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. Department and program faculty assess performance on the general exam in determining a student's ability to complete a dissertation and their ability to oversee the student's research. Students who pass the general examination in their department ordinarily advance to Ph.D. candidacy. In certain circumstances, a student may be reported as having completed the general examination sufficient to earn a pass, but not at a level high enough to advance to the dissertation stage. This outcome may allow such a student to meet eligibility requirements for a Master of Arts degree, depending on the department or program's requirements for such a degree.
The general examination may consist of several parts, some testing comprehension of the field and others assessing potential for original research. Advancement to post-generals candidacy for the Ph.D. requires passage of all parts of the general examination in addition to completion of all other relevant departmental requirements. The examination is comprehensive and is not restricted to the content of graduate courses. The elements of the general examination may be written, oral, or both, depending on the particular requirements of the discipline as determined by the faculty. In both content and format the general examination is considered to be an essential element of a department's Ph.D. program. 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 the residence requirement as well as any departmental requirements. No student should be readmitted to a fourth year (seventh term) of graduate study without having successfully completed the general examination.
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 to the Graduate School.) In either case, the examination is held during a stated twenty-one-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 per year. Only in exceptional circumstances as approved by the Graduate School may a general examination may be administered outside of the stated examination periods. If approved to be administered on an exceptional basis outside the normal stated period, such a general examination must in all other respects follow the normal format and requirements of the general examination for the department.
The examination committee consists of three or more members, all of whom should hold the rank of assistant professor or higher and at least two of whom should normally be on the faculty of Princeton University. Any external examiners must have standing in the scholarly community comparable to committee members of the Princeton faculty. Any proposed external examiners must be approved by the Graduate School prior to the examination date.
Students who fail the general examination a first time may on the recommendation of the department 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 first of the month following that in which the examination was retaken.