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Northern Illinois University

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Comprehensive Examination

All students are required to take a comprehensive examination.  This exam will cover the core areas of sociological theory and sociological research methodologies.  In order to measure mastery of the core, students will be tested on course material, as well as relevant material above and beyond routine course work. Students are encouraged to obtain a recommended reading list from core faculty and to become well versed in these readings before taking the exam.

The comprehensive examination may be taken at any point in the student’s graduate career, but students are encouraged to take it as soon as they have completed core course work.  The exam is offered three times a year on pre-selected days, generally a Saturday (dates may be obtained from the Graduate Director): once in fall (December), once in spring (May), and once in summer (July).  Students planning to take the comprehensive examination must notify the Graduate Director one month ahead of the scheduled exam date. 

All students will take the exam in the same place at the same time.  Exams will be proctored by a member of the graduate committee.  The exam requires students to answer essay questions, half on theories and half on research methods.  Students are allowed three hours per section.   They should, therefore, come into the exam fully prepared to apply their knowledge in written form.  A committee of graduate faculty grades the comprehensive examinations.  Each question will be evaluated as either “Pass” or “Fail.”  If a student passes both examination questions, they are free to move forward with their thesis project.  If a student fails one or both sections, they may retake the exam at the next offering.  In the meantime, that student is free to take courses and to begin work on thesis project.  However, if a student fails an examination question(s) for the second time, that student is dismissed from the master’s program.   


While the comprehensive examination is designed to measure mastery in the core of the sociology master’s program, evidence mastery in the student’s area of substantive specialization comes from their thesis, with close faculty supervision.  A thesis is intended to provide the student with the opportunity to grapple with a significant sociological problem.  The student attempts to pose meaningful questions and systematically marshal a body of evidence to address these questions.  Students are advised to explore topics for the thesis in consultation with faculty members who have substantive knowledge in the particular field.  The student should then choose one faculty member to serve as chair of the thesis committee and two other faculty members to serve as members of the committee.  There is a form for this purpose, which must be filed with the department.  The chair (thesis adviser) must be a member of the graduate faculty in the Department of Sociology.  All three members of the committee must complete and sign the “Thesis Adviser Appointment” form and return it to the Director of Graduate Studies for approval.

Once a committee is formed, the student then writes a research proposal, detailing the problem to be researched, literature grounding that problem, and the proposed method for addressing the problem.  This proposal must be evaluated by the thesis committee, who provide feedback and parameters of the project.  Each student will formally defend this proposal in a thesis committee meeting before commencing the thesis project.
A student is not to begin work on a thesis or enroll for thesis credit until a thesis committee has been constituted and the committee has approved a formal thesis proposal.  This should normally be done no later than the third semester of full-time study.  If a student has completed 6 credit hours of SOCI 699 but has not completed the Master’s degree, continuing enrollment in at least one hour of SOCI 699 per term (including summer) as an audit is required until the degree is completed.

If the thesis research involves human subjects, special approval is required prior to the collection of any data.  In many cases, this approval can be certified by the Department Chair.  In other cases, formal review by the Graduate School’s Office of Research Compliance (ORC) is required. In any event, if this approval is not obtained, the Graduate School will not approve the thesis.  Prior to commencing the research, students should consult the ORC website ( and the department’s chair for assistance.

Members of the thesis committee must read the thesis carefully when it is completed.  Because their approval is required before submission to the Graduate School, meeting (thesis defense) with the student should be held.  It is likely that multiple drafts of the thesis will be written.  The student should allow sufficient time for revision of the thesis between the time that rough drafts are submitted and the time the final copy is due to the Graduate School.  The student must defend the completed thesis in a public forum prior to its submission to the Graduate School.

An approved thesis is submitted to the Graduate School, along with a signed thesis-approval form.  The procedures and requirement s for submitting the thesis to the Graduate School are available on the Graduate School website.

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