Preliminary Examination Preparation

Not long after you begin your first semester as a Ph.D. student, you will start to feel a heavy weight on your chest – prelims. You don’t quite know what they are yet, but they are a distant source of anxiety. Don’t panic! Given the accelerated pace of our program and lack of extended funding, Ph.D. students are encouraged to complete their exams by their fourth semester, or spring of their second year. Extenuating circumstances do occur, but we recommend you do not postpone your exams past your third year.

First of all, you MUST complete your language requirements and file your plan of study with the Graduate School before you are allowed to begin your exams. Refer to the Department of History requirements and Graduate School Manual to explore your language options. The plan of study is pretty self-explanatory, and can be accessed from MyPurdue, but talk to your major field advisor and Fay if you have any questions.  (p.s. Fay is your God now. Fay knows all. All good things come from Fay.)

Preliminary exams or prelims (also called comprehensive exams or comps) consist of defining your major field of study, two minor fields outside your geographic, thematic, or disciplinary concentration, and selecting 2 or 3 committee members that correspond to your areas of interest, in addition to your major professor. [Refer to the detailed history department requirements found on the History Graduate Program website.] Then in consultation with your committee members, you develop reading lists for each of your fields, read the books, and finally complete written and oral exams in a pre-approved format.


Again, don’t panic. As long as you plan ahead of time, prelim preparation can be spread over several semesters. The bulk of your reading and your exams will occur in one very busy (very stressful) semester. Don't worry - this is totally normal. We all know what it is like and everyone will support you, and when it is all over, everyone will celebrate with you!

To prepare yourself, mentally and academically, talk to your fellow graduates. Talk to ABD students that have already passed their exams. It is a big achievement, so most of us are more than willing to share our experience with anyone that will listen. Everyone’s exams are different, so don’t feel pressured to follow any example exactly. You and your professors will decide on your individual fields, reading list, preparation method, exam format, and schedule. As Dr. Larson says, prelims are “cruel and imperfect,” but for better or worse, they remain the only acceptable way to test students’ knowledge of their historical field and their ability to read, study, and synthesize information. Good luck!

Here are reading lists from graduate students in a variety of fields. Do not copy these lists exactly, but they can be used as a guideline when drafting your own exam reading lists. Please feel free to e-mail any of the students with questions or any of the HGSA student contacts for prelim advice.

Major Field Reading Lists

American History Areas

European History Areas

Global History Areas

Minor Field Reading Lists

American History Areas

European History Areas

Global History Areas

Interdisciplinary Fields

Comparative Studies

*The general field is no longer required during preliminary examinations. The reading lists do, however, provide an excellent overview of texts in American History from 1492 to present.

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