Information About Generals and the Dissertation

Date of Update: 12/3/2019

Students who entered or are entering the program in or before September 2019 can choose between the old (short-essay) general examination format and the new (draft-chapter) format.

Those entering in September 2020 or beyond must use the new (draft-chapter) format.


Old (short-essay) Format

Those in the standard program, the Logic & Philosophy of Science Track, or the Interdepartmental Program in Political Philosophy must take their general exam by the end of the 5th semester (January) or sooner. For those in the Interdepartmental Program of Classical Philosophy, you must take your general exam no later than the end of your third year (May).

Deadlines for Generals

October General Exams:

  • *Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by March 15th.
  • Your general exam proposal is due to the DGS, with a copy to your general exam advisor, by May 15th.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units (including two oral units) by September 20th. This includes the undergraduate lecture, observed by a Princeton PHI faculty member, who must confirm this in writing to the DGS.

January General Exams:

  • *Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by September 15th.
  • Your general exam proposal is due to the DGS, with a copy to your general exam advisor, by October 30th.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units (including two oral units) by December 15th.This includes the undergraduate lecture, observed by a Princeton PHI faculty member, who must confirm this in writing to the DGS.

May General Exams:

  • *Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by February 15th.
  • Your general exam proposal is due to the DGS, with a copy to your general exam advisor, by March 15th.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units (including two oral units) by April 30th. This includes the undergraduate lecture, observed by a Princeton PHI faculty member, who must confirm this in writing to the DGS.

If any of the above dates occur on a weekend or during recess, the due date will be on the following Monday.

*The general examination advisor will assist the student in preparing the student's general examination proposal. (Normally the general examination advisor will chair the student's general exam. Selection of the advisor will be a matter of negotiation between the student and a faculty member, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies.)

Late submissions will not normally be accepted and, in any case, require the prior permission of the Graduate Committee.

All students who are allowed to retake their general examination after a failed attempt are required to do so by following the format of the qualifying exam. Refer to the section “New (draft-chapter) Format” and the section: The Qualifying Exam.

Preparing a Generals Proposal

Your General Exam proposal needs to include:

  • Your name
  • Your General Exam advisor’s name
  • Field of examination
  • Project description
  • 12 questions that you will be prepared to answer
  • Bibliography

Please prepare your proposal in consultation with your General Exam advisor by the dates listed in the section above.  Your proposal will be reviewed and possibly modified by your General Exam committee.

The General Examination

The General Examination is an examination on the field in which you intend to write a dissertation, not on the as-yet-unwritten dissertation itself. Generals consists in an oral exam lasting approximately one hour, preceded a few days earlier by a 48 hour written exam.  The Generals proposal will include 12 questions, and the written exam will consist of 6 of these questions, three of which must be answered.  The answers to the three questions will total no more than 6000 words, and students are required to include a word count at the end of their examination paper (quotations count towards the total word count).  The written exam may be open book; students may have access to their notes; and students are encouraged to prepare their answers in advance.  The oral component will begin with the student giving a 5-10 minute overview of the field of their examination.   Examinations are administered by a committee of the faculty, the composition of which will ensure that the student is questioned from a variety of points of view. To pass Generals, students must demonstrate that they are prepared to write a dissertation in the field, and they must also demonstrate that they will be able to defend their dissertation orally.

List of Readings

Your generals proposal should include a list of readings which you are prepared to answer questions about, and twelve questions you are prepared to answer. In your list of readings, please make sure that the references are full enough so that the examiners can easily find the items listed. It will not do to refer to articles by title only. You may be asked to supply your examiners with copies of works that they have trouble obtaining themselves.

Preferences about Generals Examiners

At the time you submit your proposal, let us know any of your preferences about who your examiners will be. However, although we welcome your advice, we cannot promise to follow it. There are many considerations relevant to the choice of an examining committee.

Field of the General Examination

The field of the general examination is that field of philosophy in which you intend to write your dissertation (not that your intentions can't change afterward). The field should be construed as broadly as possible. "Philosophy of language" is better than "Tarski's definition of truth."

You are encouraged to present a brief dissertation proposal as part of the specification of your field. We urge you to seek advice about your intended dissertation topic.


New (draft-chapter) Format

For Students in the Standard Program, the Logic & Philosophy of Science Track, or the Interdepartmental Program in Political Philosophy:

October General Exam Schedule (General Exam in October of the Third Year):

  • Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by March 15th of your second year of regular enrollment. Once your general exam advisor is approved, the DGS will set up your general exam committee.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units by May 31st of your second year of regular enrollment*.This includes your first and second oral units.
  • Your second oral unit, which is the survey unit and will normally be your 10th unit, will be considered Part 1 of your general exam.
    • At the latest, two weeks before the oral exam, students will have received the approval of two examiners for an examination proposal, which must include a description of the unit’s field of study, six to ten sample questions, and a bibliography. The written part of the unit can be a paper or a 48-hour take-home exam on questions formulated by the examiners. Both written and oral parts of the exam must combine a survey of the field with creative philosophical work.
  • Your undergraduate lecture, observed and confirmed in writing by a Princeton PHI faculty member, must be completed by May 31st of your second year of regular enrollment.
  • Part 2 of the general exam is the qualifying exam (the oral portion; preceded a few days before by submission of a draft chapter of your dissertation).This due date is based on the University academic calendar for October general exams.(See below for a complete description of the qualifying exam.)
  • Teaching in your second year at Princeton is optional.

January General Exam Schedule (General Exam in January of the Third Year):

  • Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by March 15th of your second year of regular enrollment.Once your general exam advisor is approved, the DGS will set up your general exam committee.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units (including your first oral unit) by May 31st of your second year of regular enrollment*.
  • Your second oral unit (the survey unit, which will normally be your 10th unit) will be considered Part 1 of your general exam.This unit is due by May 31st of your second year of regular enrollment.
    • At the latest, two weeks before the oral exam, students will have received the approval of two examiners for an examination proposal, which must include a description of the unit’s field of study, six to ten sample questions, and a bibliography. The written part of the unit can be a paper or a 48-hour take-home exam on questions formulated by the examiners. Both written and oral parts of the exam must combine a survey of the field with creative philosophical work.
  • Your undergraduate lecture, observed and confirmed in writing by a Princeton PHI faculty member, must be completed by December 15th of your third year of regular enrollment.
  • Part 2 of your general exam is the qualifying exam (the oral portion; preceded a few days before by submission of a draft chapter of your dissertation).This due date is based on the University academic calendar for January general exams. (See below for a complete description of the qualifying exam.)
  • Teaching in your second year at Princeton is optional.

*Failure to meet this deadline results in loss of entitlement to staying enrolled in the program and in the deferral of the department’s reenrollment recommendation. In that case, a new timeline for completion of the ten units is agreed on with the student by June 15, and continued enrollment is conditional on implementation of the new timeline.

If any of the above dates occur on a weekend or during recess, the due date will be on the following Monday.

For Students in the Classical Philosophy Program:
  • Provide the name of your general exam advisor to the DGS by March 15th of your second year of regular enrollment.Once your general exam advisor is approved, the DGS will set up your general exam committee.
  • Submit all papers, take all exams, complete all distribution requirements and units (other than the 4 special units, which must be completed during regular enrollment) by May 31st of your second year of regular enrollment.This includes your first and second oral units. (Your second oral unit, which is the survey unit and will normally be your 10th unit, will be considered Part 1 of your general exam).
    • At the latest, two weeks before the oral exam, students will have received the approval of two examiners for an examination proposal, which must include a description of the unit’s field of study, six to ten sample questions, and a bibliography. The written part of the unit can be a paper or a 48-hour take-home exam on questions formulated by the examiners. Both written and oral parts of the exam must combine a survey of the field with creative philosophical work.
  • Your undergraduate lecture, observed and confirmed in writing by a Princeton PHI faculty member, must be completed anytime prior to your general exam.
  • Part 2 of your general exam is the qualifying exam (the oral portion; preceded a few days before by submission of a draft chapter of your dissertation).This can be completed in October, January, or as late as May of your third year of regular enrollment, following the schedule based on the University academic calendar.(See below for a complete description of the qualifying exam.)
  • Teaching in your second year at Princeton is optional.

If any of the above dates occur on a weekend or during recess, the due date will be on the following Monday.

The Qualifying Exam:

Part 2 of the General Exam is the qualifying exam.  The written part of this exam is constituted by (1) a draft dissertation chapter of between 7500 – 8500 words, and (2) a dissertation prospectus of 2 – 4 pages. If you feel the need to exceed these limits (with quotations, for example), consult with the DGS. The oral part of the exam is conducted by the student’s general exam committee, which is composed of four faculty members, under the direction of the exam committee chair. It is preferred that students enrolled in the regular program take this oral exam in the general exam period in October of their third year of enrollment. However, students may also take the exam in the January exam period of their third year of enrollment. 

All students who are allowed to retake their general examination after a failed attempt are required to do so by following the format of the qualifying exam (Part 2 of the new General Exam format).