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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.)  


MAIR2General 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 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.


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