Graduate Program

Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

The comprehensive examination will be administered and assessed in conjunction with the thesis proposal; it will consist of two parts, one written and one oral.  (Students admitted prior to 2013 will have a choice of the in-camera comprehensive exam or the new thesis proposal model.)

Written:  Students should submit a written draft of the thesis proposal by the end of their first year of the MA program.  The thesis proposal must demonstrate comprehensiveness in the form of theoretical and methodological sophistication and mastery, even though it will be applied to a single topic.  The thesis proposal defense date can not be scheduled until the proposal is deemed satisfactory by the thesis committee.

Oral:  Students will also be tested during the oral thesis proposal defense; this part of the exam involves being asked general questions about opposing theoretical frameworks and alternate methods (see sample questions below).  After the thesis proposal defense, the oral portion of the comps will be assessed and scored by the thesis committee using a standardized rubric (available here).  Students who fail the oral portion of the comps will then have one week to provide written answers to the comprehensive exam questions that were failed during the defense; these answers will be assessed and scored by the Graduate Committee. Students should ensure that their thesis chair fills out, and members of the committee sign, the Department's Comprehensive Exam Results form (available here) and the Graduate School's Report on Graduate Student Examination form (available here).

Students may NOT register for thesis hours until the oral portion of the comps has been passed and their thesis proposal successfully defended.  The thesis proposal MUST be successfully defended by the end of spring of their second year in the program.

Students must be enrolled in the semester in which they plan to defend their thesis proposal and take comps.

Sample oral comp questions:


1.  You specify a quantitative/qualitative design in your proposal. Discuss why your method is best suited to your research question and if or how it can help to establish causal relationships.

2.  Sociologists have a wide variety of research methods at their disposal.  You specify a quantitative/qualitative design.  How would you have approached your thesis project with a  qualitative/quantitative design?  What different insights into the process under study might be generated by such a design?


1. You frame your thesis project using X theoretical paradigm.  How would it have been different using a Y paradigm?

2. Explain the main strength for the theoretical paradigm you use.  Explain your theoretical paradigm’s main weakness.

As you prepare for the comprehensive exams, keep in mind that your answers will be evaluated along the following four dimensions: 

(1) the completeness and breadth of your answers
(2) the accuracy and depth of your answers
(3) the effective and appropriate use of evidence in your answers (citations where appropriate), and
(4) the logic and organization of your answers.

Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam in Methods and Statistics

Carefully review your notes and other course materials.

Below is a list of the concepts, techniques, and analytic issues you should focus on:

  • Quantitative methods ~ types, strengths and weaknesses (especially in terms of generalizability and establishing causality)
    • Causality ~ ruling out spuriousness, identifying mediating and interaction effects
    • Sampling ~ strengths and weaknesses of various methods, central limit theorem
    • Issues in survey administration and design (types of surveys, questionnaire construction)
    • Which statistical methods are required for univariate, bivariate and multivariate analysis, depending on whether variables are categorical or continuous
    • Measures of central tendency
    • OLS regression ~ assumptions, interpreting equation parameters (for categorical and continuous independent variables)
    • Familiarity with logistic regression for dichotomous dependent variables
    • Structural equation modeling ~ specifying complex casual relationships in terms of exogenous and endogenous variables, calculating and interpreting direct, indirect and total effects
  • Qualitative methods ~ types, strengths and weaknesses
    • Interpretivism ~ Hermeneutic tradition; Emic vs. etic analysis
    • Thick description ~ Context for social action; in-depth analysis of small sample v. large-scale quantitative studies
    • Sociological analysis as "constructions of constructions" ~ Researcher's understanding of people she's studying built on those people's understandings of themselves; Relativist/postmodernist vs. objectivist/positivist
    • Some helpful readings: Becker  "Epistemology of Qualitative Research"; Ellis "Emotional and Ethical Quagmires in Returning to the Field"; Fine "Ten Lies of Ethnography"; Geertz "Thick Description" and "Deep Play"; Katz "Ethnography's Warrants"; Lofland et al. Analyzing Social Settings; Alford The Craft of Inquiry  

Be prepared to design a hypothetical research project and data analysis, thinking through the issues of specifying hypotheses, appropriate methodologies, measurement (including reliability and validity assessment), data analysis techniques, establishing causality (internal validity), complex causal relationships, external validity (generalizability), and study limitations.

Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam in Theory

Before taking the comprehensive exam in theory, you should know the following:

  • Classical theorists: concepts and paradigms
  • How classical concepts are connected to each other
  • How those concepts have developed over the years, spawning neo-classical traditions
  • Contemporary theorists--their roots and contributions
  • Interconnections between contemporary theorists
  • Current examples/applications of both classic and contemporary theories

Reading list: 

Alexander, Jeffrey.  Neofunctionalism and after. London: Blackwell, 1998

Baudrillard, Jean.  The consumer society. London:Sage, 1998

Berger, Peter and Luckmann, Thomas. The social construction of reality. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1967.

Blau, Peter. Exchange and power in social life. New York: J. Wiley. 1964.

Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. University of CA Press. 1986.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984.

Collins, Patricia. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, counciousness and empowerment. Boxton: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Darendorf, Ralf. Class and class conflict in industrial society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Davis, Kingsley and Wilbert E, Moore. 1945. "Some Principles of Stratification." American Sociological Review Vol. 10 (2): 242:249

Durkheim, Emile. The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press, 1964.

_____. Suicide. New York: Free Press, 1951.
_____. The elementary forms of religious life. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia negro: A social study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Emerson, Richard. “Power-Dependence Relations.” American Sociological Review 27:31-40, 1962.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and  punishment: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Gerth, Hans and Mills, C. Wright (eds.). From Max Weber:  New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Giddens, Anthony. The constitution of society. University of California Press. 1984.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1959.

Habermas, Jurgen. Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press 1975.

Homans, George. Social behavior: its elementary forms. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Mead, George. Mind, Self and Society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Merton, Robert. Social theory and social structure. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Mills, C. W. The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press. 1956.

Parsons, Talcott and Edward Shils. 1951.  Toward a general theory of social action.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1951.

------“Sex Roes in the American Kinship System” In: The kinship system of the contemporary United States. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, College Division. 1960.

Simmel, Georg. Conflict and the web of group affiliations. New York: Free Press, 1955.

Smith, Dorothy.  The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

Tucker, Robert (ed.). The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 170.

Veblen, Thorstein. The theory of the leisure class. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-systems analysis: an introduction.  Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2004.

Weber, Max. The protestant ethnics and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner’s, 1958.

______. General economic history. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transactions Books, 1981.
Secondary Sources:

Burrell, Gibson and Gareth Morgan. Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis.  1979.

Collins, Randall.  Four Sociological Traditions.  1994.

Coser, Lewis. Masters of Sociological Thought.  1971.

Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles.   Sociological Theory in the Classical Era (text and reader).  2011.

_______________.  Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era (text and reader).  2009.

Kuhn, Thomas (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

*This list is not exhaustive.