The general examination is designed to ascertain the student's general knowledge of the subject, acquaintance with scholarly methods of research, and ability to organize and present material. As such it may consist of several parts, some testing comprehension of the field and others assessing potential for original research. Advancement to continued candidacy for the Ph.D. requires passage of all parts of the general examination in addition to all other departmental requirements, thereby demonstrating both general competency in the field and the potential for original, creative research. The examination is comprehensive and is not restricted to the content of graduate courses. In most programs, students are not normally readmitted to a third year (fifth term) of graduate study unless they have sustained the general examination and unless they have first fulfilled residence as well as any applicable language or other departmental requirements.
At the discretion of the department, the elements of the general examination may be written, oral, or both. Departments may elect to administer the examination to a student within 10 consecutive days during one of the three examination periods, or, with the approval of the Graduate School, in two or more major parts during different examination periods. (In such cases only the final cumulative grade is reported.) In either case, the examination is held during a stated 21-day period in October or January, or during a five-week period in April and May. No department is required to give the examination in more than two of the three examination periods each year.
The examination committee consists of three or more members, all of whom shall hold the rank of assistant professor or higher and at least two of whom shall normally be on the faculty of Princeton University. Any external examiners must have standing in the scholarly community comparable to appointees to the Princeton faculty.
Graduate students who withdraw from the University in good standing before passing the general examination (and are therefore not enrolled) may present themselves for the examination with the approval of the dean on the advice of the department, provided they have met the residence and language requirements.
If a student fails the general examination, he or she may stand for reexamination within a year. Students who fail the general examination a second and final time have their Ph.D. candidacy and enrollment terminated at the end of the month following that in which the exam was retaken. (For example, for the exam re-taken in October, enrollment terminates November 30; in January, February 28/29; in April, May 31; or in May, June 30.)
The master of arts degree is earned by students in the humanities (master of fine arts in the composition section of music), social sciences, and natural sciences who demonstrate substantial mastery of the field, as defined specifically by the individual department or program, for example, by a particular level of achievement in a set of courses and sustaining the comprehensive or general part of the general examination, where appropriate.
Termination of degree candidacy at the master's level shall stand without further appeal unless new evidence of scholarly promise or capacity is provided by the student's subsequent professional achievement as shown by scholarly publication. In the latter event, a recommendation may be made to the dean that the student be readmitted to candidacy for the Ph.D.