The purpose of the first-year Comprehensive Examination is to assess the student's ability to understand, explicate, and integrate the first-year course materials. Questions are designed to elicit mastery and analysis of the first-year content and, where applicable, to apply that analysis to current social welfare issues. The exam process is focused on enabling students to integrate their learning and to look forward to the next steps in their overall scholarly development. Students may not take the Comprehensive Exam until all first-year coursework is completed.

Courses Covered

The Comprehensive Examination tests students on the content of the following first-year courses:

  1. Methods: Introduction to Advanced Research Methods and Design (Quantitative Research Methods, SocWL 580, and Qualitative Research Methods, SocWL 581).
  2. Theory: Research Issues and Priorities in Social Welfare (SocWL 598-599).
  3.  Policy: Seminar in Contemporary Social Welfare Policy (SocWL 552);  Policy Implementation and Organizations (SocWL 553).

The instructors for these courses prepare the questions and evaluate the written sections of the examination.
Note: Each section of the examination covers content from more than one first-year course. Instructors provide questions relevant to their individual courses; the instructors in each area collectively determine the overall structure of their exam sections. Although the statistics classes are not included in the Comprehensive Examination, students may be asked to show an understanding of relevant statistical methods in their responses in other areas.


During spring quarter, the Program Director will meet with the students to review the structure of the Comprehensive Examination. Students will also have opportunities to meet with first-year instructors to review course content and prepare for the written exams.

Timing and Structure

During spring quarter, students and the Program Director will decide on the exact dates of each examination. The written examinations then takes place during the summer quarter following the first year of the program.   

Three sections comprise the examination: one for each main area of the first-year curriculum: Methods, Theory, Policy. The written exams are take-home, open-book exams, using a web-based format. Each exam can be accessed for 24 hours; 4 hours per course (or 8 hours for a pair of courses) is the recommended amount of time. The expectation is that the essay for each course section of the exams will comprise 8-12 double-spaced pages at most (including references). The exams are spaced such that students will have at least one day between each exam.


The Comprehensive Examination sections are graded pass/fail.

The exams are evaluated by the first-year instructors who provide written feedback to the students on the questions pertaining to their individual course. For each area within the exam, this feedback includes the following summative assessment: Pass (student’s knowledge of the subject area is acceptable), marginal pass (revisions required), or Fail (student has failed to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject area and must retake the exam). The instructors will provide qualitative feedback regarding areas done well, areas that are not fully or accurately addressed. In the case of question responses an instructor judges as marginally acceptable, the student and instructor will meet and work through rewrites before the start of autumn quarter. Instructors will also be encouraged to note where performance on the written exam is exemplary. Students who fail any part of the exams (a section or sections overall, or content within section/s) must successfully complete retakes.

Retakes: A retake is separate from a revision to a marginal pass essay (which can be completed before the autumn quarter). Students who, in the opinion of the grading faculty, have failed a section or sections of the exams are allowed one retake for each section of the written examination.

Students who are asked to retake all or part of the exams will meet with the PhD Director and the appropriate examining faculty member/s to set up a contract for addressing areas of concern and retaking the exams. Retakes must be completed by finals week of autumn quarter (year 2), with the oral session following not later than the first week of winter quarter of year 2.

Students must pass these first-year examinations in order to continue with the program. Failure to pass all sections prior to the beginning of winter quarter of the second year will result in a mandatory review of the student’s progress by the PhD Program Committee and a hold may be placed on the student's registration.
[Revised July 2013]