Breadth Requirement Administration


Doctoral students can complete part or all of the breadth requirement before formal enrollment in the program, e.g., while previously enrolled at Columbia in a different program and/or by “importingelective courses (not distribution courses) from another academic institution of equivalent quality.  All import applications must be submitted no later than two weeks (14 days) prior to the end of the student’s first semester enrolled in the doctoral program. Both distribution and elective courses taken at Columbia prior to formal enrollment in the doctoral program qualify automatically and do not need to be “imported”, provided that the grade was B+ or higher. However, in the case of courses completed more than five (5) years prior to formal enrollment, the appropriate faculty member (the person approving the import or the advisor in the case of prior Columbia courses) must judge that the course is sufficiently relevant to the goals of the doctoral breadth requirement.


Comprehensive exams (“comps”) are cumulative final exams offered in some courses primarily as an alternative to taking the corresponding course, and are intended for students who have already obtained the appropriate background and expertise, while enrolled in a prior Columbia program or at another institution, and/or feel confident in their ability to self-study the requisite material. Exams may also be taken by students who have completed the corresponding course with less than a “doctoral pass” (B+) grade, or are taking the course concurrently.

Signup sheets for exams are normally made available through the Doctoral Program Administrator approximately six (6) weeks prior to exam administration, and students must normally sign up for all exams they intend to take at least four (4) weeks prior to the exams. Failure to show up for an exam, or leaving the exam without completion, is deemed de facto failure, unless the student presents acceptable evidence of illness or emergency to the PhD Chair. No “makeups” are offered, but the student may take the course or exam in a later semester.

The comprehensive exam is the same as the final exam for the course and  its administration is co-timed with that final exam. Each individual instructor can decide whether or not to offer a cumulative final exam for doctoral students. Doctoral students who are not enrolled in the course can take the cumulative final and count that toward their course requirements if they pass with a B+ or better. The exam must be a cumulative exam covering material from the entire course, not just the last half of the course since the midterm, and in no case may be less than one hour.   Alternative structures such as project, team, oral, take-home, extended duration, etc. must be approved at least six weeks in advance by the full faculty on petition of the relevant area faculty. Other details such as pretesting, blind grading, open vs. closed book, etc., are at the discretion of the area faculty.

A regular faculty member must be designated as responsible for each comprehensive exam.  The designated faculty member may optionally delegate to an adjunct (but not a student) the duties of preparing the syllabus, exam and grading scheme, but retains ultimate responsibility for adhering to the above rules.
[Above paragraph added by full faculty vote on May 8, 2008. Effective Fall 2008.]

If a student passes both the regular course and that course’s comp exam, the course is only counted once towards the required ten courses.  Multiple sections of the same course may offer comp exams during the same semester, but students are permitted to sit for only one of the exams and enroll in only one of the course sections; similarly, the course still counts only once for students who repeat the same course and/or exam different semesters.


CVN “pre-taped” courses are generally unacceptable for satisfying the breadth requirements, see exceptions below.  TAing or auditing a distribution or elective course is never acceptable in lieu of taking the course (or cumulative final exam, if offered) for a grade.

The following refers to courses that have already been approved for distribution or elective credit for the doctoral breadth requirement.

  • CVN courses taken while enrolled as a CVN-DES student always qualify.
  • CVN courses taken by a student prior to formally enrolling in the on-campus DES, PhD or MS/PhD program (e.g., while an MS or non-degree student) always qualify.
  • Courses taken live in-person on-campus that happen to also be offered by CVN always qualify.
  • Pre-taped CVN courses managed (graded) by a regular faculty member, from any Columbia department, always qualify.  Pre-taped CVN courses managed by an adjunct faculty member who has lectured the same course on-campus also qualify. Both cases are exceedingly rare.
  • The typical pre-taped CVN course, which is managed by a graduate student, does not qualify. Exceptions can be made with the approval of the full faculty, including in particular the regular faculty member(s) in charge of the corresponding course – but be warned that said approval is highly unlikely.

Last updated on September 18, 2020.