Is the A exam scheduled before a student completes research for a dissertation, during which the student presents proposed dissertation research?

Date: January 2021


Dear Deans,

I attended a practice A exam today. My classmate was preparing to present two papers completed before the A exam but he did not have a proposed topic for a paper to complete after the A exam so I was confused.

I thought that the A exam is scheduled before the student completes the papers for the papers dissertation and that the A exam presents the research proposed.

Thank you very much for your assistance.


Confused Graduate Student


Dear Confused Graduate Student,

I understand how you might find the format of the Cornell A exam to be confusing because, indeed, there is no single format for a Cornell A exam! The doctoral A exam (or “Admission to Candidacy” exam) traditionally marks the point when a student has demonstrated mastery in the fundamentals of his or her academic discipline and is ready to conduct independent dissertation research. In some fields, it is common for a student to present a dissertation prospectus or research plan. But, as you note, in other fields it is be expected that students present one or more publishable research papers to provide the special committee with evidence of mature scholarship and independence.

An obvious question you might have is, “how will I know what is expected in my field?” It can be nerve-wracking to prepare for an A exam and even more stressful if you don’t know the typical format. Ph.D. students in the first years of their program should consult their field handbook, speak with their special committee, their DGS, and advanced Ph.D. candidates in the field to learn more about the typical format of the A exam. By Cornell policy, the A exam must be completed before the start of the 7th semester (the 4thyear) so it’s important to plan well in advance and begin preparations in years one, two, and three.

In addition to the formal aspects of the A exam, it’s also useful to learn about the less-formal culture of the A exam in your field. Currently, almost all exams are being conducted online (via Zoom) but in-person exams sometimes include light refreshments, a departmental/field seminar, or participation from Cornell faculty who are not directly on the special committee.  It’s also the student’s responsibility to schedule the exam well in advance and file the official schedule form with the Graduate School at least seven days before the exam date. The GFA can often help with logistics questions, scheduling a room (or Zoom meeting), and announcing the exam to the field faculty.

It’s great that you were able to participate in a practice A exam and identify these questions now. I hope other students will find similar opportunities to learn from their classmates!  



Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration