Ph.D. General Examination

The general examination is designed to ascertain general knowledge of one's subject, acquaintance with scholarly methods of research, and the ability to organize and present material. Performance on the general exam, assessed by department and program faculty, is used to determine a student's ability to complete a dissertation and their ability to oversee the student's research.

Exam Format

In both content and format the general examination is considered to be an essential element of a department's Ph.D. program. The general examination may consist of several parts, some testing comprehension of the field and others assessing potential for original research. 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.


Departments may 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 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 per year. Only in exceptional circumstances as approved by the Graduate School may approve general examination to be administered outside of the stated examination periods. If approved to be administered on an exceptional basis outside the normal stated period, the general examination must in all other respects follow the normal format and requirements of the general examination for the department.

General Examination Dates (Academic Year 2023-24)

September 25 - October 14, 2023

January 15 - February 3, 2024

April 15 - May 17, 2024

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 any departmental requirements.


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.

Possible Outcomes

Students who pass the general exam ordinarily advance to Ph.D. candidacy, at which time they become eligible to apply for the incidental master’s degree in their field. However, there are multiple potential outcomes specific to a student’s situation and departmental policies. All students should confer with their departments for specific guidance.

  • Pass and move to doctoral candidacy: At this stage, a student is eligible for the incidental master’s degree (if they were not eligible already, based on department guidelines).

  • Pass and do not move on to doctoral candidacy: Provided all other pre-generals requirements are met, a student may receive the incidental master’s at this stage. Confer with the department or program for details.

  • Fail with the option to retake the exam: Students who fail the general examination a first time may on the recommendation of the department or program 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. 

  • Fail with no option to retake the exam

Readmission after the Exam

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 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.