statue of Harriet Tubman

The Comprehensive Exam (Plan B)

Plan B is the exam option for graduate students in the program. Students who choose this option work with two faculty members in the history department to delineate two different fields of study.

In conjunction with the advising faculty, you prepare a reading list of forty books for each field, for a total of eighty books.

You take a four-hour written examination in each of the two fields.  

The examination consists of two questions for each field (the students are given four questions to prepare and two on the exam day).

Plan B MA candidates must complete written examinations and enroll in History 795 and one additional three-unit  course numbered from 620 to 680 in lieu of History 797 and 799 A.  Examinees are expected to demonstrate a mastery of the factual knowledge and historiographical debates within two broad fields defined by geographical area and a standard chronological period with a focus on a particular methodology or theme

The two faculty members that direct your Plan B both read your essay questions.

The Comps are evaluated in the following way:

  1. Passing with distinction
  2. Passing
  3. Possibly passing, subject to an oral defense (in other words, the oral defense happens if the professors are unsure whether the student has passed the written comps)
  4. Failing with the option of one retake

In short

  • 2 fields
  • 2 history faculty members
  • 80 books (40+40)
  • 8 hours (4+4)
  • 1 additional attempt if the first one fails

A typical program for Plan B might look like this:

  • History 601
  • History 620, 630, 640, 650, or 680
  • 500/600-level course in history or in a related discipline
  • History 620, 630, 640, 650, or 680 (3-6 units)
  • History 665 if ready for exam prep
  • 500/600-level course in history or in a related discipline

Submit POS and select committee.           

  • History 665 if ready for exam prep, or if you wish to take 6 units of it
  • History 620, 630, 640, 650, or 680 (3-6 units)
  • History 665 if not taken yet, or if you wish to take 6 units of it
  • History 795
  • Plan A: 799B Thesis Extension

More on the Examining Committee

In preparing to take comprehensive exams, you would first need to form a committee composed of two professors, one from each exam field.  You will designate one of the field supervisors as chair of the committee, and he or she would serve as the instructor for History 795.  Lecturers with PhDs who have taught at SDSU for three years or more may serve on a committee, but not chair it.

Reading Lists

Each field supervisor will work with you to prepare a reading list of approximately 40 books or their equivalent for his or her field.  The readings should focus on key events, figures, trends, and historiography in each field.  You should expect to read a total of 80 books (or the equivalent in articles) for the two exams.

Selection and Definition of a Field

With the approval of the committee, you will select two geographical fields in standard chronological periods and indicate a methodological or thematic focus for each.  Other fields and chronological periods can be chosen if the student and examining committee agree to them.

  • Pre-Modern: African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, or World
  • Modern: African, Asia (China/Japan, or Southeast Asia), Latin American, Middle Eastern, or World 
  • Ancient Greece, Near East, or Rome
  • Medieval, Early Modern, or Modern Europe
  • Colonial US to Civil War, or US from Reconstruction to Present
  • history of childhood
  • cultural/ intellectual history
  • economic history
  • environmental history
  • film history
  • history of foreign relations
  • history of gender
  • political history
  • race and ethnicity
  • public history
  • history of religion
  • history of science and technology
  • history of medicine
  • history of sexuality
  • social history
  • urban history
  • military history


The field supervisors and students will develop three study questions at least a month before the exam.  You will be required to answer two questions in each field.  One field will be about the field as a whole; the second will have a methodological or thematic focus.    

The written exams will be scheduled with the graduate adviser and will take place during the allotted exam period – the thirteenth and fourteenth week of the semester – for Fall and Spring semester. All students choosing the Plan B option must take their exams during this allotted period.  You can choose which field you will be examined on the first day.  The examination in the second field will be given the next day.  Students have four hours to complete each exam.

Students must write their exams on a department laptop.  You must receive a passing grade in both fields from both members of the committee.  To pass with distinction requires unanimity of the committee.  An oral examination consisting of one hour of question and answer between you and the examining committee will take place if the committee, after reading the written exam, deems it necessary.  The oral examination will take place within one week following the written exam.

A student who fails one or both of the exams has one academic year to retake the exam or exams in the field(s) he or she failed.  Retaking exams can be done only once, and it must take place during the allotted exam period of the semester in which the exam is to be retaken. 

The grades for comprehensive exams must be transmitted to the student no later than a week after the examination is taken.  The chair of the committee will inform the Graduate Adviser that the student has successfully passed the examinations.  Exams will be kept on file in the History Department office for three years after passage.

Faculty Specializations

  • Mathew Kuefler (Medieval Europe, Gender, Sexuality). .
  • Walter Penrose (Greek and Hellenistic History, Gender, Sexuality)
  • Elizabeth Pollard (Greece and Rome, Greco-Roman Religion, Women in Antiquity)
  • Abikal Borah
  • Pierre Asselin (Vietnam War, Southeast Asia, Third World Revolutionary Movements)
  • Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley (E.Asia, China and Japan, Trauma).
  • Walter Penrose, (Ancient Near East)
  • Digital Humanities
  • David P. Cline (oral history, public history)
  • Elizabeth Pollard
  • Pablo Ben (19th and 20th Century South America, Argentina, Gender)
  • Paula De Vos (Colonial Mexico, History of Science and Medicine, Scientific Revolution)
  • Tom Passananti (Modern Mexico, Economic)
  • Ranin Kazemi (Modern Iran, Modern Middle East)
  • Edward Beasley (England, Imperialism, Racism)
  • Annika Frieberg (Central Europe, Poland, Germany, conflict resolution)
  • Pierre Asselin (Vietnam War, American Foreign Relations, Cold War History)
  • Edward Blum (Civil War, Reconstruction, African-American, Religion)
  • David P. Cline (20th and 21st century U.S. social movements, oral history, public
  • history)
  • Eve Kornfeld (Colonial, Revolutionary, Gender, Childhood)
  • Tom Passananti (US Economic)
  • John Putman (American West, California, Popular Culture, Urban)
  • Andrew Wiese (Urban, Social, African-American)
  • Chiou-Ling Yeh (Race, Ethnicity, Asian Americans, Gender)
  • Paula DeVos (Scientific Revolution, Darwinism and Social Darwinism, history of pharmacy)
  • Edward Beasley (Technology in World History, Darwinism and Social Darwinism)
  • Pierre Asselin (Revolutionary Movements, 20th century military history)
  • Edward Beasley (Modern)
  • Paula De Vos (Pre-Modern)
  • Kate Edgerton (Modern)
  • Mathew Kueffler (Ancient, Medieval)
  • Walter Penrose (Ancient)
  • Elizabeth Pollard (Ancient)
  • Tom Passananti (Economic)