Graduate Frequently Asked Questions


When are comprehensive exams held?

Comprehensive exams are given in May and August, and sometimes in December.

Comprehensive exam policy: As of now, comprehensive exams will be taken in Gibson Hall, in one of the two graduate common spaces (the computer lab on the first floor or the lounge on the second floor). Arrangements will be made by the Graduate Assistant.

December exams are given strictly on a need-only basis. A student must arrange to take a December exam in advance, and has until October 30 to withdraw.  After October 30, the student must take the exam or receive an automatic “fail.”

For which non-topical research course should I register?

This will hopefully clarify some issues regarding research hours, non-topical research, and independent study classes for the M.A. and Ph.D. programs. You can also find much of the same information in various sections of the program rules and regulations, in particular Section V,B and footnotes 4 and 6. You are urged to familiarize yourself with the rules of the program, as you are ultimately responsible for making sure that you satisfy all the requirements for your intended degree(s).

There are three kinds of research courses that are relevant for your progress through the program.

1) PLXX 5993 Independent Study. These are courses in which you and a professor make an agreement regarding what you will read, research, and produce for a grade at the end of the semester. They almost always involve producing some kind of paper on a topic that goes beyond a particular course that you have already taken with the professor. A terminal M.A. student is allowed 2 PLXX 5993 courses; a Ph.D. student who enters with an M.A. is allowed 2 PLXX 5993 courses; and a Ph.D. student who enters without an M.A. is allowed 4 PLXX 5993 courses.  You pay the normal three-credit tuition costs to enroll in these courses.

2) PLAD 7750 and PLAD 8750 Supervised Research I and Supervised Research II. These are courses for Ph.D. students who have enrolled in the program since September 1999, and for students who enrolled earlier and elected to switch to the new rules. You may enroll in PLAD 7750 and PLAD 8750 only after you have completed the 8 courses (24 credits) toward the M.A., and you may enroll in each of them only once during your time in the program. (A Ph.D. student entering with an M.A. may only enroll in PLAD 8750.)  Unlike PLXX 5993, you do not have to produce anything at the end of the semester and there will be no grade other than Pass. They are there so that you can work on your M.A. or Ph.D. thesis research and to provide some course relief during the semesters that you may be serving as a Teaching Assistant.

These courses count toward your 54 credits (18 courses) to the Ph.D. You are also charged tuition for them just like any other course you take in the classroom. I am the official instructor for these courses, but your M.A. and Ph.D. thesis advisor should be supervising your research while you are enrolled in these courses. My instructor number is 1247.

3) PLXX 8998, 8999, 9998, and 9999 Non-Topical Research. These are filler courses that the university requires you to enroll in so that all full-time students will enroll in 12 credit hours per semester. If you wish to maintain your full-time status, you must enroll in enough non-topical research hours each semester to get you to 12 total credits. 

These courses have no implications for tuition — you are charged only the tuition for “real” courses and not for the non-topical credits. The only exception to this is for people who register for only non-topical hours (e.g. students working on their dissertation); in that case, you are charged research fees of approximately $1,774 per semester.

To enroll in these courses, list your academic or thesis advisor as the instructor (no permission is required). PLXX 8998 is for people who have not begun their M.A. thesis, PLXX 8999 for people with an M.A. thesis committee, PLXX 9998 for people who have finished the M.A. but do not yet have a Ph.D. committee, and PLXX 9999 is for people with a Ph.D. committee.

A terminal M.A. student must complete 6 hours of non-topical research.  A Ph.D. student entering with an M.A. must complete 18 hours of non-topical research.  A Ph.D. student entering without an M.A. must complete 24 hours of non-topical research.

Who can serve on an M.A. thesis committee?

Numbers: Two – up to two from the department, or one insider and one from outside the department. All must be from UVA.

Chairs: Committees must be chaired by someone who is a regular, full-time faculty member of the department. Regular full time faculty means: No emeriti (unless the committee pre-dates their change of status); no adjuncts/temporary hires; no “associated” faculty (i.e. people holding courtesy appointments in the department); no “general” faculty.

Secondary members: Any full-time faculty of the university except adjuncts/temporary hires (thus you may have emeriti, general faculty, associated faculty). For M.A. theses, as a general rule, a secondary member from the department is preferable to someone from outside the department if you are planning on continuing to the Ph.D. because the readers’ evaluations of the thesis carry great weight in the graduate committee’s decision to pass you into the Ph.D. program (to “EPPP” you in our parlance).

Who can serve on a dissertation committee?

The University policy:

Numbers: Four – up to three from the department, plus one from outside the department. All must be from UVA.

Chairs: Committees must be chaired by someone who is a regular, full-time faculty member of the relevant department. Regular full-time faculty means: No emeriti (unless the committee pre-dates their change of status); no adjuncts/temporary hires; no “associated” faculty (i.e. people holding courtesy appointments in the department); no “general” faculty.

Secondary members: Any full-time faculty of the university except adjuncts/temporary hires (thus, you may have emeriti, general faculty, associated faculty).

In addition: There must be one person from outside the department (the Dean’s Representative). Traditionally, this person is added at the last minute. But it is preferable to involve them as early as possible in order to take advantage of their expertise.

May you have people from outside UVA?

You can always petition to have someone from the outside, and the best case is when that person clearly has an expertise that is not duplicated at UVA and is a regular faculty member at a reasonable university (e.g., someone from Our Lady of the Tundra is probably not a wise choice). The duplication issue is very important – if they duplicate existing UVA faculty expertise, the Dean will likely reject your petition.

May I take courses outside the department?>

You may take courses from any unit of the university offering graduate level courses (except foreign languages). Please note that courses that do not seem in some way mission oriented will draw attention.

A terminal M.A. student may take 2 graduate courses outside of the department, out of the required total of 8. A Ph.D. student who enters with an M.A. may take 2 graduate courses outside of the department, out of the required total of 10.  A Ph.D. student who enters without an M.A. may take 4 graduate courses outside of the department, out of the required total of 18. You may petition for more, but you will need a good argument.

How do I apply for financial aid?

Every December the DGS emails an Excel form to all graduate students. Simply fill out the form and return it by the deadline.

Do I have to re-apply for financial aid even though I was given a multi-year offer in my first year?

Absolutely, yes.

When are financial aid awards made?

Typically you will hear by late March. There is no guaranteed time, however.

How do I apply for travel money to go to an academic conference?

What: The Dean’s office has a limited amount of money available to subsidize graduate student travel to academic conferences. Recently, funding has been around $300, regardless of the geographic location of the conference. The Department of Graduate Studies will supplement the Dean’s stipend at their discretion.

How: Four times a year, the College will solicit requests for travel funds – for travel between July-September, October-December, January-March, and April-June. The initial request will be sent to the DGS, who then forwards it to the Politics grad students. A blank Excel spreadsheet will be distributed for students to fill in and return to the DGS. The DGS will rank the student requests and send an overall Departmental Request to the College. Deadlines for travel fund requests are May 15, August 15, November 15, and February 15.

Key points to keep in mind (from the Dean’s Office):

(1) Students can receive GSAS travel support for only one conference in the fiscal year (July 1-June 30).

(2) Only submit requests from students with a formal role at the conference (presenting a paper, artwork, or performing; serving as chair or discussant; member of a professional committee meeting at the conference, etc.).

(3) Only submit requests from students who are ABD. We all recognize the value of early conference participation for networking and professional engagement; however, we simply do not have the funds to support all students. Perhaps at some point in the future, we will be able to ease this restriction.

When do I get the money?: Of late, the Dean’s Office has been announcing awards around three to four weeks after each travel fund request deadline.

Caveats: Not all requests will be funded; the Dean’s money may run out before the end of the fiscal year in June; thus, if you are attending multiple conferences across the academic year, a request for funds should be made for the earliest conference (to enhance your probability for success).

After the conference: You will be expected to submit (in a timely fashion) a copy of your plane ticket, conference registration, hotel bill, etc., to Brenda Davis ( in the Dean’s Office, to indicate how the funds were used.

Is there research money for IR students?

Several years ago, a long-time faculty member, Alfred Fernbach, established an endowment to support graduate student research in International Relations. According to the terms of the endowment, “Awards shall be given to students who are investigating international policy subjects, such as international organization, international conflict management, international law, international economics, international military control and security, and United States international relations.” These fellowships will be called the Louise and Alfred Fernbach Awards for Research in International Relations.

The department has decided that we will use this money to support research-related expenses such as travel, data acquisition, software, etc., for students who are at the dissertation stage. There is a presumption that students will be officially ABD to receive the awards, though there may be cases where students at the dissertation proposal stage will qualify also.

The maximum amount of the awards will be $500. Applications for the awards shall consist of a brief (one-page) summary of your research project and a budget describing your specific plans for using the money.

Awards are made twice a year through a competitive process. The first wave of awards will be made in January, with an application deadline of December 1, and the second will be made in June, with an application deadline of May 1.

What should an M.A. thesis or dissertation proposal look like?

There is a “five-fold path to prospectus happiness.” That is, every proposal should have the following 5 items, preferably in this order:

  1. What is the question you are trying to answer? Indeed, it is preferable to begin the proposal with a question. Often if you can’t ask this question in less than a paragraph, you need to do more work. The purpose here is make you be as clear as possible about what your project is.
  2. What are the usual answers to this question (i.e., your literature review, but done not as a listing of authors and their individual contributions, but rather aggregated into consistent schools of thought regarding the problem. Thus, for state formation you might break authors up into 3 different schools: those who say war made states (Hintze, etc.); those who say domestic factors (like national character) made states (Ranke, etc.) those who say it was the interaction of war making with domestic characteristics (Tilly, Ertman, etc.). Describe these authors in terms of their basic premises and briefly state their argument. You can rank order these arguments (e.g. Tilly/Ertman better than the one sided arguments of Hintze/Ranke because it incorporates both variables into one argument that does not simply split the difference). The purpose here is to prevent you from reinventing the wheel, or doing a dissertation that has already been done to death and, thus, will not get you a job.
  3. Your answer to the question. Maybe it’s the same as the guys above. Maybe not. If not, since you don’t have any evidence yet (otherwise you would be done the dissertation already), you should tell us what you think your answer will be and why it is different from the older answers. For example, geography determined both the likelihood of war and states’ abilities to fight wars, and is a master variable that explains both sides of the Tilly/Ertman argument – why this many wars + why this lack (abundance) of resources. The more you can specify the causal logic in your answer, the better. The purpose here is to prevent you from have an undoable dissertation because the logic is completely screwy.
  4. Where you plan to find evidence to support your answer. Again, there is no expectation that you will have very much of this evidence at this point in time, nor is there much requirement to list that evidence. What we want to know here is whether there is a good certitude that the kind of evidence you need to make your answer convincing exists. E.g., if you say that you will show that the pattern of landholding in 19th century Costa Rica produced a divided elite and the result was civil war, we would want to know where you will find (the virtually non-existent) information on landholding. The purpose here is to prevent you from starting an undoable dissertation – undoable not because the logic is faulty, but because the evidence cannot be gotten.
  5. Finally, and really last and least, the significance of the project. Most times the significance will be self evident, which is why I want it last. Most people spend too much time on the significance of their dissertation/issue. There will be plenty of time to editorialize in the concluding chapter of the dissertation. The proposal is about how you actually plan to get to that concluding chapter.
  6. If you want, you may append a set of short chapter outlines – very short. If your research has progressed to the point of being able to generate coherent chapter outline then you probably already have a coherent proposal.
  7. A bibliography.

Do I need to defend my M.A. thesis proposal?

All grad students must hold a formal defense of the master’s thesis prospectus and file a form with Sharon Marsh, signed by the thesis committee, attesting to that defense. The rules leave it to individual faculty to decide on the level of formality and the specifics they wish to see in a proposal. The purpose of a formal defense is to prevent students from writing a thesis on their own and then shopping around for a supervisor at the last minute.

The other – non-bureaucratic – reasons for talking to faculty before writing the thesis: This is a chance to get valuable advice and feedback before you start the thesis and to find out if the project is feasible and interesting, which, to the extent that you are thinking of the M.A. as a dry run at the dissertation, is very important.

Thus, I suggest that grad students discuss potential M.A. thesis topics with faculty prior to writing either the proposal or, certainly, the thesis.

How long should an M.A. thesis be?

Faculty expectations about M.A. thesis quantity and quality (for both M.A. and M.A./Ph.D. students are as follows:

“A master’s thesis should articulate a clear argument based on a critical understanding of the literature in a particular field. Students should gather various forms of support for their argument and organize them in a logical and elegant manner. Clarity and concision are a priority over length. We expect that most students will be able to accomplish these objectives with an essay ranging between 8,000 to 10,000 words.”

When should I apply for Dean’s Fellowships, Presidential Management Internships, Dumas Malone, Gallatin, etc.?

Please wait until you get the email announcement of application deadlines. These are generally in February although some are earlier.

How do I get an extension of time on my M.A. or Ph.D. degree?

The graduate school has a seven year “up or out” rule for Ph.D. students and a five year rule for M.A. students. The specific language can be obtained from the graduate record.

Time Limitation
All requirements for the Ph.D. must be completed within seven years from the date of admittance into the Ph.D. program. In special cases, upon approval of the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, work out-of-date may be revalidated by examination. In case of interruption of work by military service, time spent in service will be excluded from the computation of this seven-year period.

The language for the M.A. is the same, except, of course, that there is a five year limit.

In order to receive an extension to either limit, you must submit a formal petition to the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Politics. A petition must contain the following 5 elements:

1.    Description of work completed toward the degree and what is left to complete.

2.    Description (brief) of what prevented work from being completed and how that situation has changed so that you can now complete requirements

3.    Plan for completing requirements, with a time table (important – be realistic – there will not be multiple grants of extension)

4.    The proposed committee for the thesis (very important: if you have no committee, there will be no grant of extension – line these people up before you petition)

5.    Supporting letters from your [proposed] committee saying that indeed they are on board and believe you will finish within the proposed time frame.

The Graduate Committee will review this petition and, if it is approved, will pass it on to the Dean of the Graduate School for final approval. The Dean has final authority over the granting of extensions.

How many hours per week may I work for the university?

You may work a maximum of 20 hours/week. Being a TA with 60 students counts as 10 hours/week. The Dean has approved overloads for students at the verge of starvation, but he will no longer retroactively approve overloads so please do not violate this rule.

Where can I find copies of past comprehensive exams?

Copies of previous comprehensive exams are available on the Previous Comprehensive Exams page.

Where can I find the official academic requirements for the University?

The information contained on this website is for informational purposes only. The Undergraduate Record and Graduate Record represent the official repository for academic program requirements. These publications may be found at