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Master of Arts in International Relations

MAIR Comprehensive Exam Rules and Guidelines

MAIR Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam constitutes the concluding requirement of the MAIR program and is offered every semester.  The due dates for the various components of the exam are provided below.  Please note that these deadlines are strict ones and that missing a deadline results in examination failure.  Students who entered the program before the Summer 2013 have  the choice between the traditional format for the examination (that is not associated with any academic credit and involves developing a reflective and integrative essay) and a new format for the examination (that has a 1.5 unit prerequisite course on research design, is associated with a 1.5 unit capstone course, and involves significantly improving a previously written research paper.)  

General Information

The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to provide students with an opportunity to use the knowledge gained during the program to deepen their understanding of a particular issue of interest. The exam also serves as a method of evaluating students’ progress by requiring them to integrate different types of material and to think critically about how this material contributes to a broader understanding of the discipline of International Relations.

Students take the comprehensive exam during or after their last semester of coursework for the program. Because the exam builds on what students have learned in the program, students cannot take the exam until they have completed at least 21 units. Because the exam requires a substantial amount of work, students are advised to register for no more than 7.5 units during the semester in which they plan to take the exam. This is particularly true of students who have demanding outside commitments (e.g., full-time job, family, etc.). For those students who prefer to take the exam after completing all of their coursework, but who will no longer be in San Diego, it is possible to submit exam documents via express mail. However, these students are required to 1) request and receive prior approval from the Graduate Director, 2) assume responsibility for knowing and respecting any and all deadlines (mail delays are not acceptable excuses for late submissions), and 3) be physically present for the oral exam.

Please note that if you are not registered for classes while you are taking the comprehensive exam, you must fill out a Petition for Leave of Absence at the Registrar’s office before the semester during which you plan to take the exam begins. Failure to do this will automatically convert your enrollment status to “withdrawn,” and you will not be able to take the exam until you reapply for admission to the MAIR program—a process that can take several weeks, and several dollars, to complete. This University rule cannot be waived by the MAIR director.

Exam Format

The exam has four to five components taken in phases: the dossier, the intellectual biography, the paper, a possible rewrite, and the oral presentation.  Each of the components is discussed in greater detail below.  Overall, the traditional format and the new format for the comprehensives exam are basically identical with respect to the dossier, the intellectual biography, and the conference presentation.  There are two main differences between the formats: first, the new version requires prior completion of the 1.5 unit research design course and then concurrent enrollment in the capstone seminar, whereas the traditional version does not require the research design course and does not permit the associated capstone class.  The second difference in the two formats is that for the traditional paper, students propose a question that they will answer in an integrative essay which involves reflection on what they have learned in the program, typically supplemented by modest research; whereas for the new capstone paper, students propose to revisit a paper written earlier in the program  but that has room for significant improvement and/or modification. Either way, the autobiography should run around 5 to 7 pages and the paper should run around 18 to 20 pages (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12 point font with numbered pages.) 


Three copies of the dossier should be submitted with the proposed exam question or with the proposed paper rewrite. It is largely an informational document.  Please present and number your responses in the order listed below:

  • Name and phone number.
  • Semester in which you intend to take the exam.
  • A note on whether or not you will be in San Diego during the exam process.
  • A list of the courses and corresponding professors taken for the degree (including those in progress.)
  • A list of the titles of the papers written for each course.
  • For the traditional paper, a two to three sentence proposed question for the paper followed by a one page explanation of how at least three courses in the program are relevant to the response; or for the new capstone paper, a one page explanation of how and why the paper might be significantly improved by revisiting it (include the original paper in the dossier.)  In both cases, be sure to include a reference to one of your core theory classes (comparative or international relations) in your explanations, and in the case of the capstone option, be sure to include a reference to your research design course.

Guidance for a Proposed Exam Question (the Traditional Comp)

Students should propose a question that draws on at least three of their graduate political science courses taken for the degree, including one of the theory courses. It should be designed as an integrative research paper with sound analysis that draws together ideas and analysis culled from the student’s graduate experience. Students should solicit advice from individual faculty regarding the construction of a sound question, however, it is the student’s faculty committee that will ultimately determine the final version of the question. If you have questions about how to incorporate theory into your analysis, you should see a faculty member during the process of formulating the question.  Some of the most common problems with exam questions are listed below.

  • Too broad: remember that this is only a 20 page paper. If you propose to examine how globalization has altered the international system, you can be relatively certain that the committee will narrow the question down substantially. In order to avoid a situation where a committee revises the question in an undesired direction, make your question as specific as possible. For example, “How can Realists account for the level of economic integration that has occurred over the past fifteen years and what are the implications of this aspect of globalization for state sovereignty in the international system?”
  • Too vague: similar to the problem mentioned above, but in this case it is not clear what you really intend to examine, e.g., “How effective is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?” Again, try to be very clear about what you intend to do, e.g., “Many argue that the NPT has done little to stop the spread of nuclear weapons material and technology. Does its failure mean that Neoliberal Institutionalists are wrong about the ability of institutions to facilitate cooperation and peace?”
  • Too narrow: it is not generally the case that proposed exam questions are too specific, however, it is common for them to be too limited in scope or in geographic focus. For example, “What are the prospects for democracy in Iraq?” This is a valid question, but it should be cast more broadly, e.g., “It is commonly believed that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. What is the basis of this assertion and what does it suggest about the prospects for democracy in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East?”
  • Theoretically void: while the question itself need not mention a specific theory, it is expected that all answers will be theoretically well-grounded. That is, if your question is “What is the most pressing security challenge facing the United States in the XXI Century?” you should be prepared to situate the issue within a larger theoretical context, whether that is Realism, Idealism or something else altogether. In order to avoid this pitfall, you will need to think about how your question relates to material covered in your courses on IR Theory and/or Comparative Politics.
  • Too much overlap with previous work: while you are strongly encouraged to build on work you have already completed in the program, reassembling previous work is unacceptable.

Guidance for a Proposed Rewrite (the New Comp)

Students should select a research paper that has been previously written but that has the potential to be significantly improved, and not just updated or expanded.   The department is particularly eager to see the methods and concepts of the research design course and the theories courses incorporated or more substantially incorporated into the rewritten paper.   Students doing paper rewrites should retouch base with the faculty member who supervised the paper for fresh suggestions on a rewrite.  We are hoping that the standard for these qualitatively improved papers would be suitability for presentation to a conference like the International Studies Association.

Intellectual Biographies

After submitting their dossiers and while waiting for faculty confirmation or modification of their proposal for the comprehensive exam, students write a five page intellectual biography.   This paper should discuss your intellectual growth over the course of the MAIR program and include reference to some of the classes, literature, authors, methods, and concepts that now influence both your general outlook on international affairs and your particular interest in your comprehensive examination topic.   Be sure to include reference to at least one of your theories classes (Comparative or IR.)

Writing (and Rewriting) the Paper

The comprehensive exam paper is an opportunity for you to demonstrate to the committee not only the knowledge you have acquired about the topic at hand and the field of international relations, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking skills and your ability to apply theory to reality. These are the most important assets that you will take away from the program. Therefore, faculty committees are looking to see that you have a solid base of knowledge about your chosen subject, that you can discuss the issue at hand, that you can cogently present evidence in support of your argument, and that you can use your knowledge of the subject to understand a broader array of issues. For example, demonstrating how and in what specific ways NAFTA has increased the interdependence of the US and Mexico is important, but it is also important to be able to develop  the broader implications of such interdependence for a specific theory of international relations, for the Americas, for globalization, for international competitiveness, etc.).

Students have two weeks to write the paper. It should be treated as an open book exam. You may NOT confer with other students or with faculty about the exam during this time frame. The only exception is consultation with the faculty committee for clarification of the question. All citations and bibliography should follow the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (available at Copley Library). Furthermore, all students are required to submit their final version to before submitting the paper to the department.  Specific instructions on how to do this will be provided.

It is not unusual for students to be asked to rewrite their papers. In this event, students should speak to the faculty on the committee and respond to their comments and concerns in the rewrite. Second drafts that do not address the main concerns of the faculty committee can obviously result in failure of the comprehensive exam.

Oral Presentation

The oral exam will be scheduled if and when the first or second draft of the paper is judged satisfactory and will require a 10 to 12 minute powerpoint presentation followed by 18 to 20 minutes of discussion with faculty and audience.  Individual rehearsals will be held around one week before the conference style event.   Students will be informed of the results of their total comprehensive exam performance within one week of the conference date. Students who do not pass the exam can retake it once in another semester.

Comprehensive Exam Calendar Spring 2014

Important due dates for the MAIR Comp Exam are listed below (divided between accelerated and original schedules.) Please note that it is the student’s responsibility to abide by all deadlines. Students who fail to follow these directions will not be allowed to continue the exam and will have to begin the process again another semester.  (Students completing the exam somewhere other than San Diego are responsible for materials being received by the corresponding deadlines, and for providing a pre-paid overnight express mail envelope for the department to return papers with committee comments in the event of a rewrite.)  All students taking the exam, whether traditional or new format, are expected to attend the first Thursday meeting and any additional Thursday meetings of relevance (400 to 520 pm.)

Thursday, January 30, 400 to 520: Mandatory Meeting for all Comp Exam Students (Traditional and Capstone, whether enrolled in POLS 596 or not.) 

Thursday, February 6, 400 to 500: Former Department of State George Novinger meets for informal reception and conversation, IPJ 253. 

Monday February 10, 400 pm sharp (accelerated schedule) Wednesday, February 12, 400 pm (original schedule:)  Dossiers and Prospectuses Due (Two hard copies to the Political Science department and an email version to ( and (

Wednesday, February 19, 400 pm: Intellectual biographies are due.  (Two hard copies and an email version to the program director and executive assistant.)

Wednesday: February 19 (accelerated) and 26 (original), noon: traditional comp questions (possibly modified) and paper rewrite proposals (possibly amended) are available for pick up from the Political Science department (including directions for submitting the completed paper to or by email correspondence with Susan Szakonyi.

Wednesday, March 12 (accelerated) and 19 (original), 400 pm: Papers are due.  (Two hard copies to the Political Science department.  The cover page should include the exam question in the case of the traditional version.)

Wednesday, March 26 (accelerated) and April 2 (original), noon: Notification of results (pass or rewrite.)  Please see or email Susan Szakonyi after 12 noon for results.

Wednesday, April 9 (accelerated) and 16 (original), 400 pm: Rewrites, if necessary, due to the department. (Resubmit two copies of the original paper as marked up by faculty, if provided, and submit two copies of the rewrite; students must submit the revised paper to before submitting to the department.  Stay tuned for instructions.)

Friday, April 25 (accelerated) and May 2 (original), 1200 to 530, Powerpoint Presentation Rehearsals, IPJ 253.

Wednesday, May 30 (accelerated) and Thursday, May 8, 100 to 220, 230 to 350, 400 to 520, (two students per session), Capstone Conference Sessions, MRH 102 Executive Conference Room.

Thursday, May 8, 400 to 520, Capstone Reception, IPJ 253.

Thursday, May 15, noon: Notification of Results