy of this letter with the Graduate English Office within two weeks of the evaluation committee meeting. The POS Chair will also pass along the evaluation committee’s commentary to the student. For further information about exam results, see the subsection labeled “Evaluation” below.
The comprehensive examination is based on a reading list constructed by the student and his or her POS committee. Reading lists are considered public documents, and as such, are kept on file in the Graduate English Office where they may be viewed by faculty and students. Each reading list should contain a comprehensive range of articles and books representing not only a cross section of the discipline but also a concentration of texts reflecting the student's research interest. Ideally, materials on the reading list that are not in the student's research area will be selected in ways that allow the student to integrate his or her interest with the discipline as a whole. The intellectual task of integrating a specialized research interest with a list representing the discipline as a whole is not only a practical necessity for the exam, but also an aid to the student in understanding the relation of his or her specialty to the field at large. The grid presented below is a general heuristic for constructing reading lists that are comprehensive. The set of categories constituted by the grid suggests one way to map the discipline and to conceive of comprehensiveness. Because individual reading lists will include books as well as articles and book chapters, it is impossible to specify a precise number of items required on any single comprehensive reading list. Individual students and their POS committees will negotiate the length of individual lists within the spirit of reasonable equity and comprehensiveness. As reading lists are constructed, both POS committee members and doctoral students are encouraged to consult faculty members who have specific expertise in the dissertation subject area but who are not on the POS committee.
The reading list should be divided into approximately three to six categories (perhaps using categories from the grid). Each category should be prefaced by a brief focus statement (approximately 200-300 words) that explains the parameters or framework of each category.
Heuristic grid for the comprehensive examination reading list
The following "grid" is a heuristic to guide students and committees in designing and gauging the comprehensiveness of the reading list.
Most or all of the slots in the grid should have one or more texts in them. Individual texts might fit into more than one slot; in practice, these aren't mutually exclusive categories. This heuristic makes it relatively easy to see where a reading list has substantial gaps, i.e. where comprehensive coverage fails. This grid is intended not as a schema with rigid percentages assigned to each category, but as a general guideline from which committees and students can work. In practice, reading lists will not be organized according to this grid, but they should reflect attention to this vision of comprehensiveness.
Exam questions and structure
Each comprehensive examination is constructed by the student’s POS committee and is based on the individual student’s reading list. Students are expected to talk with POS committee members about their reading list and about issues that might be the topics for exam questions. The POS chair will solicit questions from the student and POS committee members and construct a draft of the exam. Although students and committee members may collaborate in the question writing process because it can be a useful learning tool, the POS committee alone will draft, revise, and select the six questions for the exam. The RPC Exams Committee will be consulted regarding the questions proposed for the exam.
The POS chair and the RPC Examinations Committee chair will determine who will comprise the evaluation committee. Before the exam is distributed to the student, the POS chair should notify the student and the Graduate English Office who will be on the evaluation committee. The five committee members will be made up of the following:
Because the student’s dissertation director/POS chair serves as a mentor to the student, the director will attend the evaluation committee discussion of the comprehensive examination and offer commentary but will not have a vote in the evaluation process.
Scheduling the exam
The dates on which the exam will be administered will be set by the student and the evaluation committee. After discussing possible dates with their POS chair and members of the evaluation committee, the student must contact the Graduate English Office to schedule the exam, giving at least three (3) business days advance notice of the date of the exam. Students should be aware when scheduling the comprehensive examination that exams may begin only when classes are in session and that the Graduate English Office will be closed over University Holidays. Students should also keep in mind that most faculty members are B-base and will not be available during either University Holidays or the summer to read and evaluate exams (see Taking the Exam, #5 above, for restrictions on summer exams). To accurately determine an appropriate timeline for this process, students should consult the “RPC Exams Scheduler,” an Excel spreadsheet that helps ensure a proper amount of time is scheduled between events within the process. You can download the "RPC Exams Scheduler" using the link below:
Taking the exam
Students will obtain the exam from the Graduate English Office and return the completed exam to the same office. Students will have 17 days to answer the exam questions; this allows for the inclusion of three weekends in the exam period depending on the date of the exam and the day of the week the exam is distributed to the student. The Graduate English Office adds exam dates and the following directions to the exam:
Directions: Answer three questions. In selecting and answering questions, remember that displaying the range of your knowledge across the entire exam is a good test-taking strategy. For example, if one of your answers focuses on a single figure or figures, select other theorists to answer subsequent questions. Also remember that in your answers you should not merely focus on knowledge-telling but instead should argue for a position. Finally, all answers should cite sources where appropriate.
Each of your answers should be no longer than 3,000 words or about 10 double-spaced typewritten pages (including the reference list). Use 12 point type. You may use any acceptable bibliographic form for your in-text citations and your reference lists.
When taking the comprehensive examination, students may not receive any help from anyone. In order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, students taking the exam should not discuss the content of exam questions while the exam is in progress.
The comprehensive examination will be evaluated on the following criteria:
As soon as possible after the student has submitted the completed exam, the evaluation committee will convene to discuss the written exam and vote on whether it passes. Ideally, this will occur within two weeks of the student's completing the exam. The POS chair is responsible for scheduling the evaluation committee meeting and ensuring that all members of the evaluation committee as well as the POS chair are present, either in person or via distance participation. The POS chair does not evaluate the exam.
The written comprehensive examination will be evaluated and voted on by the five faculty members of the evaluation committee. Passing the comprehensive examination requires that a minimum of four out of the five evaluation committee members vote to pass the exam.
Following the evaluation committee discussion and vote, the POS chair will write a letter to the student indicating a pass or fail of the examination and file a copy of this letter with the Graduate English Office within two weeks of the evaluation committee meeting. The POS chair will also pass along the evaluation committee’s commentary to the student. If an exam does not pass, the student will be required to take a second, different exam on the same reading list at a later date determined by the student and the POS committee. In the case of a failing exam, the POS chair will write commentary that identifies problems with the student’s exam and offers the student advice in preparing to take the second exam. The evaluation committee will approve and sign this letter, and the POS chair will file a copy of the letter with the Graduate English Office within two weeks of the evaluation committee meeting.
Students must pass the written comprehensive examination before taking the specialized examination. If a student fails to pass the comprehensive examination a second time, he or she will be dropped from the RPC Ph.D. program.
Grievances regarding the comprehensive examination
Students who believe that they have legitimate reasons to appeal the decision of the evaluation committee may follow the grievance procedure outlined in the Graduate College Handbook under “Grievances Related to Scholarly and Professional Competence.”
Relation of comprehensive examination to the specialized examination
Once the student has passed the written comprehensive examination, he or she will take the specialized examination. Because the specialized examination is precisely that, "specialized," and typically includes a dissertation proposal, the specialized examination will be evaluated by the student's POS committee.
2) The specialized examination component: Preliminary Oral Examination
The specialized examination, as the second part of the preliminary examination, is the Preliminary Oral Examination. This exam helps students prepare for dissertation work in a specific research area of their choosing. Although the specialized examination will contain both written and oral components, its format could vary rather widely. Because the specialized examination’s questions as well as its administration and evaluation are the responsibility of the POS committee, each student will work closely with their committee to develop a reading list and a format that will reflect the student’s particular research interests. Upon successfully completing the specialized examination, the student will be "ABD" and ready to pursue work on the dissertation.
Request for Preliminary Oral Examination form
Obtain a Request for Preliminary Oral Examination form from the Graduate English Office, 227 Ross Hall (this form is not downloadable). Because this form will specify the date and time of the Preliminary Oral Examination, it should be filed only after the student has removed all incompletes (except 699 research credits), completed all required course work (excluding 699 research credits), and taken and passed the comprehensive examination. It must be submitted to the Graduate College at least two weeks before the exam is scheduled. Reserving a meeting room is the student’s responsibility and can be done through the department’s online reservation system.
It is essential that the Request for Preliminary Oral Examination form be filed in a timely manner. The student and POS committee may not hold the specialized examination unless the Request for Preliminary Oral Examination form has been filed and approved by the Graduate College.
Report of Preliminary Oral Examination form
The Graduate College will send the Report of Preliminary Oral Examination form to the Graduate English Office (this form is not downloadable). The graduate secretary will prepare this form and forward it to the chair of your POS committee (major professor).
The Graduate College copy (white) of the Report of Preliminary Oral Examination form must be submitted to the Graduate College immediately after the exam. Doing so is the student's responsibility. The department copy (pink) should be turned into the Graduate English Office, 227 Ross Hall.
Final oral examination
The final oral examination will be the defense of the dissertation. For information on graduation and the final oral examination, go to http://engl.iastate.edu/resources/graduate-studies/posmanual/general/graduation/.