Beginning the Special Field Process

The Special Field Exam’s strength is its flexibility. At its foundation it is a two-hour oral examination, and the general requirements and deadlines can be found here. That said, the exam also varies, depending on one’s field of study or advisor, as to whether or not there is a written component, and the breadth and composition of the reading list. Therefore, the department has developed the following questions as possible ways to get started in thinking about and talking over the different elements and stages of the exam. For samples of previous successful proposals, email Andrea Dodd-Wronke or the DGS for an invitation to the Box folder.

The exam should be taken within 9 months of the end of a student’s final semester of coursework. In the final semester of coursework, if not before, a student should meet with an advisor to begin the process of determining a field or fields for the exam, and deciding on a committee.


Five Stages of Preparation for the Special Field Exam

1. Assemble a committee by choosing a primary advisor (or “committee chair”) and 3 other members;
2. Prepare a reading list of primary, secondary, and theoretical texts that show both field coverage and the general focus of the dissertation project, accompanied by a rationale explaining the list’s contents;
3. Apply for approval from the Graduate Program by submitting your rationale and reading list about 2 to 3.5 months before you plan to take the exam;
4. Prepare for the exam, in consultation with your advisor and committee, which may include developing exam questions or other written materials that represent the breadth of your emerging interests; for Medieval Studies students, this will also require preparing for a translation exam;
5. Take the exam, typically by sitting for a 2 hour oral exam with your committee.

These stages are not exactly the same for every exam, so ask your advisor about their exams’ usual structure.

Below, we have developed some helpful questions and prompts to get the conversation going with your advisor, and to guide that conversation through to sitting for your exam. For a more thorough document to guide you through these stages, see the longer memo on the exam.


Preliminary Questions

  • What are the historical periods or subperiods of interest to you? What historical eras (if applicable) should someone joining the field as a scholar and as a teacher be responsible for knowing?
    • Is this a field that will be broadly pitched (traversing 1-2 traditional historical periods or even transhistorical) or narrowly conceived (within one period or even a micro-historical period)?
  • What methods and theories have you identified as most useful, exciting, and integral to their work?
  • Which faculty members would be best equipped to support the project as committee members? (Please keep in mind that the Grad College mandates 4 faculty members to a committee, 2 of whom need to be tenured at Illinois, which can include tenured faculty who have left Illinois to join other institutions).


Questions for Preparing the Proposal (Rationale + Reading List)

Preparing the Rationale

The rationale is roughly 1 ½ to 2 pages, single spaced, and lays out the reasoning behind the list, the field(s) that will be joined, and a preliminary sketch of the emerging dissertation (often the final paragraph). The following questions may help spark a conversation that could lead to the drafting of the rationale:

  • What fields and subfields does the reading list cover?
  • In these fields/subfields, what has been overlooked or marginalized that has become of interest to you?
  • What major works of scholarship or theory will you be building on?
  • What are the reasons behind the broader field reading? How does this reading list support plans for the dissertation and/or teaching?
  • What is the emerging dissertation idea (preliminarily)?

Preparing the Reading List

A typical reading list is generally no more than 80-100 texts in all, though the lists vary tremendously as to proportion of primary to secondary literature, depending on field of study; and the number often reflects the length of primary and secondary texts (i.e. the understanding that a Victorian novel is much longer than a play or a lyric poem, for instance; and that a major article in the field might be a quicker read than a full scholarly monograph). How the list is organized is largely left to the student, advisor, and committee, but we do recommend headings and subheadings to draw the Grad Studies Committee Members’ eyes to the relevant topics and the list’s structure. These questions may help spark a conversation that could lead to the drafting of the reading list:

  • How broad will the list be historically? How many historical fields will it cover and why?
  • How many secondary works will be included, and what will be the distribution between field-specific scholarship and more broad-based theoretical works?
  • How far back in the scholarship will be useful for this field, and why?

One final suggestion for the reading list: draft a list in its fullest form and then cut back before circulating to the committee. The major challenge is always wanting to cover “everything”: this is not possible intellectually, and it will not allow you to move through the exam stage in a timely manner.

  • One of the best ways to think about how to cut works from the reading list is to consider this question: “Is this a text that is better saved for the dissertation?” – as in, is this a text that makes sense as broad field preparation or is it reading to write a chapter?


Questions for Preparing for the Exam

It’s important for the student, advisor, and committee members to be on the same page about what the structure of the exam is, and what the expectations for successfully completing it are. We recommend that the advisor and student discuss these issues ahead of sitting for the exam, and that the advisor write to the committee members to inform them of the structure of the exam ahead of it as well, especially as exam structures change depending on the advisor and that the student may be bringing on to their committee faculty members who have not administered an exam in English. Below are some questions that can help the student and advisor prepare for a successful exam:

  • Will you prepare questions for the exam?
    • These questions are typical for many but not all exams, and they are generally used to help you begin to articulate the ideas and interests that the reading sparked, and tie those interests to specific texts
    • The number of questions tends to vary based on advisor, and can range anywhere from 4-10
    • It is the rare exam where faculty members only read from the questions rather than use the questions as springboards for a discussion during the exam
  • Will you open the exam with prepared remarks about the field reading and dissertation that is developing (this again varies depending on the advisor)?
  • How should you prepare for the exam itself? What tips does your advisor have for success in an oral exam?
    • Some of these tips might include: hold a practice exam with peers and/or practice answering questions with one’s advisor; meeting with committee members ahead of the exam to discuss the overlaps between the student’s emerging work, their questions (if pertinent), and the faculty members’ expertise; drafting and practicing any preliminary remarks
  • Will your advisor expect a draft of the dissertation prospectus ahead of the exam? Will that prospectus be circulated to committee members?