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School of International Service, PhD

Self-constructed Concentrations and Exams

A student has the option of constructing a field of concentration and exam that is tailored to the student's particular interests. If a student chooses this option, it is his/her responsibility to identify and confirm three scholars, at least two of which must be AU faculty members, to develop the concentration, required courses, exam reading list, and to write, and read the exam. The three scholars involved determine the format for the construction and administration of the self­-constructed exam in consultation with the student. The exam must be written and conform to American University Academic Regulations as well as SIS procedures for comprehensive examinations. In order for a self­-constructed exam to be approved, the student must submit to the Director of Doctoral Studies the following information in the format of a memorandum:

  1. The title of the examination field
  2. Intellectual rationale for the independent field of study (written in prose and not to exceed one page, single spaced)
  3. A list of relevant courses associated with the subject matter of the exam
  4. A comprehensive list of literature associated with the exam subject matter
  5. A statement outlining the format for administering the exam, including:
    1. Format: sit down or take­ home? (If the exam is to have a sit­ down format, the PhD Academic Advisor needs at least three week's notice to arrange for a room and proctoring)
    2. Means and media of submission
    3. The order of readers (i.e., who are the two initial readers and who is the third reader?)
  6. A signature page listing participating scholars, including the Director of Doctoral studies.  

The student first works with the three scholars to develop the exam and then provides the Director of Doctoral Studies with a completed draft. The Director of Doctoral Studies either approves it or sends it back for revisions. A student may wish to consult with the Director of Doctoral Studies at the outset to receive a preliminary assessment of whether the scope and content of the proposed field is appropriate.

In the case of self­-constructed exams, the student is not bound by the standard examination dates. However, the student, faculty readers and the PhD Academic Advisor must all agree on an appropriate time for the administering of a sit ­down exam.  Upon completion of the exam, the reading and grading processes will be the same as the standard comprehensive exams.

Self-constructed Concentrations in Other Colleges/Schools

A student may pursue a Field of Concentration in another School or College at American University with the approval of the Director of Doctoral Studies as well as the Dean or Dean's Designee at the School/College. In such cases, the exam policies and procedures are established by the other School/College and the student is expected to adhere to those requirements. The PhD Academic Advisor in SIS will be notified and maintain records of the student's comprehensive examination attempts and will record any passed comprehensive examination results on the student's transcript.


Contact Kasey Neil Petri, the PhD Program Coordinator, at 202-885-6582 or

We encourage prospective candidates to visit the University to meet faculty members and current PhD students. To arrange a visit, contact Graduate Admissions at 202-885-1646 or