CSCR Preliminary Exam


After all required coursework for the PhD, including the minor, is completed, the preliminary exam is the last step to attain dissertator status. The doctoral preliminary examination is designed both as a comprehensive assessment and preparatory process.

The goals are (1) to assess whether students have the relevant knowledge and scholarly skills necessary for completing a dissertation, (2) to advance understanding and thinking related to their chosen area of scholarship, and 3) to demonstrate the ability to connect scholarship applications and community-based priorities.


The preliminary exam is composed of two parts: a written exam followed by an oral defense for the preliminary committee.

Questions for preliminary exams will be determined on an individual basis and tailored to each student’s interests and future plans. Students need not have their dissertation questions planned for this process; these exams can serve the purpose of giving students the time to review and critically reflect on material that might be of use in developing a full dissertation proposal after passing the exams.

The first two questions (theory and method) should be the approximate scope of seminar papers or brief journal articles (20-25 double spaced pages, Times New Roman Font 12, with 1-inch margins, not including references, tables, figures, or appendices). Students should review examples of previous exam questions and consult with committee members to develop theory and method questions that are complementary, but allow students to grapple distinctively with theoretical vs methodological perspectives relevant to the student’s area of interest. Answers to these questions should not merely be a recapitulation or summary of existing scholarship; students should be prepared to synthesize and critically assess existing scholarship, identifying gaps and failures, and including suggestions for future research programs.

The application question does not have a prescribed length, and the format should constitute best practice for that particular type of product. These may include, but are not limited to community-based research tools/protocols; policy briefs; evaluation plans; op-ed; syllabi. A students’ committee should work with them to identify an appropriate product and set standards, drawing on relevant examples and guidance where available. It is possible to submit something you have previously produced in collaboration with community partners, but you should plan to discuss with your committee what, if any, modifications or additions will have to be made to the final product for the submission to satisfy the prelim requirements.

Question type Example Set A Example Set B
Theory: Synthesis of theoretical perspectives and/or empirical literature in the student’s area of interest.


Critique the assumptions of social capital theory from the perspective of youth males of color who feel marginalized from mainstream institutions. Drawing from critical race, critical consciousness and resistance theories, develop an argument about the relevance (or lack thereof) of traditional conceptualizations of social capital for this group. Based on your critique, would you recommend that social capital theory might be improved by incorporating insights from these theories or should it be abandoned altogether as irrelevant for this group? You’ve positioned your work in alignment with the value of “rural justice”, coming out of the Rights to the City Alliance. Considering your theoretical orientation is “Rights to the City” this raises an interesting paradox between the city & urban and rural. In this essay, please:

·      Justify why you selected Rights to the City as a theoretical orientation compared to other theories of justice/injustice.

·      Address the theoretical foundations and central ideas of Rights to the City (RTTC).

·      Address key scholarly debates within the RTTC field, focusing on the global north and the connections with uneven spatial development.

·      Argue why RTTC is an appropriate theory for Rural Justice and include any key scholars who have more precisely linked the rural and urban. Discuss what, if anything needs to be adjusted within this theory to fit a rural context.

·      Incorporate any literature from the field of rural development that would support this theory. Please include any specific considerations needed for development of rural single-industry resource towns and “just-transitions.”

Methods: Synthesis of methodologies and research designs used to study topics relevant to student’s area of interest There have been numerous studies using quantitative methods to examine the role of social capital in individuals and communities. Many of these studies use large-scale surveys and make conclusions about sub-groups (e.g., youth of color). However, if we want to understand the meaning of social capital, the underlying processes in the formation of social capital, or its relevance, it may be necessary to explore the phenomenon in the context of the lived experiences of individuals from these sub-groups.


Make a case for the use of a critical race ethnographic study to explore the

phenomenon and formation (or lack thereof) of social capital in the lives of youth males of color who feel marginalized and disconnected from mainstream institutions. Be sure in your response to argue for the unique insights that are gained from long-term participant observation and the shortcomings, to wrangle with the thorny issues and ethics of action research, to argue for the validity and reliability of this method, and to uncover change over time.

You have read considerably on community-based participatory research and methods for community-development. To begin, describe your theoretical framework to community-based research partnerships. Then, talk through the initial phases of your anticipated dissertation project to the level you are able. For each phase please include:

·      The different purpose, aims, and intended outcomes of each phase. As you are able to, speak to the specific stakeholders, you would engage during each phase and why. Be sure to speak about participation and keeping the aims of CBPR, especially as it relates to the outcomes of the research project.

·      As you are able, but primarily for the early phases of the project, how you would identify methods you may want to use in your data collection. For each method address the strengths and limitations, its intended purpose, and the outcome it would potentially serve for your project

·      Similarly, speak about how you would anticipate navigating dynamics of power during each phase.

Application of research to practical problems


Develop a semi-structured set of community sessions for adult allies in community-based groups or faith institutions with the goal of social incorporation or social connectedness of the youth. These sessions could be organized by youth or by adult allies. So, write your application question with both groups in mind. Think about concepts such as critical awareness, efficacy, and action in your plans for these sessions. Be sure to include in your answer the following:

·      Overall goals, principles, and expectations of the adult and youth participants

·      Objectives for each session that relate to building relationships, youths’ sense that they are respected, their feelings of affirmation and efficacy, critical dialogue about experience with mainstream institutions and possibilities

·      Content and process for each session

·      Participants (youth recruitment, adult allies, invited guests, community members)

·      Content and process for weekly sessions

Create a brief handbook with information on specific rural development and planning strategies for the North Dakota Coal Country project in connection with the Dakota Resource Council just transition project. Include several examples of communities that have had successful “transitions” or economic development programs in a manner easily accessible to DRC- you may use a mix of scholarly and popular sources for this. Upon the completion of the handbook, please include an appendix that addresses the following:

·      Briefly describe your guiding framework of assembling the handbook as it relates to rural development theory

·      Your decision to include each particular recommendation and its alignment with your framework

·      Please address how the handbook reflects values of university-community partnerships and participatory development.




Generally, students should plan to write their preliminary exam in the semester following the completion of coursework.  However, thoughtful consultation with your advisor and/or committee should begin well before this as part of the ongoing process of planning for the completion of degree requirements. The two sample timelines, below, are meant to be general ‘rule of thumb’ guidelines for planning, not rigid requirements. Students may also complete any of these phases in shorter or more extended time frames and/or begin at different points (eg. in the middle of semester), in consultation with their committee chair.

Sample timeline 1 Sample timeline 2
Step 1: Before Starting Clock Summer break 2021 Winter break 2021
Step 2: Develop full reading list and draft questions to committee Final Semester of coursework
Fall Semester 2021 Spring semester 2021
Step 3: Submit list & questions to committee for Candidacy Meeting Dec 2021/Jan 2022 April/May 2021
Step 4: Revise questions & bibliography Winter break 2022 Summer break 2021
Step 5: Writing Spring Semester 2022 Fall semester 2021
Step 6: Defense May/June 2022 Dec/Jan 2022
Step 7: Revisions (if necessary) 7-30 Days from defense
First semester as dissertator (write dissertation proposal) Fall 2022 Spring 2022


Step 1: Before Starting Clock
Students should begin to identify topical areas of interest, concepts, and “fields” that they want to be speaking to. Based on these topics, concepts, and fields, students should develop an initial reading list and annotated bibliography. It is recommended that students:

  • Use previous courses/important texts that they have read. It is recommended to identify these throughout previous coursework and/or scholarly engagements in the years leading up to this point.
  • Identify “seminal works” and most recent articles in their emerging fields/issue areas of interest.
  • Develop a process for managing documents, reading notes, and citations
  • Meet with subject librarians and/or attend trainings on writing literature reviews with writing center

This process can be started early on, or as the student starts to get a sense of the areas they’d like to address in their prelims. However, it should be considered as something that happens before ‘starting the clock’.

Step 2: Full Reading List & Drafted Questions
As noted above, there is flexibility in this timeline. However, as a rule of thumb and in consultation with your advisor/committee chair, students are advised to allocate the equivalent of three credits worth of work for the activities in Step 2. In some cases, the exam may be scheduled during a student’s last semester of classes, but this should only be considered if there is a clear rationale for doing so and the student has limited coursework remaining.  Generally, it is advisable to have satisfied the MS thesis/empirical requirement, and the vast majority of their coursework before beginning these tasks. Bearing in mind that all students must enroll in a minimum 8 credits before becoming a dissertator, a standard semester in which students are completing Step 2 might include a final 3-6 credits of required or elective coursework, and 2-5 credits of independent study for prelim preparation, depending on previous preparation, overlap of coursework with preliminary exam topics, and other considerations.

You will use this preparation time to substantively prepare for writing the preliminary exam, including:

  • Fully develop your annotated bibliography
    • Meet with advisor to review initial reading lists, gaps, key scholars
    • Begin meeting with your (potential) committee members individually, share reading list, solicit ongoing feedback
    • Continue reading, adding to bibliography throughout
  • Begin formulating preliminary exam questions/proposals for the application component in conversation with your advisor and members of your committee
  • Students may also wish to tailor any concurrent required course assignments to their preliminary exam readings.

Step 3: PhD Candidacy Meeting
The PhD Candidacy Meeting is a meeting between the student and their prelim committee. During the meeting, the committee and student will review a packet of materials, which should be submitted to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the Meeting. These materials include:

  • Semi-formulated questions
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Core Requirements Checklist
  • A proposed calendar of dates for: revisions to these materials (questions and bibliography), start date of exam, date of exam submission, and any intervening meetings or check ins.

During the meeting, the committee and student will review the submitted materials, and determine what additional revisions and/or work need to be completed before the writing phase can commence. With this in mind, the meeting should be scheduled with as much time as possible before the anticipated writing period, in order to allow for these revisions.  Depending on the availability of faculty and the student, this will generally be just before or after the end of the semester in which the student has completed Step 2.

In addition to materials sent in advance to their committee, students should plan to bring their “PhD Preliminary Exam & Dissertator Status Form” to this meeting, which the committee will need to sign. Following the meeting, the student should send the signed form to the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator.

Step 4: Finalize Questions and Other Materials (after candidacy meeting, before writing period)
Following the Candidacy meeting, and before the writing period commences, the student and committee will jointly adapt and edit the student’s preliminary exam bibliography and questions, based on the scope and timeline determined in the Candidacy meeting.

Bearing in mind that pre-dissertator students need to be registered for at least 8 credits, students may need to plan to request independent study credits for the semester in which they plan to write.

Step 5: Writing
To initiate the writing period, the committee chair will confirm the questions and final due date, along with any other interim benchmarks, with the student. If following the sample timelines in the table above, the students should plan to enroll in up to 8 credits of research/independent study for the writing semester, at the end of which, they will submit their three questions to their committee.

The SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator must obtain your Prelim Warrant at least 3 weeks before you defend your prelims. At the start of the writing period, submit to the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator the signed “Instructions to obtain the PhD Prelim Warrant & Minor” form, and your signed PhD Checklist. The SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator will fill out the paperwork to order your Prelim Warrant, and will contact you by email when it arrives. This Warrant is signed by your committee at your prelim defense. When your signed Prelim Warrant is submitted to the Graduate School, you will be granted dissertator status for the next semester.

During the writing period, students may use any books, articles or other published resources to answer their prelim questions, but they are not permitted to receive direct assistance from other individuals in the completion of their exam.  If the student requires clarification of a question, the student is encouraged to contact their prelim committee chair, who will then get feedback from other committee members.

Step 6: Defense
The defense, which is a meeting between the student and their committee, serves as an oral exam and feedback session.  It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the oral defense within one month of submission of the completed written answers.

In the oral defense, the student briefly describes their written responses and answers questions from the committee.  The oral exam provides an opportunity for the student to clarify possible shortcomings in the written exam and to engage in in-depth discussions to move forward the student’s thinking.

After the discussion, faculty confer as a committee and together determine the outcome of the exam.  Responses (written and oral) to each question are evaluated independently.  For each question, a student may:

  • Pass with no revisions
  • Pass with minor revisions (to be assessed by the committee chair only)
  • Pass with major revisions (to be assessed by the entire prelim committee)
  • Fail with a complete reworking of response to a question required

If a student receives a pass on all questions after the defense, they are advanced to doctoral candidacy and are eligible for dissertator status with the Graduate School.

If a student does not pass a particular question after the defense, they must revise their responses to the question(s) that they don’t pass. As part of the oral defense, the committee will discuss with the student the extent of revisions necessary, and the student and their committee will jointly determine the timeline for the submission of revisions.

The student should bring their Prelim Warrant to this meeting.  Once the committee has determined that a student has passed their Prelim Exam, all committee members will sign off on this form. This may be at the time of the oral defense or after revisions have been submitted, reviewed, and approved.

The student and their committee should determine whether it is appropriate to submit the prelim questions to department’s prelim question example bank. If so, it is the Committee Chair’s responsibility to send the questions to the Graduate Program Coordinator.

Step 7: Revisions
Re-writes are not uncommon.  In the case of either major revisions or a complete reworking of a response, a second oral defense will be scheduled as part of the timeline for revisions jointly determined by the student and their committee.  A decision of Pass or Fail will be made following the second oral defense meeting of the faculty committee.

Only one additional chance to pass the question(s) will be granted. If a determination is made that the student did not pass the re-examination, then the student will not be permitted to continue on in the PhD program.  At this point, the committee should consider whether a MS in Human Ecology should be awarded to the student.


School of Human Ecology Graduate Programs Handbook Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Holland. All Rights Reserved.

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