PhD General Exam

PhD General Exam
Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) Academic Program

Structure of the MAS Academic Program

Graduate students in the MAS academic program start in the masters program, which typically lasts two years (culminating in a masters thesis). After finishing their masters degree, students can be admitted to the PhD program, which typically lasts four years. During the PhD program, students are required to pass a General Exam (by the end of the second year of the program) and submit a PhD Dissertation proposal (by the end of the third year).

Purpose of PhD General Exam
The MAS General Exam is intended to help PhD students develop the knowledge and expertise they need to begin work on research for their PhD Dissertation. Unlike some other departments, MAS does not use its General Exam as a “qualifying” exam, in order to “weed out” students. Rather, the goal is to help students get ready for their work on their PhD Dissertation.

Quick Overview of General Exam

  • Student assembles a three-person committee (MAS advisor + two others) and identifies three core research themes
  • Written component: student writes a paper that demonstrates knowledge and understanding across the three core research themes
  • Oral component: student presents to the committee and engages in discussion about their core research themes, readings, and paper

Initial Steps

  • In consultation with advisor, the student: 
    • identifies three core research themes, cutting across multiple disciplines related to the expected areas of the student’s dissertation research
    • identifies two other members for the committee, with expertise in the core research themes
  • In consultation with the committee, the student:
    • writes a one-page description of the three core research themes
    • puts together a list of readings (in most cases, roughly a dozen books and several dozen articles), with books and articles related to the three research themes, including readings on technical issues and also on broader social, political, cultural, ethical, and/or economic context of the research
  • After approval from committee, the student submits the following to MASCOM:
    • list of committee members (and short bios for those outside MAS)
    • description of the three research themes (max: one page or 500 words)
    • reading list

Written Component

  • Student writes a paper that demonstrates both breadth and depth of knowledge
  • Student decides on the topic and format of the paper in consultation with the advisor and input from other committee members
  • One recommended approach: the paper can be a “literature review" in which the student discusses the readings through the lens of their own research. The point is not for the student to write a “summary” of the readings, but rather an analysis in which they explain what they found most important and most relevant for their own research — and why.
  • An alternative approach: The student and advisor (with input from other committee members) can agree on a different format for the paper, as long as it demonstrates both breadth and depth of knowledge
  • In general, the paper should be single-authored by the student. Papers with the student as lead author can also be accepted, with approval from the advisor
  • Papers are usually about 10 pages long, or approximately 5000 words (though other lengths are acceptable, with approval of the advisor)

Oral Component

  • Student and advisor can decide if the oral component is scheduled after the written component (so that the written paper can be discussed as part of the oral exam) or before the written component (so that the oral exam can help inform the format and focus of the written paper)
  • The oral exam should be scheduled for two hours
  • Student makes a presentation to committee (maximum: 30 minutes) with their insights and analysis of the readings -- and how ideas from the readings relate to and inform their own research plans
  • Committee asks questions and engages student in discussion of the research themes, their presentation, and their paper (If the paper is not yet written, they discuss plans and focus for the paper.)
  • Committee evaluates student’s understanding of the core research themes

Committee Decision

  • At the end of the oral component, the committee collectively decides on whether the student should:
    • Pass
    • Provisional pass with conditions (e.g., take a particular course)
    • Require student to re-do oral component (with suggestions on how to improve)
      • If the student does not pass after two oral exams, the MAS office will decide on appropriate course of action, on case-by-case basis
  • When the student submits the paper for the written component, the committee collectively decides whether to accept the paper or require revisions

Additional Notes

  • The General Exam should be completed by the end of the student’s second year in the PhD program
  • The student should complete both the oral and written components within six months of the MASCOM approval of their proposal
  • In special cases, with approval of their advisor and MASCOM, the student can add a fourth committee member and/or modify the number of core research themes
  • While working on the proposal and the components of the General Exam, student should register for MAS.945
  • The advisor should notify the MAS office when the student has successfully completed both components of the General Exam
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