The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Graduate Resources

Special Field Exam


In 1976 a general meeting of the graduate faculty in the English Department voted to require all Ph.D. students who entered the graduate program after August 1977 to submit for approval by the Graduate Studies Committee a reading list for the Special Field Examination and a description of the anticipated format for the examination. The purpose of this requirement was (and is) to bring a degree of consistency and uniformity to a requirement for the Ph.D. that had been characterized by considerable variety in format, nature and length of reading list, nature and length of examination, and the like. The general meeting did not make specific recommendations but left it to the Graduate Studies Committee to establish guidelines.

The 1983 Graduate Studies Committee decided that future Graduate Studies committees would approve or disapprove of dissertation topics and the minutiae of reading lists. Yet the committee also recognized that in actual practice--that is, in the course of reviewing Special Field Exam Proposals--such matters invariably turn up and draw serious attention and commentary. For that reason, the Graduate Studies Committee, while not intruding on the responsibilities of dissertation directors and committees, will feel free to report to the Director of Graduate Studies any questions it might have concerning the definition of the field, the primary and secondary reading lists, and the dissertation topic.

The 1995-96 Graduate Studies Committee reviewed and endorsed the instructions and guidelines for the Special Field Exam, as well as the policies and procedures underlying them. The existing special and alternative fields were discussed at some length and reaffirmed. The Committee emphasized that primary reading lists must be broadly representative of their special fields (period-based fields such as Renaissance literature and Modern British literature; genre-based fields such as poetry, the novel, and film; and alternative fields such as African-American literature and women's studies). The list of primary works should be, as the relevant guideline notes, "appropriate for a specialist in the field." It may include particular emphases related to the dissertation topic, but the topic should not determine the general shape of the list or reduce its representatives of the special field in which the dissertation is to be written. The Committee also reaffirmed the policy that all requirements for the M.A. must be completed before the Special Field Exam can be taken, as well as the policy that a proposal must be submitted at least three months prior to the expected date of the exam.

In addition, the 1995-96 Graduate Studies Committee recommended that a Special Field Exam proposal include a brief rationale (a paragraph or two, and no more than one single-spaced page), and this recommendation has now been incorporated into the guidelines. The rationale should include a description of the special field, a justification of the list of primary works and of any particular emphases within the list, and a statement of how the special field relates to the dissertation topic.

Category Selection

Item One

Advisers and advising committees have the responsibility to direct the candidate into an area ("special field") that seems appropriate for the candidate's interests, the profession of university or college research and teaching, and the candidate's anticipated research project, with the proviso that the special field will be considerably more comprehensive that the planned dissertation topic.

Item Two

The Graduate Studies Committee has the responsibility to review the candidate's designation of the special field and the reading list to ensure reasonable standards of appropriate knowledge and a fair consistency in the amount of work that will satisfy the expectations of advisers and advising committees.

Item Three

Proposals for the Special Field Examinations should be submitted no later than three months before the anticipated exam date.

Item Four

Certain traditional fields have the general consent of the Graduate Studies Committee. Successive Graduate Studies Committees have endorsed the following "special fields" in Writing Studies:

Item Five

Candidates may also propose special fields outside the standard list. Such fields might overlap traditional divisioning, or deal with a genre spanning two or more traditional periods, or concentrate upon a developing area in which special subdivisioning is appropriate, or combine two or more disciplines. Such an alternative special field should be (1) intellectually coherent, (2) comparable in scope with the traditional fields, and (3) reconcilable with job opportunities in the field. Particular scrutiny will be given by the Graduate Studies Committee to proposals that fall within these categories, that is, outside the traditional fields.


In preparing their proposals for the Special Field exam, candidates should follow the principles and procedures set forth below:

  1. Special Field Rationale:
    • The Special Field will be named and briefly explained.
    • The dissertation topic will be named, and its relation to the candidate's special field explained.
    • The rationale will be given in a paragraph or two (and no more than a single-spaced page), including a description of the special field, a justification of the list of primary works and of any particular emphases within the list, and a statement on the relation of the dissertation topic to the special field.
  2. Reading List
    • The reading list ought to represent at least the bare minimum needed to be known by a specialist in the field. (Nothing prohibits it from being substantially longer).
    • The adequacy of the reading list will be judged, by the Graduate Studies Committee, in relation to the candidate's definition of the special field. The principle is that this list should be appropriate for any specialist in that field rather than the dissertation topic, though it may include special emphases derived from the dissertation topic.
  3. The Format of the Examination
    • The Special Field Examination may be written, or oral, or a combination of oral and written portions.
    • An examination that is solely oral should be a minimum of two hours. No maximum is specified.
  4. Having passed the Special Field Examination, the candidate will be in Stage III.


Since 1996, the Graduate Studies Committee has required that candidates submit a brief rationale with their list of readings for the Special Field examination. According to the committee, this rationale should include "a description of the special field, a justification of the primary works and of any particular emphases within the list, and a statement of how the special field relates to the dissertation topic."

Our understanding of this requirement indicates that while the dissertation topic should be named in the rationale, it should not be the primary focus of either the rationale or the reading list for the exam. Rather, the rationale should describe and explain the selected "special field(s)" and indicate how the accompanying reading list is related to the field(s).

We have observed that candidates in Writing Studies often select (a) special field(s) which is not officially endorsed by the Graduate Studies Committee. As a result they must take special care to develop an effective rationale, since the Committee has indicated that "special scrutiny will be given by the Graduate Studies Committee to proposals that fall...outside the traditional fields."

These samples of Special Field rationales illustrate some of the ways candidates have chosen to identity and explain alternative fields for their examinations.

Reading List

According to the English Department's procedural document, the reading list "ought to represent at least the bare minimum needed to be known by a specialist in the field." While graduate students often include texts which relate to their dissertation topic, the Graduate Studies Committee is primarily concerned with the list as a fairly comprehensive source of readings in a particular area. Since graduate students affiliated with the Center for Writing Studies may have more than one "special field," they must be careful to create a list that will both satisfy their scholarship needs and represent a coherent category (or categories) for the Graduate Studies Committee.

The following reading list samples are intended to provide examples of possible categories and the texts which might be included in those categories. Graduate students at the Center who are planning for their exams should feel free to borrow from these bibliographies for their own lists.


All graduate students preparing for the Special Field examination prepare a list of questions prior to the exam which can be used by their committee members during the exam.

The questions should be developed with guidance from the committee director and should be submitted to the other committee members before the exam so that they can make suggestions or additions. See the list of questions samples submitted by previous students.

A Coversation with Grads

Joyce Walker and Karen Lunsford took their special fields exams in 2000, and both have gone on to secure tenure track positions. In the following accounts, they detail their experiences--forming a committee, getting through the bureaucracy, reading all of that material, taking the exam, and figuring out what comes next. These accounts grew out of their informal conversations about questions that they were asked by other graduate students. Please be sure to review your department's official exam guidelines and talk with your director for the final word on procedures and regulations. View the conversations.