MSIR Comprehensive Exams

Exam Preparation 

The Master of Science in International Relations (MSIR) comprehensive examination is one of several devices that distinguish the graduate degree from the baccalaureate degree. It serves as an end of program assessment of student knowledge of the field, writing ability, and methodological skill. More specifically, the comprehensive examination assesses the candidate’s qualification in two fundamental ways: first, by demanding evidence of knowledge of the principles and theories of international relations; and second, by evaluating student ability to synthesize this knowledge in response to questions in a methodologically appropriate, coherent, and articulate manner.

The comprehensive examination requires a human proctor; i.e., Remote Proctor or ProctorU can not be used. It is an all-day affair with a three hour morning session, an hour lunch break, and a three hour afternoon session. The morning session is divided into two sections: Section I dealing with Principles of International Relations and Section II with Developing Nations/Regional Affairs – including a focus on international political economy. The afternoon session also has two sections: Section III dealing with National Security (essentially US foreign policy and related issues) and Section IV with Instruments of International Relations (e.g., diplomacy, international law, and international organizations). In each section you will be presented with two questions; you must choose and answer one question per section. When completed with the examination, you will have answered a total of four questions.

The examination questions are almost rhetorical in form and may seem disarmingly simple. They are formulated to allow candidates to exhibit their overall knowledge of the international relations discipline with answers that must be much more than what a well-informed layperson would offer. To accomplish this, students need to write for most of the time available for each session – meaning several handwritten or typewritten pages. There are no single correct answers for these questions; on the other hand, answers that are accurate may be judged unsatisfactory because they are too short, bereft of theory and theorists, and insufficient in analytical development.

The comprehensive examination assumes you are very familiar with the material in the required core courses of the MSIR program. As a result, reviewing the assigned readings and other material from IR 5551 Survey of International Relations, IR 6652 Theory and Ideology of International Relations, and IR 6620 International Political Economy is essential; an understanding of the methodologies covered in IR 6601 is also important, but is not directly addressed on the examination.

Depth in your answers is accomplished by giving good examples and by citing IR scholars and their ideas; the more appropriate references to IR scholars the better, especially in Section I on Principles of International Relations. The most frequent reason students do not succeed in the comprehensive examination is their failure to discuss and cite the ideas of important scholars of the international relations discipline. This must be done even if the question does not specifically request such citation. As part of your preparation for the examination, you may want to create a 5x7 card file or electronic folder of important IR scholars with five or six bullets about their contributions. A good start for your file might include Thucydides, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes (all realists), Hugo Grotius (international law), Immanuel Kant (democratic peace), Woodrow Wilson (idealism), E. H. Carr (realist critique of idealism), Hans Morgenthau (classical realism), John Herz (security dilemma), Morton Kaplan (balance of power), Hedley Bull (international society), J. David Singer (levels of analysis), Graham Allison (decision making), Kenneth Waltz (Neorealism), Robert Gilpin (hegemonic stability), Inis Claude (collective security), John Mearsheimer (why we will miss the Cold War), Francis Fukuyama (end of history), Samuel Huntington (clash of civilizations), Joseph Nye (soft power), Robert Keohane (Neoliberalism), and Alexander Wendt (Constructivism).

Section II covers Developing Nations and Regional Affairs. In addition to historically significant political economists and activist like Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and Lenin, theorists associated with development such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Theotonio Dos Santos, and Hernando De Soto should be added. Commentators on globalization such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Friedman are important for Section II and for much of the rest of the comprehensive examination as well. Staying current with regional and global economic issues is a good idea: what are sovereign wealth funds, for example, and how might they affect US national security; and, how will the recent economic crises affect US foreign policy, security, and interests?

Section III looks at National Security and deals with important world security issues, particularly as they affect the United States. Completing either IR 5524 American Foreign Policy or IR 6635 National Security Policy would be an advantage for this section, but other preparation can work as well. The Financial Times newspaper and The Economist news magazine are good sources of up-to-date information, but other sources such as the US Department of State and White House websites can work as well; reviewing the “US National Security Strategy” is a good idea, for example. The world is changing rapidly and you should be familiar with issues such as the rise of China and the other BRICS, the status of the War on Terror and US/allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, conditions within the European Union and other areas of vital US interest, and the status of US hegemony.

Section IV looks at Instruments of International Relations, such as international law, international organizations, and diplomacy, among other issues. This section has been a particular problem for students. Additional research might be useful, such as surveying the websites of significant intergovernmental organizations [IGOs – such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and United Nations] and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs – such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace) and looking into international law issues on the websites of organizations such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). This section (and others) can include “world” issues such as environmental and health concerns and their effect on international relations.

Student writing ability is important to success on the comprehensive examination. This includes not only correct spelling, grammar, and sentence coherence, but also expressing answers in a logical, reasoned manner that flows effectively to an appropriate conclusion. Students need to go beyond factual understanding of an issue to its analysis. With this in mind, it may be best to outline responses before embarking on the full written answer. Very importantly, you want to ensure you answer the question directly and address all relevant parts; it is easy, for example, to start down a path that diverges from the question’s intent and just discuss some issue with which you are very familiar. With this in mind, it is a good idea about half way through your time periods to go back and reread the questions to ensure you are addressing them properly.

Because this is a closed book examination, references to scholars and classic works of international relations should be “informally” cited. An example of informal citation could be: “In his Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington argues that international conflicts in the future will be characterized by cultural difference in contrast to the ideological concerns of the Cold War era.”

Comprehensive examinations are evaluated by two MSIR professors; if there is disagreement on the examination results between the two, a third professor is required. Hence, the evaluation of examinations may take several weeks to complete. If students are unsuccessful in one or more sections, they are required to retake the portions failed and to pass them within one year of taking the examination the first time. To take makeup examinations beyond this one year point would require a waiver approved through the office of the Graduate Dean.

Here is an article, though dated, about IR theories and the post-Cold War period. If the website listed does not work, the article can be found through an online search engine or the Troy University Library databases:

Stephen Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories”

Also recommended is the book Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and David A. Welch, now in its eight edition, as preparation for the examination because of its focus on theory to practice in many of the important time periods and events of history. The book contains many of the essential case studies of the IR discipline.

To summarize, success on the MSIR comprehensive examination comes from good understanding of the material as presented in program courses and a formally executed final study plan. While taking the examination, read the questions carefully, answer them completely, provide relevant citations, and give analysis and arguments as carefully written and documented as the time available allows. A sample comprehensive examination is included on the following two pages with the kinds of questions that might be asked. Only one question per section is included in the sample, not the two provided on the actual examination.

 General Questions

MSIR students have a choice: Either they can write a thesis OR they can take the comprehensive exam.

Related questions: 

Why don't students selecting the Thesis Option have to take the comprehensive exam?

Instead of taking the comprehensive exam, these students use their last two courses to research and to write a graduate level thesis. This process takes approximately one more year than those selecting the Comprehensive Exam option.

Can I change my option and take the Thesis Option instead of the Comprehensive Exam?

You can change your option up until you take the Comprehensive Exam for the first time. If you take the Comprehensive Exam and fail it, you no longer can switch to the Thesis Option. You must successfully complete the Comprehensive Exam.

The earliest you can take the comprehensive exam is during the term in which you are enrolled in your 11th course. However, you must successfully complete the comprehensive exam no later than eight (8) years from the time of your first enrollment in the MSIR program, in addition to meeting all other degree requirements.

The MSIR comprehensive exam can be administered each term of the academic year, even if just one student registers for the exam.
At your request, your local TROY Site Coordinator will sign you up for the comprehensive exam. This must be done at least 30 days in advance of the next scheduled exam. Anyone registering within the 30 day window will be charged a late registration fee of $25.00 in addition to the normal $50.00 registration fee.
Yes. There is a set date by which you must complete your paperwork for registration. Check with your Site Coordinator for the exact cut off date for each term.
Contact the TROY Site Coordinator you initially registered with as soon as possible, but no later than one (1) week before the exam date. At some program sites, there is a waiting list to take the comprehensive exams due to limited seating capacity at the actual exam site. Your timely cancellation allows your slot to be filled by a fellow MSIR student.
You can register for the next scheduled comprehensive exam immediately. For example, If you take the comprehensive exam Term I, but fail, you can take the exam again during Term II. However, this would require you to register for it during Term I due to the deadline mentioned above.

It can be given at each MSIR program site in the Pacific Region. Prior to the actual date of the comprehensive exam, your Site Coordinator will send you written confirmation of your registration along with the exact time and place of the exam. If you do not receive such a confirmation at least one week before the exam, contact your Site Coordinator.

Related question:

Where do I take the MSIR comprehensive exam if I PCS or leave the military?

If you are no longer at a MSIR program site when you want to take the comprehensive exam, contact your Troy University representative for alternate arrangements. Your local Site Coordinator can assist you with this before you leave.

Exam Format

Regardless of your concentration within the MSIR program, the basic format is the same. You have six (6) hours to answer four (4) questions. The only difference among the concentrations is the focus of the questions.

Each concentration has a separate exam, although all use the same format. Each concentration is different because the required courses and electives are different for each concentration. The two most popular MSIR concentrations for the Pacific Region are the Global Studies Concentration and the Asian Emphasis in the Regional Concentration. Check your copy of the Graduate Bulletin for specific required and elective courses for each concentration.

Each of the four (4) sections will include two questions. Select the one question per section that you feel you can answer best. Thus, the exam will include a total of eight (8) questions, two per section. You are to select one question per section, for a total of four (4), to answer.

The questions will be general in nature. For example, you might be asked if the Balance of Power is still relevant in the post-Cold War era. You would not be asked to discuss the League of Nation's handling of the Manchurian Incident of 1931. Questions directly relate to key concepts and theories in the study of International Relations.

Troy University will supply you with paper on which to write your answer. However, you must bring a pen. Do not use a pencil to answer the comprehensive exam questions. Use of your Personal Computer to write your answers is not allowed. However, check with your TROY Site Coordinator to see if the local site can provide you with a Troy University computer to use to write your answers This is not an option at all Troy University sites.

You have a three (3) hour morning session during which you answer questions on two of the four sections. After a one (1) hour lunch break, you return for a three (3) hour afternoon session and answer questions on the other two sections of the exam.
Yes, you can take one or more breaks during the exam session. But only one student can leave the room at a time. The Troy University proctor will keep your exam paper until you return.

 Grading of Exams

Each of the four sections is graded either "Pass" or "Fail." You must pass all four sections to receive a "Pass" for the entire exam. Each of the four sections is graded by two Troy University MSIR faculty members--usually from the MSIR faculty of your local Troy University Region. If the two graders disagree, that section goes to a third Troy University professor in the MSIR program to be graded and the tie broken.

 Each of your answers is graded according to the following criteria:

40% for Knowledge of the Subject Matter, including sources (International Relations scholarship).
40% for Appropriate Analytical Skills, Comprehension and Insight
20% for Adequate Skills of Expression, including grammar and rhetoric.

Related question:

What do you mean by "sources (International Relations scholarship)"?

When you compose your answer, cite sources, which support your analytical position. After ten (10) courses, you have been introduced to numerous authors, theories, important documents and interpretative analyses. Examples are course texts, sources you used in course papers, reserve readings and individual outside readings. For example, cite the name of the author and/or the title of a textbook, other book or journal article. Cite a course lecture or a specific document such as the U.N. Charter. The grader wants to see these sources included in the body of your answer. Don't put them at the end of your answer.

On average, the majority of students pass the first time that they take the exam. Those who do not pass usually miss only one or two of the four sections. In that case you only have to retake the missed one or two sections. However, if you miss three or four sections, you must retake the entire comprehensive exam.

If only two graders are needed, then you should know the results within 40 days of taking the exam. If a third grader is necessary, it could be another 10 days until you know. Your TROY Site Coordinator will contact you with the exam results.
 You can retake the MSIR comprehensive as many times as you want as long as you properly register, but you must successfully complete the comprehensive exam within one year of the date originally taken.
 Graders submit a short written critique for each unsatisfactory answer. You can request this critique through your local Site Coordinator.
 Yes. First, keep your lecture notes and texts to study. Also, The Site Coordinator has a file of previous MSIR Comprehensives and sample questions, which you can see to familiarize yourself with the exam's format and the focus of the questions.
Yes. If you don't know the professor's address, contact your local Site Coordinator.
Your exam is kept on file by Troy University in Troy, Alabama.

Yes. Here are some important reminders:

If possible form a study group with other MSIR students who will be taking the comprehensive exam when you take it or soon after.

Remember to include bibliographical citations. This cannot be over emphasized.

Read the question carefully. Often students misread the question and go off on a tangent, which only partially answers the question or is completely off target.

It is a good investment of your time to make a brief outline of your proposed answer to ensure that you are covering all of the question's aspects, it includes narrative as well as analysis and you have sufficient bibliographical citations to support your arguments. Taking 10-15 minutes out of your allotted 90 minutes to answer each question isn't a waste of valuable time. It is an investment in a quality answer.

Don't be afraid to go into detail in your answer. Consider it fine-tuning or honing your answer.

It is important to read current events as well as to study your course materials. This way you can cite supporting arguments from the past as well as from the present. But providing a chain of facts without analysis will not be satisfactory. You must integrate these facts within a comprehensive argument in order to successfully answer the question.

Be sure to determine the analytical goal of the question. Does the question seek an explanation of the causes and effects of something? A discussion of the pros and cons of something? An explanation of the past and future evolution of something? A comparison or contrast of two or more things? Or elements of two or more of these approaches?

International Relations is multi-faceted so be sure to consider not only the domestic political, military security and the international and regional diplomatic aspects, but also the relevant historical, economic, cultural and social aspects as well.

Include relevant International Relations terminology and theories in your answers. For example, instead of describing two states as rivals, explain their relationship in terms of balance of power theory.
Appropriate Analytical Skills, Comprehension and Insight -- Answer the question. Demonstrate logical thought progression, good essay structure, and a clearly reasoned conclusion.
It is very important that you stay in contact with your Troy professors as you prepare for the examination. They can advise you on the best ways to organize your course materials, plan your study, and practice writing your exams.