1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Orals Guidelines

MA Oral

As one of three final exercise options, MA students may elect to sit for a one-hour oral exam.  The MA oral takes place in the third semester.  It is conducted by two faculty members on a topic and list of readings submitted by the student.  Lists normally consist of ten primary texts and two or three secondary texts selected from those established by the department to represent various fields.  Alternatively, students may devise a list of comparable scope with its own principle of coherence (thematic, generic, or the like), accompanied by a one-page proposal explaining the selection of texts.  All lists must be approved by an area committee head or other appropriate faculty member as well as the Director of Graduate Studies.  Applications and lists for the MA oral are available here.

PhD Oral

Designed to make doctoral candidates professionally conversant with two separate areas of scholarship and teaching, the PhD oral exam is a two-part event that takes place in the fall or early spring of the third year.  Since the period list is intended to consolidate general mastery, it ought not to be narrowly tailored in line with particular thesis plans.  The student who adopts or customizes given exam lists, prepares heavily over the summer before the exam, and takes the exam in the fall semester will be well-positioned to begin the dissertation seminar with a prospectus in mind and to complete the doctorate in a timely way.

Applications for the PhD oral as well as departmental exam lists and the names of those faculty designated to approve them are all available here.  Sample exam lists, provided by students who have recently taken their orals, are available on the GESA website.

Students initially file application forms for the PhD oral by May 1 of the second year to indicate their two areas: one historical period and an additional recognized field of study (such as a genre, theoretical emphasis, or second historical period distinct from the first).  Areas should be chosen in light of a student’s long-term teaching and research goals, rather than the short-term goal of capturing a dissertation topic.  In consultation with faculty, students spend that summer reading intensively, the end result of which should be final lists in both of their two areas.  As explained in greater detail below, lists consist of about forty primary and six secondary works each, compiled in accordance with the guidelines specified by particular area committees.  Final lists must be approved by the appropriate faculty members and submitted to the Graduate Office by September 15 of the third year.  Examiners are then assigned, and the two-hour exam is scheduled to take place no later than spring break of the third year.  Students are encouraged to meet briefly with examiners in the weeks prior to actually taking the exam.
Students must have completed all coursework and satisfied the foreign language requirement before they can take the oral exam.
About the Lists: Each list should consist of forty or so primary books or (where very long or short genres are involved) roughly the equivalent; and of some half dozen secondary works providing a variety of scholarly perspectives on the area in question. (Exceptions are Theory and Textual Studies lists, which each consist of forty works in all.) When Period and Field lists overlap, they should do so by no more than ten works. For students who elect to take two Period exams, these secondary readings must include titles devoted to literary-historical principles of canon-formation and periodization. Coverage of the examination area should be broad: for a Period exam the salient genres should be represented, with due regard for chronological distribution; for a Field exam the choice of titles should illustrate the field’s extent, touching on its limits and spanning its history. Titles should be chosen that represent important developments within the area, since it is these developments, not a mere aggregation of texts, that the exam is actually about. Lists are developed in the spring of the second year, honed over the summer, and finalized in the fall, when they must be approved both by the appropriate faculty members and by the DGS.  (See below for a link to those faculty members designated to approve each area.)
About Preparation: In reading for orals, students should bear the big picture in mind. Exams are given in areas, and to conceive of an area requires spacious rather than tunnel vision. It goes without saying that students should bring to the exam a good working knowledge of the listed titles, including relevant bibliographical data and reception history. Photographic recall of the text is not at issue, but students may be expected to summarize a plot or an argument, to paraphrase a poem or a major speech.  Still, the reproduction of such details should be tied to the overall purpose of identifying an area’s chief landmarks, definitive (or wavering) borders, major changes over time.  The student should come to the exam ready to share new ideas that have arisen in the course of independent reading, while also knowing what commonplaces inform advanced study of the area and how new notions might be brought to bear upon them. A successful exam should demonstrate a candidate’s readiness to join the larger conversation of which humanities scholarship consists.
Do, then, read intensively and searchingly the titles on your list. But don’t fail to correlate what you read with other titles on the list, and beyond these with other works you know of even though you haven’t contracted to master them. What within the exam area does this or that work on the list stand for?  Do construct, out of the works on the list, modular links and brief narratives that lead from work to work, from literature to culture and back again. But don’t, once the exam is underway, allow your prepared notions to keep you from hearing what an examiner actually asks.  Do by all means arrange a pre-exam meeting with an assigned examiner, especially if coursework has not previously brought the two of you together. But don’t make the mistake of clamping your studies onto some fantasy of what a given examiner is likely to ask.  His or her mandate is not to pursue a particular agenda but simply to see how much a few brief minutes will let you say, and how well, about an area of the discipline you’ve chosen as a specialty.
About the Timing: During the second year, consult the posted orals lists and give serious consideration to your two exam areas.  Consult with faculty in these areas about the shape your lists will take.   By May 1 of your second year, submit to the Grad Office the orals form proposing your two exam areas.  Over the summer before your third year, read like mad in your two areas.  As the fall semester begins, retrieve your orals application form from the Grad Office, consult further with faculty members, and obtain a faculty signature of approval for each list.  By September 15 of the third year, submit the form and signed lists for final approval by the DGS.  Examiners will be then assigned and an exam date set for the Fall or early Spring.  All exams must take place no later than spring break.  Immediately after spring break, the dissertation seminar begins to meet.  Completed orals exams are a prerequisite for joining this mandatory course.