I've been trying to do some research on the history of Qualifying Exams in the US; but, unfortunately, I've not been able to find anything other than the occasional quote, and nothing before the 1950s.

What's going on here? Were they not common practice before the 1940s and 1950s? If not, why? What instigated their creation? I'm just speculating here, but were they a response to GIs returning to academia after the war?

In short, I'm asking... what is the history behind the Qualifying Exams in the US?

  • You should clarify your terminology. In my department, qualifying exams are written exams on the basics of large areas of mathematics, and preliminary exams are oral exams on the area the student will specialize in. There are other departments that have the same exams but call the first ones "preliminary" and the second "qualifying". And there are other departments with an entirely different exam structure. Feb 1, 2021 at 1:43
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    Welcome to Academia.SE, and great first question! I slightly edited your last paragraph, as we don't allow resource recommendation questions (though a direct answer may cite sources of course).
    – cag51
    Feb 1, 2021 at 2:23
  • @AndreasBlass Funny. I always thought they were two terms for the same thing. We do "prelims," and then "orals" for the specialization; which isn't an exam at all but I suppose you could technically fail it. Feb 1, 2021 at 3:33
  • I would suggest you start with the general catalogues of various universities. Some of these have been scanned, but many will only be available in paper form in university archives. If you want more than general rules and regulations about exams, you will definitely need to look at paper. This does not seem to me to be the kind of subject that can be researched without travel. Feb 1, 2021 at 6:41
  • One small piece I know from reading in this field is that a lot of graduate programs were reformed for the sake of rigor in the post-war period. (Academics worried that graduate education was becoming watered-down, and the GI Bill in the US also provided an influx of college students.) I wouldn't be surprised if adding qualifying exams was a way to make sure that admitted graduate students knew their stuff before attempting a dissertation. Feb 1, 2021 at 16:39

1 Answer 1


In the United States, Ph.D. qualifying exams or quals (also called comprehensive exams or comps, preliminary exams or prelims, and other terms) date back to the late 1930s and proliferated in the postwar period, according to Leonard Cassuto (Chronicle; also noted in the "Comprehensive Exams" chapter of his book The Graduate School Mess):

Comps seem as old as graduate school itself, so that tampering with them might appear the equivalent of rewriting the sacred scrolls. But comprehensive exams in the United States date back only to the late 1930s. They proliferated when graduate populations grew too large after World War II to manage by dissertation alone. Between the GI Bill and Sputnik-related research spending, the number of Ph.D.'s tripled in the 1960s. Against that backdrop, the dissertation defense became more of a formality, creating a need for so-called barrier exams beforehand.

Comprehensive exams had already existed in some departments for undergraduate students, but there was a lack of standardization for curricula at different colleges. For example, a graduate of another university who wanted to earn an MA from Princeton would have to take their senior comprehensive exam covering the undergraduate curriculum at Princeton. Economics professor Richard A. Lester, in "A Critique of Our Colleges" (The American Scholar, 3(4), 1934), uses this example to attack the insularity of graduate education at the time, which favored students from its own institution.

Still, occasional evidence for earlier PhD qualifying exams can be found. In a review for Jacob Viner: Lectures in Economics 301 in Journal of Economic Literature 52(2) (2014), a footnote cites PhD qualifying exams found in the Albert G. Hart papers at Columbia. "Hart had been a graduate student at Chicago from 1931 to 1936," indicating that PhD exams were in place in the economics department at the University of Chicago. That does not indicate that PhD exams were widespread, but only that deep dives into institutional archives might uncover earlier examples that Cassuto may not have been aware of.

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