Preliminary Examinations

Preliminary Exam Procedures and Guidelines


Before you are eligible to take preliminary exams, you must:

  • Complete all required coursework in major and minor fields (normally 2 years of coursework, usually including 2 courses in each minor field; or 3 years of coursework for students entering without a master’s degree.)
  • Pass all necessary language competence exams (normally German and French for all fields unless otherwise approved by the DGS or the convener; certain fields may require additional ancient language exams.)
  • Have the track convener sign the “preliminary examination readiness statement,” certifying that all requirements have been met, the committee is approved by the advisor, and you are ready to take preliminary exams.
  • Complete a "committee approval form" and submit to the GPR office in time for it to gain APPROVAL by one month prior to the start of your exams. Allow 3 weeks for administrative delays. A second committee approval form is sometimes needed if doing the A.M. en route to the PhD. Please consult the DGSA if you plan to get the A.M. concurrent with completing preliminary exams.
  • Complete the "request for preliminary exam space" after confirming the date and time for your oral exam with your committee members.
  • Apply to graduate in DukeHub if also planning to get the A.M. en route to the PhD. Notify the DGSA of your plans.)

Preliminary Exam Committee

Your preliminary exam committee is normally made up of 4 to 5 faculty members, including:

  • 3 professors/primary readers in the major field and
  • 1 professor/primary reader in each minor field.

 A maximum of 6 committee members is allowed.  At least 2 members of the committee must be faculty members in the Graduate Program in Religion unless otherwise approved by the DGS. A majority of committee members must be from Duke.

Prior to the examination, the doctoral committee will receive the following Examination Procedures summary:

Book List

When you begin preparation for the preliminary exams, you must create a reading list in consultation with your primary advisor and other committee members. Some fields have
such a list from which you may make selections.

  • The book list provides the material for which you are responsible and from which exam questions will be taken.
  • It is your responsibility to make sure that all committee members have seen and approved the book list before taking exams.

Exam Questions

In some fields, you are required to write your own exam questions (usually along with composing a book list). In most fields, faculty members write them for you.

  • You are responsible for finding out policies for each major and minor field.
  • Sample questions from previous student exams in all fields are available through the GPR Office.
  • If you are writing some or all of your own exam questions, you must (1) have them approved by the chair and respective primary readers and (2) submit a copy of the questions to the Graduate Program assistant.

Exam Components

WRITTEN: Preliminary exams include four written exams and an oral defense. The four written exams normally include:

  • a 4-hour exam on the major field;
  • a 3-hour exam on the inside minor field;
  • a 3-hour exam on the outside minor field; and
  • a 3-hour exam on the dissertation area.
  • N.B. Some fields do not require a second minor!

NOTE: Students are required to provide their own laptop computers on which to type their written exams. You will send an email with the completed exam attached to the GPR office administrator. The GPR office administrator will distribute the completed exam and the original questions by email to the members of the prelim committee for review.

ORAL: An oral defense follows the written exams.

  • You should confer with the chair regarding expectations for the oral exam.
  • Committee members with major questions should notify the chair in advance of the oral exam.

Passing and Failing Exams

  • Four affirmative votes are required, so for a 4-person committee all votes must be affirmative in order to pass. For a 5-person committee, one member other than the chair can vote to fail and the student will still pass. The chair must vote affirmatively in each case for the student to pass..
  • You may fail up to 2 written exams and take them again no sooner than 3 months after the first oral defense.
  • If you fail a second time, you will be asked to leave the program.
  • In order to pass exams on the second try, the committee’s vote must be unanimous.

Timing and Scheduling of Exams

  • Scheduling of all exams begins with you and your committee. You are required to coordinate the dates and times of your written and oral exams with your committee. Once possible dates have been arranged you should contact the GPR Office to schedule a room to take written exams and for the oral defense.
  • Preliminary exams are expected to take place within 6 months after coursework is completed.
  • The four written exams must be completed over the course of two weeks. They may be taken in any order, and scheduled according to your preference and room availability. (For example, Monday-Thursday, Monday-Thursday; Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Wednesday; etc.)
  • The oral defense normally takes place within one week after the written exams.

Particularities by Field

Each field has its own specific guidelines regarding language competence, book lists, and exam questions.

  • It is the responsibility of each field convener to maintain clear exam guidelines and make them available on the GPR web site.
  • It is the student's responsibility to acquire this information before beginning preparation for exams.

Upon Completion of Preliminary Exams

Students who have successfully passed their preliminary exams are eligible to propose a dissertation. You should meet as soon as possible with your primary advisor to discuss:

  • the makeup of your dissertation committee (not necessarily the same as the preliminary exam committee); and expectations regarding length and detail of proposal and bibliography.