Comprehensive Exam Information

This is an inclusive evaluation of the student’s mastery of the field of concentration.  The examination includes both written and oral sections.  The exact content and format is to be determined by the advisory committee in consultation with the student.  The exam is usually taken near the end of the student’s first year in the Ph.D. program.  Before taking it, the student must have (a) completed most graduate course work, (b) completed any related area requirements, and (c) be considered by his/her advisor to be adequately prepared in his/her major fields.  Admission to candidacy for the doctoral degree requires adequate performance on the comprehensive examination.


Students identify 4 broad research areas and compile a preliminary reference list for each area. This list consists of key papers that represent the students’ specific interests within each area. The committee agrees on 4 questions (one/area) and students answer each question using whatever readings are necessary. Answers are limited to a total of 50 pages (not counting references) and students have 6 months from receipt of the questions to complete the exam. Students are responsible for providing each committee member with a HARD copy of their completed responses, unless the committee member specifically requests an electronic copy. Students then orally defend their answers approximately two weeks after completing the written portion of the exam.

Required meetings

There are two required meetings in the comprehensive exam process: A proposal meeting and an oral defense.

The comps proposal meeting should be scheduled for one hour. At the comps proposal meeting, the student presents his/her committee with the preliminary reference list and the committee begins to discuss possible questions (with the student’s input if desired by the committee).

The oral defense should be scheduled for two hours and will be held approximately 2 weeks after completion of the written exam. The contents of the oral exam will be primarily focused on the student’s answers and the papers included on the student’s final reference list.


Consistent with the timeline included in the department’s graduate program policy statement, students are expected to complete the comprehensive exams within 2 semesters after defending their MA thesis or completion of their qualifying exam (see the timeline for more information). Thus, students should hold a comps proposal meeting within one semester of defending or completion of the qualifying exam. After the comps proposal meeting with the student, the committee has 2 weeks to finalize the questions. The written portion of the exam must be finished within 6 months after receiving the questions from the committee. Failure to complete the written portion of the exam within 6 months will result in failure of the comprehensive exam. An oral defense will be held approximately 2 weeks after successful completion of the written exam.


Students identify 4 broad research areas, one of which should be their primary area of expertise and one of which should be quantitative, methodological, or philosophical in nature. The areas should be larger than one type of task, one person’s work, or one theory. Examples of topics that are appropriately broad are motion perception, attitudes & behavior, and prospective memory. Students compile a preliminary reference list for each area consisting of key papers that represent the students’ specific interests within each area. Students will include a final reference list with each answer. Everything included on the final reference list is eligible for examination/discussion during the oral defense.


Four questions (one/area) will be written collaboratively by the student’s committee based on the student’s preliminary reference list. All members of the committee must agree on the four questions prior to delivering the questions to the student. The questions should both test student’s knowledge of the area and provoke reading and thought that will enhance the student’s research productivity. The committee may elect to involve the student in the question-writing process (e.g., the student suggests a question and the committee revises it).


The committee decides whether or not the student passes the exam after the oral defense (i.e., the student is given no feedback after the written portion of the exam). If two or more members of the committee vote that the student did not pass the exam, then the student must repeat the corresponding portion of the exam. For example, if the committee rules that the student’s written answers were satisfactory but his/her oral defense was unsatisfactory, the student must repeat the oral defense. Students may be required to repeat the written portion, the oral defense, or both.

Ground rules for written portion of exam

The written portion of the exam is “take-home” and “open-book.” Students are expected to read whatever literature is necessary to provide thoughtful and comprehensive answers to each question, regardless of whether the papers were included on their “interest list.” Students may consult with their advisor and/or committee for clarification of the questions but otherwise may not discuss their ideas, readings, or answers with any faculty members (at NMSU or otherwise). Answers to all four questions are limited to a total of 50 pages (e.g., approximately 12 pages/question) not including the final reference lists.

Stopping the clock

Students may ask permission from the Graduate Committee to stop the 6-month completion clock in the event of extraordinary circumstances. Requests should be in writing, should detail the nature of the extraordinary circumstances, and should list a specific date on which the 6-month clock will resume. Requests will be granted at the discretion of the Graduate Committee.

Expiration date

Beginning with oral defenses held in Spring 2015, if more than 4 years have elapsed since the date of passing oral defense of the comprehensive exam, the student will be required to take another comprehensive exam before admission to the dissertation defense meeting.