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California State University, Long Beach
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Information on Comprehensive Exam Proposals

An Example Comprehensive Exam Proposal:

Click here to download the example.

The Comprehensive Exam Option

Students who elect the examination option propose three areas of concentration, such as a recognized philosophical discipline (e.g. Epistemology, Ethics, Aesthetics, or Philosophy of Law), an important philosophical school or movement (e.g. Logical Positivism), or a major philosopher. Although the three areas are to be distinct and different, at least two of them should be linked in some philosophically significant way. Examination questions in these areas may include questions consonant with this linkage. In proposing an examination committee and examination areas, the student, after consultation with the members of the proposed committee, must also propose a connecting theme, problem, or point of comparison for at least two of the areas. A preliminary bibliography of works to be studied in preparation for the examination should also be submitted to the Department for its approval.

Students who elect the examination option may register for 1-3 units in Philosophy 697 (Directed Research). Although this course is not restricted to students who have been advanced to candidacy, it has special utility for such candidates in that it allows them to earn units toward their degree while at the same time preparing for their examination. A feasible, but not mandatory arrangement is for the candidate to register for one unit of 697 with each of the three members of the committee. Students who plan to register in 697 are required to obtain in advance the permission of the faculty members involved.

The candidates committee will be responsible for scheduling the examination (in consultation with the candidate), for preparing and evaluating the examination, and for reporting its decision to the Graduate Advisor.

Early in the final semester of study for the degree, the candidate should contact the Graduate Advisor and the chairperson of the committee to make arrangements for taking the examination. The Department will notify Enrollment Services, via the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Liberal Arts, whether the student has passed or failed the examination. A candidate who has failed will usually be allowed to take the comprehensive examination a second time, and the Graduate Advisor should be contacted for specific procedures for the second attempt. To award a candidate the Masters degree for a particular semester, the results of the examination must be reported to the University Dean of Graduate Studies prior to the end of the semester.

Writing Comprehensive Exam Proposals

Your comprehensive exam proposal presents the tenured and tenure-track faculty members of the department with a outline of your intended exam areas with the corresponding works to be studied so that the department may confirm that your exam warrants conferral of a master’s degree. Your exam areas must represent widely recognized topics or figures in philosophy. The texts that you select must represent a reasonably comprehensive and representative selection of significant works in each area. For exams covering historical figures include both original and influential secondary sources in your text list. When exam areas cover topics in philosophy (ex. freewill) your texts should include important original works representing every major position in the area. Your goal in writing your exam proposal should be creating concise, well-written document that clearly spells out; (1) your exam areas–including a statement of what question(s)/problem(s) your exam will explicitly address as well as the relative place of that question(s)/problem(s) in its specific sub-field of philosophy, (2) the philosophical (and other) literature you will read, (3) why your chosen areas and texts constitute a comprehensive and representative sampling of well-respected works on widely recognized figures or topics. In general you should aim for 2-3 pages of text, including your bibliography, for each exam area. Your text should include a description of the area of each exam and it’s general relation to philosophy, the specific focus of each exam, the relation of the exam area to other exams areas (if related), and how the readings in your bibliography relate to your area and focus. Finally, each exam will have one primary responsible committee member. That committee member will create the exam, grade the exam, and confer with the committee as a whole regarding your passing the entire exam. Thus, you must: (1) name the responsible faculty member for each examination area, (2) State that exam area’s format (e.g., timed essay without references, take-home essay, etc..), and (3) the responsible faculty member’s policy for grading the test, including a precise statement of the remedies, if any, should the faculty member find the exam inadequate.

An indispensable part of writing your proposal is a thorough search of the literature in the Philosopher’s Index, including reading a number of important articles in the area prior to writing your proposal.

The best strategy for writing your thesis proposal is to start early and interact regularly with your committee. Your committee is your resource for advice and feedback on your proposal while you develop it. While it is desirable that committee members are readily available for students and can provide prompt feedback, you should recognize that faculty members have many responsibilities and demands on their time. Do not expect that faculty can give you immediate feedback or conform to your deadlines. You must plan and work so that you allow for potential delays.

The director of your committee is responsible for deciding when the proposal is ready for departmental review and the committee members must agree. Your committee members are also the ones who will present the proposal and defend it to the department. Likewise, your committee members will be creating and grading your exams. Thus, the more constructive interaction you have with them while writing the proposal the better. It is important to note that a student cannot submit a proposal to the department on his/her initiative without the approval of an exam committee.

Some Common Proposal Difficulties

Writing a thesis proposal: The purpose of a comprehensive exam is to test your knowledge of the exam areas and the texts you studied. Neither your exam proposal nor your exams are forums for the articulation of a significant original contribution to the philosophical literature.

Broaching new frontiers: The comprehensive exam option exists as a means for master’s students to gain a deep mastery of three areas of within the recognized corpus of the philosophical tradition. If any of your areas are not ones which one might plausibly see offered as classes by the department and your texts are not widely read within the relevant areas of philosophy, then it is unlikely the department will find your proposal satisfactory. It is unrealistic and unwise to ask or expect faculty to proctor exams in areas outside their stated competences.

Rushing to market: Think of your proposal as something that will take numerous drafts and some serious research to complete. Don’t try to slap together a document in order to meet a deadline. The timeline of an advanced degree is dictated exclusively by the amount of time it takes you to acquire and demonstrate a high level of competence in the field. When your proposal is ready for departmental review, you should be well on your way to being prepared to write the exam itself.

Technical language: In general, it is better to state your thesis without technical language for a couple of reasons. First, expressing your project without reliance on technical jargon is an indicator that you have a good grasp of the issues. Second, not everyone in the department will necessarily be familiar with the terms you use. Of course, sometimes it is important to refer to technical terms in framing a view or problem. When you use technical language, you should always explicate its meaning.

Long historical exegesis: When relating your areas to the philosophical literature the most important facts to include are the ones that indicate how your exam areas and proposed texts satisfy the department requirement of a comprehensive and representative sampling of well-respected works on a widely studied figures or topics. A proposal need not contain a lengthy synopsis of the history of your topic.

Personal histories: However you came to your topic, that story is not relevant to assessing its philosophical merit or its viability as a thesis project.

Creating a Comprehensive Exams Committee

The comprehensive exam committee consists of at least three faculty members. All members of the committee are responsible for evaluating the complete exam as a pass or fail. However, for each of the three exams, one committee member will assume primary responsibility for creating, and grading that exam. The department strongly recommends that your committee consist of three tenured or tenure-track members of the CSULB Philosophy Department. Minimally, the committee chair must be a member of the tenure-track faculty of the CSULB Philosophy Department. Of the two remaining members of your committee, at least one member must be a tenured or tenure-track member of a CSULB department. The third member can be a part-time faculty member or a person with appropriate qualifications from another university department or another university. Please consult with your committee chair in determining appropriate persons to invite to be on your committee. Although many part-time lecturers in the department are generous in volunteering their time for committee service, we request that you remember that the University does not compensate them for this work and most have heavy teaching schedules here and on other campuses. Your proposal submission should include letters from all non-department or non-tenure-track committee members stating that they are familiar with you and your thesis topic, stating that they intend to work with you on your thesis as a committee member, and outlining their qualifications to serve on your committee. Any members of your committee who are not from the tenure-track faculty of the Philosophy Department must be approved by your committee chair and the department. Do not assume the department will approve committee members. The Philosophy Department reserves the right to reject any committee members.

Submitting Your Comprehensive Exam Proposal

Once your advisor and all committee members are agreed that your proposal is ready, your next step is to submit the proposal to the department. First, add a cover sheet to your proposal including the title, date, and names of the committee members with the advisor identified and listed first. Each member of the committee will sign the cover sheet of your proposal, so include a signature line for each member. Once you have collected the committee signatures, you should prepare hard copies of your proposal for distribution to the faculty mailboxes in MHB seven days before the meeting where your proposal will be considered. You should submit a copy of your proposal to all the assistant, associate, and full professors in the department, along with all faculty members in the FERP (Faculty Early Retirement Program) who are on duty that semester. You can consult the department web page, your thesis advisor, the graduate advisor, the department chair, or the department administrative coordinator to determine the dates of department meetings and which faculty members are on duty. As your proposal will not be reviewed by part-time faculty members (lecturers), do not distribute your proposal to them.

Please note that you are responsible for all printing and photocopying of your proposal. The Department does not provide photocopying services for students for this or other purposes.