For more detail regarding the comprehensive exam process, please consult the Ph.D. in Education Handbook.

The purpose of the comprehensive examination process is to assess the student’s knowledge of the area(s) of specialization and familiarity with the published research in the field, and to determine whether the student possesses those critical and analytic skills needed for dissertation research. The written exam and first oral are generally undertaken following the completion of coursework.

Students will need to work with their Program Support Specialist (PSS) to complete Parts I and II of the Comprehensive Exam form through DocuSign. The School of Education’s Office of Student Affairs will process with the Graduate School.

Pre-comprehensive exam meeting

During the pre-comprehensive exam meeting, the student and committee will discuss appropriate foci for the exam, based upon the student’s Program of Study and related research/teaching experiences and area(s) of specialization.

  • The meeting in which negotiation of area(s) of specialization occurs — except in rare instances — is held during the semester prior to which students wish to write their examination response. During this meeting, students present their area(s) of specialization and preliminary reading list. Committee members may suggest a revised reading list. The reading list is intended to serve as a guide for students’ review and analysis of the specialization area(s).
  • The Program of Studies Committee (which often becomes the Comprehensive Exam Committee once writing begins) must be comprised of a minimum of three members, with the majority (i.e., at least two) being tenure-track faculty from the School of Education.

Writing period and reading list

  • Following the pre-comps meeting, students are told the areas and general topics for their questions and their final reading list is approved at least one week prior to the start of the exam. The purpose of the final reading list is to identify key texts in the specialization area(s) identified by the student and committee. A text’s inclusion on the list is an indication that a student should be familiar with the text but need not cite each item in the written examination nor is the student limited to citing only texts on the list in the examination.

Examination question and response

Students will receive their specific question at 9 a.m. on the first day of the writing period. Students have six weeks (42 days) to complete their response.

One question will be written by the committee relevant to a student’s area(s) of specialization.

  • The response should be written as a paper intended to be published or presented professionally. Students are strongly encouraged to submit this work for review as a conference presentation or publication.
  • The text of a student’s responses to the question (not including reference lists) may not exceed a total of 30-35 pages excluding references, typed in 12-point, Times New Roman font, double-spaced, single-sided, with 1-inch margins. Students must follow APA format (7th edition) in their responses.

Students must indicate their adherence to the UNC-Chapel Hill Honor Code by signing the Honor Pledge on the Written Comprehensive Examination Form.

Writing Period Guidelines

The Office of Student Affairs will set final dates during each semester by which writing must begin and conclude. These dates reflect a 3-week period allotted to faculty members and the chair to evaluate and communicate feedback to the student prior to the last day of classes. Writing may begin prior to this date in the semester, but if students commence writing after this date, their responses will not be evaluated by faculty during that same semester.

Students must turn in an electronic copy of their response no later than 4 p.m. on the final day of writing to all committee members.

Students may elect to write their response over winter or summer break if the committee members agree to the timeline and the chair agrees to convey the question to the student during that time. Registration is not required if students write over a break period. If students complete their written response outside the start and end dates of classes during the fall and spring semesters, it will not be distributed to the faculty until the first day of classes in the following semester. If students complete their written response during breaks between academic-year semesters, they will receive notification of their results within two weeks from the first day of classes.

Exam Evaluation

Students will receive the Program of Studies/Comprehensive Exam Committee members’ evaluation in writing no later than three weeks following their submission. The grade will be one of three options: Pass; Revise and Resubmit; Fail.

The Oral Defense of the written response (the first doctoral oral) should be conducted during the semester in which the written exam was taken.

Further details regarding the Comprehensive Exam process are available in the Ph.D. in Education Handbook