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International Relations Exam Guide

The comprehensive examination in international relations consists of two parts, a written exam and an oral exam. It is designed to test students’ knowledge of the field as a whole, not simply their knowledge of materials from specific courses. As such, it requires that students have thought about the field as a whole, and about how materials from various courses that they have taken and research that they have undertaken fit together. It also requires that they be current on the state of the field and of the debates within it. The IR reading list for Fall 2010 can be found here.

Written Component

The written exam is a “take-home” exam, that consists of three questions to be addressed over three days for Ph.D. students for whom international relations is the primary field, and two questions over two days for Masters students and Ph.D. students for whom international relations is the second field. All students answer the same first general question on international relations theory. The second question focuses on the four sub-fields: international political economy, international security, foreign policy analysis, and international organization. One question per sub-field will be on the exam, and students will be able to choose among them. The third question (for students for whom international relations is the first field) will relate to each student’s area of proposed dissertation research. Students must confirm this area with the International Relations Field Committee (e.g. via their advisor) at least two weeks prior to taking the exam.

The exam will be made up of broad-gauged essay questions designed to test students’ knowledge of the literature in the field, ability to use the literature in constructing an analytically coherent argument, and ability to apply a critical perspective to the literature. For each response, students should think of the “big questions” raised in the field and relate them to the specifics of the question. They will have to make a coherent argument in your answer, along the lines of the guide below.

Answers should include:

  • A central thesis/argument;
  • The arguments in its favor;
  • Relevant evidence;
  • Conclusion.

Answers should be written as if for an article, including explanations of concepts new to the reader, but not of general ideas each student should know. Argument should flow logically and empirically, building toward your conclusion.

Exam essays will be graded according to the following criteria:

  • Does it show mastery of relevant literature in the field?
  • Does it answer the question?
  • Does it have a central argument/thesis? Is it argued in a straightforward, clear, and coherent manner?
  • Is the thesis supported by sound arguments?
  • Are the arguments supported by evidence, either theoretical or empirical? Is the evidence adequate? Is it correct?
  • Does it take into account major counter-arguments and critique them?
  • Is the answer literate and well-written?

Oral Component

The oral exam is an integral component of the comprehensive examination. It will build on the student’s written exam, but may venture beyond it. Since no decision on students will have been made prior to the oral, the oral exam provides students with an opportunity to:

  • develop more fully their arguments in the written exam, especially as they relate to some of the “big questions” in the field;
  • respond to weaknesses/gaps in their arguments;
  • draw on other relevant literature and empirical evidence to bolster their arguments; and
  • demonstrate their broad understanding of the literature and how it might relate to their future research agenda.