Preliminary Examination

The purpose of the preliminary exam is to ensure competency in a teaching field and to establish a comprehensive intellectual framework for the dissertation project. The exam should be designed so that you approach your teaching interests and dissertation research in such a way as to engage a set of broad questions that will speak to scholars both within and outside the field of German Studies. You are is not formally accepted as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree until the preliminary examination has been passed. You must be registered during the term in which you take the preliminary examination.

The exam centers on two equally weighted lists, one of which generally concerns itself with a broadly defined literary field, such as a recognized period, movement, or genre across several periods. The other list focuses on a more specific topic such as represents the student's projected area of doctoral research, it being understood that by “area” of doctoral research something broader is envisioned than a list of texts immediately pertinent to the “topic” of the dissertation. In keeping with the prevalent conception of German Studies, at least one of the exam lists ought to have a substantive interdisciplinary component; this might include integrating a particular historical span of literary production with an adjacent and related area, such as visual culture, music, religion, cultural anthropology, literary or critical theory, media studies, philosophy, linguistics, or political theory.

Written Component of Exam

In consultation with their advisor and the DGS, the student may choose one of the following formats for the written component of the exam.

In-house, closed book exam

In order to gauge a student's intellectual profile and readiness to enter the field as a teacher and scholar, the preliminary exam requires scholarly performance under time constraints. The written (closed book) exam asks students to demonstrate and synthesize knowledge of their fields within a limited time frame. Students are allowed up to eight hours to complete the exam. The department will provide the computer for the exam and a quiet room; legible handwritten exams are also acceptable. The student's faculty advisor is responsible for assembling approximately 5-7 exam questions from the committee members. Out of these questions, the student will ordinarily select and respond to three.


Take-home, open-book exam, consisting of two substantial questions, one on each field, given every other day.

Students are given 24 hours per question and are expected to write for each question an original essay of roughly 15 pages on the assigned topic. Student are encouraged to make use of all available technology and of any materials, resources, data bases, etc., they would normally consult while doing research.

Oral Component of Exam

The oral portion of the exam shall take place within no more than two weeks of the written exam and involves questions from all examiners over a period of up to two hours.

Examination Committee

For the preliminary exam, the committee consists of at least four faculty members, including the faculty advisor, selected by the student in consultation with their faculty advisor and the DGS. The primary advisor serves as committee chair. Typically, faculty from the preliminary examination will also serve on the dissertation chapter and prospectus review and dissertation defense committees. In compliance with Graduate School requirements at Carolina, a fifth faculty member must be added to the committee for the dissertation chapter and prospectus review and for the dissertation defense.

The Duke University Graduate School requires that the Preliminary Examination committee must be appointed and approved by the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at least one month (30 days) before the preliminary examination can take place. The committee consists of at least four members, with one member designated as chair. The intent of this rule is to provide students stability regarding committee membership.

Successful completion of the preliminary examination requires at least three affirmative votes and no more than one negative vote. The sole exception to this policy is that a negative vote cast by the chair of the examining committee will mean a failure on the examination. A student who fails the preliminary examination may apply, with the consent of the full supervisory committee and the Dean of the Graduate School, for the privilege of a second examination to be taken no earlier than three months after the date of the first. Successful completion of the second examination requires the affirmative vote of all committee members. Failure on the second examination will render a student ineligible to continue a program for the Ph.D. degree at Duke University.
The qualifying and/or preliminary examination may also be used as the completion exercise for awarding a master's degree, either for a terminal master's or, where appropriate, for awarding a master's en route to the Ph.D.