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Prelims (See also: History Gray Book)

The preliminary exams (“prelims”) are designed to ensure that students have acquired the necessary background for teaching and scholarship in history and women’s studies. Field requirements for the preliminary examinations therefore encourage a combination of breadth and depth. The preliminary exam has both written and oral components. Like other History students, joint students complete a written exam in their major field. The oral exam covers this field and two other fields described below and includes the defense of the WS 891 paper.

  • A major field which is geographical/temporal/topical
  • Gender/Women’s/Sexuality History
  • A comparative field distinctly different from the major field geographically, temporally or disciplinarily
  • Note: If the Gender/Women’s /Sexuality field is comparative, then the third field does not have to be, but it cannot overlap with or simply be a subset of either of either the major or the GWS field

Note: Women’s Studies students “course off” the cognate field with WS 530 and 601.

Role of WS 891

A key component of the History/Women’s Studies joint PhD preliminary examination is a defense of the WS 891 paper. All Women’s Studies doctoral students write a WS 891 paper, and it is the one common element in all their prelims.

Whereas students are expected to demonstrate mastery of historiography in their examination fields, here the student is expected to demonstrate mastery of the tools of feminist scholarship as applied to historical practice. The defense of the WS 891 paper thus focuses on the student’s use of feminist methodology, approach, theory, and interpretation. All members of the examination committee will have received copies of the paper in advance of the oral exam and are invited and encouraged to participate in the discussion of it. However, the Women’s Studies faculty member(s) and the WS 891 professor have special responsibility for evaluating whether the student is now prepared to conduct dissertation research in Women’s Studies and History.

Committee Composition

The committee for the preliminary examinations consists of three or four faculty members, each representing a field in which the student chooses to be examined. At least one faculty member must be affiliated with History, and one with Women’s Studies (usually the WS 891 advisor).

Students should work closely with the prelim committee in preparation for the exams. The department requires that, at least six months prior to the examination, students discuss with each committee member a provisional but specific draft list of readings that includes scholarship in History, interdisciplinary Women’s Studies, and feminist theory. This list should also be discussed with each committee member on the expected process of preparation.

According to department policy, each faculty member has a responsibility not to allow leaves/sabbaticals to have a negative effect on a student’s timetable for taking preliminary exams and achieving candidacy. In scheduling prelim exams, a delay of up to several weeks might be necessary to accommodate the schedules of committee members, but a delay approaching several months or more is not appropriate. In all cases, the preliminary exam must be completed by the announced Rackham candidacy deadline at the end of winter semester in the student’s third year. When determining the schedule, students should remember that the exam itself may take several weeks to complete (see below).

Definition of a Prelim Field


A field is both a body of knowledge and a terrain of inquiry. Fields vary greatly in breadth and thus in depth. Avoid defining fields so narrowly that they are little more than bibliographies for a research paper. Avoid defining them so broadly that you can do little more than scrape the surface of scholarship.

In identifying and preparing a field for prelims, consider the following:

  1. What are the parameters of the field?
  2. What different methodologies or approaches have contributed to the development of the field?
  3. What are the perennial questions that historians and feminists in this field have tried to answer? How have their answers differed?
  4. What are the most important topics or themes in the field today?
  5. What are the debates among historians and feminist scholars that animate the field today?
  6. What are the major works that anyone who wants to make a contribution in this field ought to read?
  7. What directions for future research are the most interesting or promising?
  8. What kind of impact has feminist scholarship made on this field? What scholarship in Women's Studies might be pertinent to this field?

Students should come away from this experience with a feeling of accomplishment and confidence that they understand the fields they have studied and could explain them to others, develop syllabi for courses about them, and pursue research in them.

---Adapted from History’s Gray Book:

Schedule your preliminary examination using the following guidelines:

Preliminary Exam Information Form
The Preliminary Exam Information form is used to identify members of your prelims committee, define the subject matter of each field, and record an anticipated prelim date. It is also used to ensure that there are no problems with committee composition or with the fulfillment of other requirements. Students and their advisors are urged to consult as early as possible with the History DGS and WS/History liaison about any uncertainties regarding fields, committee composition, or examination dates. Each faculty examiner must initial the form, signifying his or her commitment to serve on the prelim committee. The prelims chair and the History DGS must sign this form indicating their approval. This form is distributed to all third-year students at the beginning of the fall term.

Students who plan to take prelims during the fall term of their third year should turn this form in to the History graduate office at the beginning of fall term. Students who plan to take their prelims during the winter term of their third year (as do most joint WS/History students) should turn this form in by the end of the fall term of their third year. Once this form has been approved, any changes in fields or examiners require that a new form, signed by the prelims chair, be submitted to the History graduate office for final approval by the DGS.

Preliminary Exam Check In and Scheduling Request Form
A Prelim Exam “Check In” meeting with your prelim committee must be held at least six weeks prior to your proposed exam date to determine whether you will be ready to take the exam on the scheduled date.

Once you and your committee have agreed upon a date and time for the prelim exam, file the Preliminary Exam Check In and Scheduling Request Form with the History graduate office no later than six weeks before the exam date to obtain final approval from the History DGS. At this time, all members of the prelim committee must certify in writing the student’s readiness to take the exam on the proposed date. The chair of the committee notifies the History DGS if the full committee agrees that the exam can go forward on the scheduled date. In the event that the student is found not to be ready, an alternative date (within the deadline guidelines) must be set and the History DGS notified.

The check-in meeting may be conducted in whatever way the student and committee members mutually agree on. Once students have secured their committee members’ signatures, staff will reserve a room and send a confirmation notice to the committee members. If students experience difficulties scheduling the exam, please contact the History graduate office for assistance.

Prelim Exam Part One—The Written Exam

For the written prelim component, students have a choice of preparing either a state-of-field historiographic paper or a four-hour written exam (see below). Whichever format is elected, the exam is read and evaluated by the chair of the prelim committee and one other committee member. In special cases, a faculty member who is not a committee member may be asked to serve as the second reader. The prelims chair must notify the graduate office that the written exam is acceptable at least 24 hours in advance of the scheduled oral exam. Passing of the written exam is required to proceed with the oral exam.

The topic of the historiographic paper will be established by the prelim chair. It should be approximately twenty pages in length and should critically analyze current directions and methods of scholarship in your major field. It is due to the prelim chair and second reader two weeks before the oral exam and must be graded at least 24 hours before the oral exam. Passing is required to proceed with the oral exam. The two-week period of time can be shortened to no less than two days if both graders agree to meet the 24-hour grading deadline.

Instead of the historiographic paper students may choose to take a timed written exam covering the major field of the dissertation. The written exam is taken within two weeks of, and at least two days before, the oral prelim. It may be “open” or “closed” book or a combination of the two, in accordance with the examiner’s choice. The chosen format must be made explicit to the student well in advance of the examination and indicated clearly, in writing, on the Preliminary Exam Information Form. The written exam typically consists of one question to be answered in four hours or two questions to be answered in two hours each. The prelims chair usually devises the written exam, although in some cases the prelims chair and a second committee member will each contribute one question.

The exam is read and evaluated by the chair of the prelim committee and one other committee member. In special cases, a faculty member who is not a committee member may be asked to serve as the second reader. The exam is generally four hours, with 30 minutes additional time for breaks. During the exam, consultation with another person or cutting and pasting from previously written documents is not allowed. The prelims chair must notify the graduate office and the student of the exam results. If the written exam is not acceptable, the graduate office must be notified at least 24 hours in advance of the scheduled oral exam. If the student does not pass the written portion, the oral portion is not taken.

Email Option. With committee agreement, you may take the exam at home, receiving the questions via email. In this case, the prelims chair should provide the questions to the History Graduate Office at least 48 hours before the exam. On the day of the exam, you should contact the History Graduate Office between 10 AM and noon so the questions can be transmitted as email attachments. At the end of the exam time period, you will email your answers to the committee as well as the graduate office.

Prelim Exam Part Two—The Oral Exam

The oral exam, approximately two hours in length, usually covers three fields (four including the WS 891) and should be taken within two weeks of a successful written exam or historiographic paper. Half an hour should be spent on each field and on defense of the WS 891 paper. The prelims chair and the other committee members conduct this exam. After the conclusion of the exam, each member of the committee grades the student’s performance in his or her own field by ballot. There are three possible grades: “pass,” “low pass,” and “failure.” Automatic failure results when a student receives all “low pass” grades, or one grade of “failure” and two grades of “low pass.” If grades in the individual fields exceed these minimum standards, the committee discusses the student’s overall performance, including whether to pass or fail the student on the exam as a whole. In rare cases, a grade of “pass with distinction” may be awarded for the entire examination, though not for individual fields.

It is the prelim chair’s responsibility to inform the student of the result, and to state the committee’s consensus in a final report, the Prelim Exam Results Record. The final report records a grade for the written exam, the three individual grades of the oral exam, one overall grade, and a description of the student’s general performance. A student who fails one or more portions of the prelim exam must submit a petition to all members of the prelim committee requesting re-examination (or, in the latter case, to take the exam), if they wish to remain in the program. The petition should outline concrete steps the student plans to take to address problems identified by the prelim committee and a timeline for completing those steps. The views of each member of the prelim committee will be solicited and collected by the prelim chair. On the basis of the petition and committee member’s opinions, the prelim chair has the option to recommend re-examining the student (in a format decided upon by the committee chair), or to terminate the student from the program. The student’s petition, along with the prelim committee chair’s recommendation and documentation of the other committee members’ views, should be sent to the History DGS and Graduate Committee for review and a final decision.

A student who is allowed to retake the exam must do so before the beginning of the fourth year in order to be eligible for department fellowship support.

Prelim Exam Part Three – The Teaching Portfolio

Joint History and Women’s Studies students are exempt from the Teaching Portfolio requirement since the prelims already cover the extra Women’s Studies field.

Prelim Exam Part Four – The Reading List

Following the completion of prelims, students must provide an electronic copy of the reading list(s) to the graduate program staff for inclusion in a departmental CTools site available to other students in both the U-M History and joint History and Women’s Studies programs.

Upon advancement to candidacy, students receive a letter from the History DGS outlining the next steps of the dissertation process. A Certificate of Candidacy may be obtained from the Office of Academic Records & Dissertations at Rackham Graduate School.