PhD Special Field Exam: Old Guidelines

The New Guidelines for the Special Field Proposal and Examination come into effect on 1 September 2021. If you are an incoming PhD student in 2021-22 or entered in 2020-21 but have opted for the revised guidelines, please refer to the New Guidelines for the Special Field Proposal and Examination.

What is the Special Field Examination?

The Special Field Examination is oral and normally lasts two hours. Graded on a Pass-Fail basis, it establishes your expertise in a chosen area of study and also demonstrates your broader academic field of competence. It provides a foundation for your dissertation research but it is not synonymous with that research; the relationship between the Special Field and dissertation topic is described more fully below. After you pass the Special Field Examination, you “achieve candidacy” and become a “doctoral candidate” (ABD).

When does the Special Field Examination take place?

It is normally taken during the Fall of the third year in the PhD program. The PDF iconSpecial Field Proposal (pdf) (prepared in consultation with the Advisory Committee) should be submitted between the end of the Spring term of Year Two and the beginning of the Fall term of Year Three. The centre’s language requirements in Level Two Latin, French, and German must be met before the Special Field Examination may be taken. The proposal, however, may be submitted before these requirements are satisfied.

How do the program’s Major Field and Minor Field requirements relate to the Special Field Examination?

The “major field” and “minor field” requirements are distinct from the Special Field Examination. Given the interdisciplinary nature of your work, you draw upon a handful of disciplines or clearly defined areas of study (i.e. philosophy, history of science, church history, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon Studies). You need to develop one “major field” of study and one “minor field.” For the major, you need 2.0 courses in that field (or four half-courses); for the minor, you need 1.0 (2 half-courses). Students generally do not have to exert themselves or make sacrifices to complete these requirements. Still, please be aware of these guidelines as you make your course selections.

Defining the Special Field

A student should have defined a provisional dissertation topic or area of research before the end of the first term of the second year of the PhD program and also have identified a provisional supervisor and two other members of an Advisory Committee (approved by the PhD Co-ordinator) to aid in the preparation of the PDF iconSpecial Field Proposal (pdf).

The subjects of the Special Field Examination and of the doctoral dissertation in the centre for Medieval Studies are determined by the student in consultation with the supervisor and Advisory Committee, and require the approval of the Executive Committee of the centre. This multiple collaboration is intended primarily to protect the student from avoidable errors, while retaining the student’s role as the initiator of these two phases of study and research.

At CMS, the Special Field is interdisciplinary by definition. Even though your research interests may be primarily literary, or philosophical, or historical, etc., you must be prepared to elucidate your interests by employing some of the resources offered by cognate disciplines or fields of study. This should not be challenging; presumably you’re at the CMS because you want to do interdisciplinary work. Keep in mind, though, that an “interdisciplinary approach” need not mean a mastery of several disciplines, nor does it necessarily mean “disciplines” in a departmental sense. Thus a historical topic may be itself interdisciplinary by combining two or more of political, social, economic, religious, cultural, legal, and intellectual aspects. Topics in comparative literature could in themselves be considered “interdisciplinary”, as, for example, would be a topic involving some aspects of philosophy, theology, and canon law.

Some students at CMS find that the process of defining their special field is very challenging. In part this is because there is no standard canon in Medieval Studies to which you are beholden; there is no standardized body of literature, corpus of monuments, or even set geographical or temporal limits which everyone must master. Whereas other scholars may fret over the lack of consensus in their disciplines and the challenges it poses to disciplinary priorities, we’re somewhat freer of that particular form of navel-gazing. Indeed the interdisciplinarity of CMS grants you significantly more freedom to tailor your own area of expertise that cuts across disciplinary boundaries in an original way. For some students, this freedom is invigorating and inspiring; for others, it is daunting and can lead to paralysis.

Special Field proposals typically are generated from dissertation topics and areas of interest; thus, your dissertation topic normally comes first. That doesn’t mean that you already have to have selected, say, the precise text your dissertation will examine before you develop your Special Field Proposal. But you do have to know the types of questions you’ll be asking and their larger conceptual and evidentiary framework. The Special Field takes those interests and expands them into a larger arena of intellectual endeavour. Its temporal, and/or spatial, and/or topical and ideological range must extend significantly beyond the dissertation topic itself. That larger endeavour tends to describe your “field” in a professional sense, e.g. church history, women’s monasticism, cosmography, or vernacular poetry.

The following recent projects offer particularly clear illustrations of how Special Fields can relate to dissertation topics:

  • “Franciscan and Dominican Missionary Work and Preaching in Late Medieval Italy, France, and Spain” (SF) yields “Preacher to the Jews: Vincent Ferrer and the Expression of Masculine Identity in the Dominican Order” (Katherine Lindeman)
  • “Twelfth-Century Cosmology and Natural Philosophy” (SF) shifts to “The Concept of Music in Twelfth-Century Cosmology and Natural Philosophy” (Andrew Hicks)
  • “The Seasons in the Medieval Literatures of Northwestern Europe” (SF) becomes “Winter in Early English and Early Scandinavian Literature” (Paul Langeslag)

The Special Field Examination Committee

Good Special Field proposals do not spring forth fully formed from one person alone. It is critical that you begin to discuss your ideas with your supervisor as soon as possible, even during your first year of study. You should also discuss your interests with other faculty members and your peers.

Your Special Field committee should be assembled by the beginning of your second year.  The Advisory Committee must be formally approved by the PhD Coordinator. Once approved, any changes to the membership of the Advisory Committee, before or after the Special Field Examination, requires the approval of the PhD Coordinator. This committee consists of your provisional dissertation supervisor (provisional because at this phase you do not have an official dissertation topic and have not achieved candidacy) and committee members (at least two; sometimes three). Normally this committee becomes your dissertation committee after you complete the examination.

While the proposal and bibliography are in draft form, you should meet with your supervisor and committee members to discuss the parameters of your research and the contents of your bibliography. Be prepared to encounter differences of opinion among committee members regarding essential sources, the contours of your project, and the ways in which the various parts interlock. This is normal. Most of us are reasonable and work together effectively. In the rare event that disagreements are trenchant, the opinions of your supervisor should prevail. If you find that disagreements are unpleasant, threatening, or otherwise hampering your progress, please consult with the PhD Coordinator or another member of the CMS Executive.

The Proposal: Guidelines

The PDF iconSpecial Field Proposal (pdf) is to have a reasonably succinct title that makes clear the area(s) of medieval studies concerned and the student’s general field of research.

The Special Field proposal must be submitted with the title page provided by the centre. Both the student and all three members of the Advisory Committee must sign the title page of the proposal.

The Special Field proposal should be in essay form and five to seven pages, double-spaced (c. 1,500 words), plus bibliography. It must explain the extent, purpose, and significance of the student’s special field. It should contain a complete scholarly apparatus, including footnotes and in some cases illustrations. The Special Field proposal should be formulated with an eye to the subsequent preparation of a dissertation proposal.

Here, as in other scholarly projects, you should include translations of passages written in languages other than English. Whether you place the original passage in the body of your proposal and the translation in a footnote or vice versa is up to you. Please discuss this matter with your supervisor if you are not sure how to proceed.

Footnotes play an important role in Special Field proposals because they add depth and nuance to your generalizations about the sources and scholarship. The extent to which footnotes are highly detailed or analytical varies according to the type of project, but keep in mind that some are necessary to help flesh out your proposal.

If your topic is assessing visual evidence, please include captions on each image and also a separate List of Illustrations. The List of Illustrations must identify the image and specify its precise source. For example:

  • Fig. 2: Easter Chants in St. Gall notation, British Library Add. MS 32247, f. 30v, from Nicolas Bell, Music in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 16.
  • Fig. 3: Anglo-Saxon millefiori stud from the Staffordshire Hoard, (accessed June 10, 2011).

In the proposal, or as an appendix to it, the student must also list:

  • all the relevant graduate courses taken and being taken; relevant courses that the student plans to take, even if there is no certainty that such courses will be given;
  • language examinations already met and those to be met;
  • any other languages and any special technical skills that may be required in the research for the dissertation.

The Bibliography

The Special Field proposal should include a bibliography broad enough to demonstrate the scope and interdisciplinary nature of the Special Field topic. It should include both primary sources and secondary materials in all pertinent languages.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the centre and its affiliated programs, all bibliographies look different. Primary sources predominate in some of them, secondary in others. Solid foundations in both are required. Some bibliographies are 15 pages long, others 12. Bibliographies should be both reasonable and reasonably comprehensive.

In your coursework, you have probably figured out what citation style your professors prefer. If you’re uncertain, ask your supervisor.

Approval Process

Once the Special Field proposal has been approved and signed by all committee members, you are responsible for giving it to the Graduate Administrator, who then distributes it to members of the centre’s Executive Committee. The Executive Committee must approve the proposal before the exam is scheduled. The Executive Committee sometimes asks for additional examples, recommends other sources, and suggests minor editorial changes. In a few cases the Committee has sent the proposal back to the drawing board.

Students are responsible for arranging a suitable time for the Special Field examination with the members of their Advisory Committee, and for reporting this time to the centre so that formal arrangements for the examination may be made.

Leading up to the Exam

Any minor changes in the Special Field proposal made subsequently are to be reported to the PhD Coordinator so that the records may be altered accordingly. Major changes, those altering the nature of the topic itself, may require a revised proposal and the approval of the Centre’s Executive Committee, as well as (of course) the approval of the supervisor and the Advisory Committee.

The State of the Literature Statement

At least two weeks before the Special Field examination, you must prepare and submit to the centre and your Advisory Committee a Statement delineating two to four of the major themes or issues that have emerged from your readings. The precise deadline is established with the Advisory Committee in consultation with the student. Normally this paper is five to seven pages double-spaced (c. 1500-2000 words). Well in advance of writing the Statement, you must discuss its parameters with your supervisor so that his or her precise expectations are clear. A hard copy of the statement must be delivered to the Graduate Administrator in advance of the exam.

This Statement forms the basis of discussion and questioning during the initial stages of the oral examination. Normally, the Statement should address the significant issues with a view to presenting the current state of research and the student’s critical assessment of it. In other words, you should deal with some of the salient problems and questions raised by the literature, the ways in which the issues have been framed and debates developed, what you’d like to contribute to these debates, and why. Possibly written in the first person, this paper can be less formal than a seminar paper and does not require a full scholarly apparatus nor lengthy footnotes. You’ll still need to cite the relevant sources, of course. Again, you must discuss the parameters of the Statement with your supervisor so that you can take his or her precise expectations into account.

The Examination Itself

The examination is oral and normally lasts for not more than two hours. You have a chance to speak first, reading, clarifying, correcting, or amplifying points you made in your Statement. The paper and your opening remarks provide the basis for questions and discussions, although the examination is not limited to the material you present. Each examiner typically has a turn of roughly 20 minutes. Some examinations become more a free-flowing conversation, but each examiner has his or her say.

During the examination, your committee members are evaluating the extent to which you have mastered the primary and secondary materials and are able to analyse them. Your grasp of the wide-ranging themes is important, as is your ability to focus on and analyse details. You are responsible for both the primary and secondary sources, of course, although the relative weight assigned to each varies from project to project.

Letter grades are not assigned for the Special Field examination. In case of a Fail, the Advisory Committee, in consultation with the Executive Committee of the Centre, has the discretion to determine if a student may retake the Special Field examination. Only one retake is permitted and must take place within two months of the first exam; no more than two attempts at the Special Field examination are allowed. Students who do not pass the Special Field examination before the beginning of Year 4 will be recommended to SGS for termination of registration.