The general examination tests students’ knowledge of the areas they have chosen to study, and measures the necessary interpretative and synthetic skills for writing an original dissertation.
Students should plan to complete their general examination sometime during their third year, ideally by January. Normally students read for at least a full semester with each of their three committee members at the pace of a regular graduate level class in order to prepare for the exams, and register for independent study subjects with them accordingly. Students should start talking with their advisor in the fall of their second year to map out when they will start reading each of their lists and to determine who their committee members will be.
The examination has both a written and oral component. The written component of the general examination consists of three parts:
Field 1: Primary field usually to be read with the main advisor (e.g., the history of modern biology; the social study of information technologies). This exam ordinarily anticipates the area of the student’s doctoral dissertation.
Field 2: Secondary field which contextualizes or broadens a field of history or the social sciences. This examination probes the student’s mastery of a field of history (e.g., Imperial Russian and Soviet history) or a field of one of the social sciences (e.g., theory and method in the study of culture).
Field 3: Students prepare by reading from the MIT HASTS Common Exam List. This list encompasses the areas of social, historical, and cultural perspectives on science and technology. This field can be taken with any faculty member within the HASTS program.
The three written exams are taken over a one- to two-week period, with each exam lasting seven hours during a business day. The oral exam takes place within a few days of the final written exam and is scheduled for two hours in length.