General Exam

General Examination

The GE will be taken no later than the sixth term in residence, typically May or earlier as a G3. The exams should take place during reading period of the spring term, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., on consecutive days (no weekends or holidays). Exams will take place not later than May of the spring term, G3.  Exceptions will only be considered by the DGS, in close consultation with the thesis supervisor, and must be approved by the faculty during a Departmental meeting and will only be granted for extraordinary circumstances.  The petition to take the exams is due on November 25.

    • Committee members and advisers who are not in Cambridge will need to use Skype or be present at their own expense.  Generals will not be delayed for faculty on sabbatical.
    • The petition to take general exams must be filed in the department by November 25 of the 5th semester of residence.
    • One term of intensive study should suffice to prepare for the GE.
    • The proposed thesis supervisor in consultation with the committee will make sure that the bibliography is appropriate, but not over-burdened.
    • The final bibliography will be submitted to the DGS, for the record.
    • The general examination is given only during the academic year and not during holidays or summer.  
    • The examination is designed to test the students' mastery of their scholarly fields and their ability to proceed to writing a dissertation. Students are allowed access to the library and to other resources while answering Parts 1 and 2.
    • There are written and oral components, both of which test students' knowledge of general and specific fields. Following completion of the Qualifying Paper and at least two months prior to the date of the examination, the student should consult with advisers and present to the department a written proposal describing the general and specific fields to be covered in the examination.

The general field ordinarily consists of two of the following areas:The balance of art and architecture to be covered will depend on the field and will be determined in consultation with the committee.

West Africa
East, Central, and Southern Africa
Ancient Near Eastern
Late Antiquity
Early Christian
Early Middle Ages (7-11th c)
High and Late Middle Ages (12-15th c)
Southern Renaissance
Southern Baroque (includes French)
Northern Renaissance, 1400-1600 (includes French)
Northern Baroque
European 18th c
European 19th c
Early Islamic (up to 1250)
Islamic 1250-1650
Islamic 1650 to present
Pre-imperial China (pre-historic to Qin, 221 B.C.)
Early imperial (Qin to Tang dynasty, 221 B.C.-907 A.D.)
Middle imperial (Five dynasties to Yuan, 907-1368)
Late imperial and modern (Ming to present ,1368--)
Early Japanese to 1200
Medieval Japanese, 1200-1600
Later Japanese, 1600 to present
Early Indian to 300 A..D.
Middle Indian, 300-1300
Later Indian, 1300 to present
Modern Africa
African American
Modern Architecture
Latin American
20th Century/ Contemporary

The specific field is a narrower area of study chosen by the student and subject to faculty review. In principle it should comprise a coherent and clearly defined area of scholarly inquiry. Ordinarily this specific field will cover no less than fifty years, and will be confined to one or two regions. This is also the area in which the candidate's dissertation topic will most likely be concentrated.


Format of the Examination

Day 1: Written essay(s) on the general field, 8 hours total -- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Interpretation. The student answers one or two out of several questions designed to test her or his grasp of broad art-historical issues.

Day 2: Written essay(s) on the specific field, 8 hours total-- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m . Methods and Historiography. The student answers one or two questions designed to bring out his or her knowledge of sources, both primary and secondary, and of methodological issues.

Students are allowed access to the library and to other resources while taking the written portion of the examination. On each day the students will be given a choice of essay questions, normally 1 of 3 or 2 of 5, to be determined in consultation with committee members. Students usually choose to have their questions sent by email at 9am and submit their essays at 5pm to their committee.

Day 3: Oral examination, 2-3 hours. Analysis of visual material. General Field. The student will have one to two hours prior to the convening of the full committee to examine eleven or twelve works of art, slides, or photographs, in preparation for an oral discussion of all but one of them with the examination committee. The discussions may involve such issues as connoisseurship, contexts, iconography, formal analysis, patronage, technique, and condition. This is followed by an evaluation and review, 1 1/2 hours.

No research may be done once the oral examination has begun.

Students whose performance on the examination is not satisfactory will be given one opportunity to repeat all or a portion of it.


The Examination Committee

The examination committee will ordinarily consist of three faculty members from the Department of History of Art and Architecture. In special circumstances a student may petition the DGS for a specific person outside of the discipline. At least two months prior to the examination, the student should consult with advisers and present to the department a written proposal describing the general and specific fields to be covered in the examination and suggesting a committee. The form is available in the Department office and should be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies. The Director of Graduate Studies will then notify the student of faculty approval of the proposed committee as well as extending a formal invitation to any outside members of the committee.

During preparation for the examination, students should meet at least once with the committee and, with its help, should formulate general and specific areas, a bibliography, establish the format of the examination, and generate possible questions. Discussion will include clarification of the committee's expectations with respect to objects and the oral portion of the examination. Following the group meeting, the student will formalize her or his understanding of the range of questions and format for the written part of the exam, as well as the procedure of the oral portion of the exam and provide a copy of this document for each member of the committee. It is also understood that students will meet with individual committee members in the course of preparation. (Under extenuating circumstances, when members of the committee include individuals not on the faculty, or when faculty members are not in residence, it may be necessary for the Chair of the committee to coordinate consultation without a meeting before the examination.)

The Chair of the committee is often, but need not be, the dissertation adviser. If the Chair of the committee anticipates being on leave in the semester during which the exam is scheduled, it is the student's obligation to secure permission from the faculty member in advance for the exam to be scheduled. Barring such permission, the student will have to arrange to take the exam prior to or following the leave in question.


Candidate's Bibliography and Summary of Expectations

A bibliography should be produced by the student resulting from consultation with individual members and the committee as a whole. The aim of the bibliography is to serve as preparation for studying for the exam and also as an indication of the student's control of the literature of the general and specific fields. Expectations regarding the bibliography should be understood and agreed upon by the committee and the individual.

After meeting with the principal adviser, the candidate will formalize her or his understanding of what was agreed upon, either by following the points of this list, or by writing up a separate summary. The document will then be presented to each member of the committee, and further revisions can be made at that point. A final version should be given to all members of the committee and to the Graduate Program Coordinator or Department Administrator. The candidate is largely responsible for ensuring that the procedure runs smoothly. The Chair of the committee informs non-department members of the procedure in the various stages of the exam.


Considerations for the General Exam

It should be noted that not all issues raised by this list will be applicable in all sub-fields, nor will all committees wish to be explicit in establishing or limiting options.

Student Procedure for Taking the Examination

    • In November or the fifth term in residence, assemble a committee and submit the Petition for Taking the General Examination with the preliminary thesis proposal.
    • Meet with committee, set dates, prepare and submit bibliography and summary of expectations.
    • Reserve a room in the museum for the oral examination and inform the committee and the department office.
    • When and where will the exams be held?
    • Will there be any further meetings between the candidate and either the full committee or individual members?
    • Who will be responsible for reserving and opening the room in which the oral exam takes place?
    • When and where will the review of the exam take place? (as part of oral exam or afterwards?)


    • What is the scope and intent of the bibliography?
    • How do the bibliographies for the general and specific fields differ?
    • Will it be a comprehensive survey of the existing literature, or is there a focus on, for example, recent scholarship?
    • Is the bibliography primarily intended to cover literature previously unknown to the student? Or is it to be seen as primarily a review of writing that the student is already acquainted with? or both?
    • What is a workable length for the bibliography? Will the student be expected to know every source on the bibliography, and if so, in what detail?
    • What is the last date before the exam after which no new materials will be added to the list (generally no less than two weeks)?

Written Examination

    • In what way will the questions for the general and specific portions differ?
    • How many questions will appear in each section of the exam?
    • How will the exam reach the examinee and subsequently examiners?
    • Will there be written feedback on this part of the exam?
    • N.B. Each committee will have different concerns and expectations as to the manner in which the questions will be approached and answered. Be prepared to discuss these expectations (methodological issues, relative importance of specific examples, bibliography, etc.).

Oral Examination

    • How many works will be given [N.B. to faculty: traditionally 12; N.B. to students: ensure that your committee is aware that you have the option of not discussing one of the works.]
    • Will there be slides, photographs, or objects? or a combination?
    • If there are objects, what is the range of the objects?
    • When and where will the images be available for viewing before the committee convenes?
    • Clarify the overall purpose of objects. In discussing the objects, what issues are to be treated, and what is their relative priority? For example, how important are attribution, connoisseurship, contextualization, condition/conservation, comparison, etc.


General Exam Process for HAMs

Reservations for art study space for the object portion of HAA General Exams should be submitted no later than one month in advance of the exam date.  The reservation should be submitted via the on-line form located on the Museum website (

General Exams involving artwork will be held in the following spaces:

  • 4400 Seminar Room on Level 4
  • 4700 Seminar Room on Level 4
  • Third floor art study rooms in Somerville Research Facility

Exams can be held on Mondays-Fridays between the hours of 10:00am – 5:00pm.  The assigned room will be reserved for the entire day for each exam.

Object lists for General Exams should be submitted no later than one month prior to the exam date.  This will allow Museum staff to confirm the location and availability of the requested artwork.  This time-frame enables Museum staff to make the necessary transit arrangements so that all requested artwork can be viewed in one location.

The object list should be submitted via the on-line form (  You will receive confirmation of object and room availability within 2 business days upon receipt of the request.

Artwork belonging to Faculty may be brought to the Museum or the Somerville Research Facility the day of the exam.  All Faculty owned artwork will depart with the Faculty member at the close of the exam. 

All visible artist identification on the exam objects will be covered provided it is safe to do so.  All works on paper will be framed for the purposes of the exam.

Museum staff will facilitate the student preview hour before the arrival of the General Exam committee members.



generals_petition.pdf161 KB