Thesis or Comprehensive Exam?

The final requirement for the American Studies Master’s Degree at CSUF is the writing of either a thesis or acomprehensive essay examination. In both cases, your work will be supervised and evaluated by the three faculty members you have asked to serve on your Master’s committee (one of whom you will ask to serve as chair) and have confirmed on your study plan. In deciding whether to write the thesis or the comprehensive exam, you should consider the following:


A thesis in this department is an extended discussion, with a central argument, based on complex analysis of your original research and includes a review of the literature on your topic as well as a historical framework.

With the approval of your committee chair, you enroll in AMST 598 in your final semester of coursework You begin by developing an outline or summary of your topic and how you plan to approach your study and then meeting with your committee for their response and advisement regarding your research and writing plan. Once you have completed your research, you submit drafts of each chapter to your committee chair for their review and circulation to the other two members. Chapters are then revised in response to faculty critique and formatted to University guidelines for theses (the Grad Studies office publishes these guidelines).

Once your committee has approved the final draft, your thesis is submitted to the University thesis reader for evaluation of compliance with University standards. Theses in American Studies are typically well over 100 pages in length and organized into four -six chapters. You can find a listing of titles of completed theses in American Studies on our website.

Comprehensive Exam

MA Comprehensive Exam Guidelines  for all exams beginning Fall 2016.

At least one semester before taking their exam, MA candidates must select three of the following categories for their subject fields.  Every candidate must also identify three full-time faculty to serve as MA committee members with each faculty overseeing preparation for one of the three subject fields. With the approval of your committee chair, you enroll inAMST 599 in your final semester of coursework As you read through the works on the list, you meet independently with the members of your committee for discussion and guidance.

The subject fields are:

  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Work and Class
  • Institutions and Ideals
  • The National and the Global
  • Culture and Environment
  • Consumption and Leisure
  • Alternative Field of Study

Students who entered the master’s program prior to AY 2016-2017 may choose from an older set of reading lists. PDF File

Book lists for all subject fields, each arranged in chronological order, can be found here: MA Comprehensive Exam Reading Lists.

The Alternative Field of Study category allows students to design an MA Exam list around a field of study not already represented by the other exam lists. This field cannot fit within or overlap significantly with any existing field; the reading list for any alternative field must have an historical dimension covering several centuries. A student may only do ONE alternative field of study; their two other fields must be selected from the seven existing options. Alternative fields and the reading lists assembled for them must be approved by the faculty member advising that field. Students will also be expected to justify their decision to create an alternative field (e.g., to explain why the existing lists cannot accommodate their area of interest). Students may propose alternative fields on any topic but possible subjects include: Technology, Visual and Material Culture, Childhood and Education, Memory, or Performance.

In consultation with the faculty members on his or her committee, a candidate must select and read a minimum of ten books from each of the three chosen categories. Also, in consultation with faculty, a student may substitute a maximum of two books outside the list for each subject field. 

Candidates will have four days (four consecutive 24 hour periods) to write three essays—one essay for each of the chosen subject fields.  Each essay must be a minimum of ten double-spaced pages. 

The faculty member responsible for each section of the exam will provide two questions for that section.  The two questions for each section will be of two types:

A. A question asking students to examine scholarly methods of understanding cultural processes. These are questions of theory and method, requiring students to critically evaluate how scholars approach evidence and how scholars have explored this subject field.

B. A question asking students to examine cultural processes in history.  These are questions of content,requiring students to analyze the dynamics of cultural interaction and changeover time.

To insure methodological and historical coverage, students must choose one A-type question for any subject field and one B-type question for another subject field. They may select either A or B for the remaining subject field. 

Last question/answer: "Once I’ve decided, declared on my study plan, and enrolled in AMST 599 or 598, can I change my decision?" The answer here is yes, however the farther along you are (i.e., actual enrollment in AMST 598),the more complicated the process, so it is not an decision to be undertaken lightly. If you find yourself considering such a change, contact the Graduate Adviser immediately to discuss your options and, if necessary, revise your study plan.