press enter after type

Columbia. Rules for Conduct of Graduate Oral and Final Exams, 1967


Every so often some well-meaning Dean tries to capture established procedures in writing. Since the Faculty of Political Science was explicitly referred to and the printed pamphlet transcribed below was found in the papers of the former head of the economics department (located within the Faculty of Political Science), Carl Shoup, it would seem reasonable that the spirit of the these rules, if not the letter, governed the administration of graduate oral and Ph.D. final examinations in economics. When one thinks of the salience of such examination memories, I find it surprising that it is difficult to find detailed written recollections of the oral exams experienced by generations of economic graduate students.


The Graduate Faculties

The Conduct of Oral and Final Examinations


During the academic year 1958-1959 the Chairmen of the Committees on Instruction of the Graduate Faculties wrote to the Dean of the Graduate Faculties to ask that he set down in permanent form the rules governing oral examinations. Before and after that request, numerous faculty members had also asked the Dean’s office question on particular points…

The few pages that follow attempt to answer these various inquiries by summarizing the contents of committee minutes and faculty statements. The forms and procedures here listed were developed over the years by the Faculties themselves and given coherence and fixity by the decisions of the Joint Committee on Graduate Instruction. They apply also to the professional schools in which the Ph.D. degree is offered. The customs indicated, such as rising, notifying the candidate in subjects in one’s office, but bringing back the dissertation candidate, are of course no compulsory but they will be found pleasant and convenient to observe…

The Conduct of Oral Examinations


In departments where oral examinations are required, a student applies for his orals in subjects to his department. When the request has been approved, the department appoints a committee of not fewer than five members, one of whom is designated as chairman, to examine the candidate on specified subjects or fields. (In the Faculty of Political Science, at least one member of the committee must belong to a department other than the candidate’s; in other faculties, members of outside departments are called on when it is appropriate to do so.) The examination is held preferably in an examination or seminar room, not in an office or classroom, and its duration may be two or two and a half hours, depending on department practice.

The examination chairman is responsible for the conduct of the examination. He calls upon the committee members to ask questions and regulates the length of time that each examiner may occupy. All persons present are deemed members of the committee, whether members of the department or not, and must be given an opportunity to ask questions. The chairman has the right to disallow any question that seems to him irrelevant or improper.

At some convenient point during the examination — e.g., between the major and the minor when that division applies — the candidate is given an opportunity to leave the room for two or three minutes. He is not required to do so and may prefer to forge ahead to the end. At the close of the examination, the candidate is asked to wait in or near his sponsor’s office, the examiners rising as he leaves the room. The chairman then asks for opinions on the examination. Every person present may vote on the issue of Pass or Fail, a majority vote being sufficient.

If passing, the committee must next assign a grade or comment which is entered on the student’s record. Excellent. Very Good, Good, Fair are the commonest terms in use. Poor is not considered passing. In some departments, failure on the examination as a whole is final, unless the committee, of its own motion, recommends to the department a reexamination at some specified time in the future; in others a second examination is normally permitted. There is precedent for giving this second examination in written form if the committee decides that the oral method would permanently prevent the candidate from displaying his knowledge. The committee may also require reexamination, either written or oral, in some part or parts, suspending judgment on the examination as a whole until the deficiency is removed.

Only in the most unusual circumstances should an examination be terminated as a failure before it has run its normal course. This and several of the other cautions enumerated here arise from the experience of many years, during which a number of embarrassments — threatened lawsuits and the like — have been created by contentious students who took advantage of laxness or informality in the conduct of their examinations. Needless to say, it is the student who fails who has recourse to this attempted vindication, but it can be troublesome to the department and expensive for the University.



At the final examination, the dissertation is defended by the student with respect to its sources, interpretations, and conclusions. The candidate is expected to show familiarity with the bibliography of his subject and the knowledge relating to the thesis he puts forward.

The committee to examine on the dissertation is not a departmental but a faculty committee. For the Ph.D. degree the Dean of the Graduate Faculties appoints a committee after nominations have been sent him by the department. The committee should consist of at least five members and should not exceed nine or ten. At least two members should come from University departments other than the candidate’s. The reason for the limit on size is that a larger number than ten can scarcely examine to any purpose within a span of two hours, and it is unfair to ask a faculty member to read and annotate a book, listen to his colleagues criticize it, and deny him the right to do the same.

For this reason also, the chairman of the committee must be strict about allotting time. If the candidate is asked to begin by summarizing his preparation and his results, this must be kept within reasonable limits.

Points made by examiners will naturally divide into substantial and editorial. Unless it is necessary to show that a very badly written dissertation must be entirely rewritten, the editorial comments ought not be taken up one by one. The sheet of notes on these matters is handed by the reader to the candidate, leaving examining tie for matters of substance.

When all examiners have finished their questioning, the candidate is asked to step outside and wait for a signal to return. During the discussion period, the question at issue is, first, Pass or Fail; then, if passing is approved, is it with minor or major revisions (known as Column 1 and Column 2 respectively)? A majority vote is required for all decisions on the final examination. But if any two examiners vote not to pass the dissertation (Column 3), it may only be accepted with major revisions, i.e., in Column 2. The committee may also, by unanimous vote, designate an exceptionally meritorious dissertation as “distinguished,” an honor which is place on the candidate’s permanent record.

When passed with minor revisions, the dissertation is corrected by the candidate in the light of the comments made upon it, and his revision is supervised by his sponsor. For major revisions, the chairman of the examination committee appoints a revision committee of three, whose names must be entered upon the reporting sheet. When the student has finished the major revisions, they must be submitted to each of the three members of the revision committee and each must state in writing that the new text is satisfactory. The three letters are sent to the Dean of the Graduate Faculties to be attached to the reporting sheet and thus settle the suspending passing. In the Faculty of Philosophy, such a dissertation may not be deposited until three months after the defense, and not during the summer months.

No candidate may have a second final examination unless the Dean considers, upon evidence put before him, that the first one was maladministered. Under special circumstances, however, the examining committee may by unanimous vote recommend that the Dean, after consultation with the chairman of the department, permit the candidate to submit and defend a totally new dissertation.

Since some students misconstrue encouragement and civilities, and blind themselves to the meaning of the phrase “certified for examination,” it is important for sponsors to make clear at all stages two fundamental features of the final examination procedure:

  1. Certification of the dissertation for examination in no way guarantees that it will be passed, nor does this certification commit the vote of any member of the examining committee.
  2. Certification does not deprive examiners of the right to press questions and criticisms during the examination.

Special dispensation for irregular modes of examination is not unknown but the precedents cannot be construed as a right. Upon formal recommendation of the department, the Dean may approve, on evidence put before him, such irregular procedures as have occurred in the past: defense in absentia (the candidate was in Asia and kept from attending by more than one circumstance); posthumous defense (the candidate’s sponsor recorded and embodied the committee’s suggestions); defense per alium (the candidate, in military service abroad, was represented by a scientific collaborator.


Source: Columbia University Libraries, Manuscript Collections. Columbia University, Department of Economics Collection. Carl Shoup Materials, Box 10, Folder “Columbia University—General”. Printed Pamphlet: The Graduate Faculties, Columbia University, 1967. The Conduct of Oral and Final Examinations [etc.], pp. 1-5.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier