This guide addresses examination procedures during the first part of studies in the Doctor of Design (DDes) program at the GSD, meant as a guideline distributed to students and faculty advisors alike. The program’s two stage exam process is designed to facilitate the first phase of study from entry into the program until the initiation of the actual thesis research and the eventual writing of the dissertation and the defense. Significantly different examination protocols require the consent of the program director who may consult the DDes council.

This document outlines the timeline, purpose and format of these first two exams. The general exam ascertains that the student has the knowledge needed to conduct the research, while the prospectus examines the actual research agenda and methodology.

New for students entering Fall 2022 and later: Guidelines for the General Exam and Prospectus.

General Exam (for students who entered prior to 2022)

The general examination (GE) represents an important step in the process leading to the fulfillment of the DDes degree. It typically marks the end of two semesters of course work during which the student acquires the core knowledge in his/her chosen research field. The GE is ideally taken at the end of the second semester, but no later than at the end of the third semester. It is conducted by two current GSD faculty members, one of which is the student’s primary advisor. Its main purpose is to ensure that the student has acquired a proper mastery of his/her domain of study, thus has a good knowledge of the basic facts pertaining to the domain, and an understanding of the fundamental issues at play within it. Of particular value for the unfolding research is the ability to organize the field such that the research problem/issues (which are later articulated in the proposal) can be readily understood.

Literature Review—Framing the Field: In some research fields (especially historical and theoretical research) it is common to choose a major and several minor fields. This distinction is not always made or emphasized in other areas where distinctions between research areas and topics are more common. A major (research area) usually covers a relatively broad field like the ‘history of architecture from 1800 to the present,’ the ‘theories of urbanization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,’ or ‘digital fabrication.’ More focused major fields are of course possible. Representative examples of minors (or research topics) chosen by students of the program in the past years include studies of ‘Decorative Art, Design and the Object: History, Theory, and Debate: 1850-1930,’ ‘Modernity and Modernism in Latin America,’ or ‘Life Cycle Design.’ In both the major and the minor (the area and the topic), the fundamental question is how to frame the field in order to propose a satisfying bibliography and a good set of questions epitomizing the approach he/she has chosen. There are of course no general answers to such a question. The following guidelines may however be useful.

When beginning to frame and organize the research field many students find it useful to identify a series of key references that will need to be included in the bibliography.1 Following the identification of these fundamental references, the student may choose to organize the broader field chronologically, geographically, or technologically, or thematically, and have that organization be reflected in the way the bibliography is being structured.2 Further modes of organization may emerge as the student understands major and ongoing debates and themes that are being discussed in relation to the field. Most of these themes relate to certain types of chronological, geographic and cultural structures.

It is impossible to reach an exhaustive knowledge of a major field / research area at the stage of the GE. Even a minor field may prove far too extensive. The real challenge is to choose a set of themes, fundamental enough to be considered as a reasonable mode of entry into the field, with their corresponding chronological, geographic, technical and/or cultural structures, knowing that the definition of these structures is as debatable as the questions themselves. Reading, reflection and discussion with advisors represent the only way to arrive at an approach that is well suited to support the research interests. This approach should possess a strong degree of internal coherence, while enabling to describe most salient features of the field.

The general organization of the bibliography and of the literature review should reflect both the fundamental assumptions made on the relevant chronological, geographic, technological and cultural structures that orient the description of the field, and the themes retained by the student. Sources should appear in very limited numbers, the assumption being that the student will have read the relevant primary works during his preparation for the GE. The sources listed should be those works that provide an intimate knowledge of what is considered as absolutely essential to properly frame the field. Sometimes, these sources will be writings that have exerted an enormous influence.3 At other times, one may pick a less essential source book or article because it exemplifies a very specific question that might remain otherwise not totally clarified. Other references may extend beyond the scope of the research field, but may be essential in order to properly position certain aspects of the research.4 General references should be listed only when they provide a very specific element, either conceptual or methodological, that is considered as crucial by the student.

Exam Process: To prepare for the exam the student initially submits an annotated bibliography with no more than 50 references to his/her primary advisor, and possibly to a second GSD faculty member. As a next step a written literature review is created, providing summaries of relevant subdomains within the research fields. This document often emerges naturally from the annotated bibliography. While the student will be working primarily with his/her primary advisors he/she should be in contact and conversation with a second member of the GSD faculty, making sure that both agree with the scope and depth of the literature review. The organization of the field in the literature review may ultimately turn out to be provisionally. It can and often will change as the thesis work evolves.

Approaching the exam the student may be asked to prepare a set of three–four questions to the two examining GSD faculty members, which they will review and often alter or rewrite entirely. Good questions often combine a set of relevant themes. It may be useful for that purpose to group various related sub questions in the same general question. Once the GE questions have been given to the student he/she has eight hours to provide the answers in writing, with normally no more than 3000 words, double-spaced, in 11 font size.

Two to four days after issuing the questions, the actual exam meeting is scheduled between the student and both GSD faculty members. During this meeting the student initially presents the answers to the questions, followed by questions and discussion. The GE is not public and its results will not be publicly available. The discussion often provides the foundation for the prospectus. At the end of the discussion, the faculty asks the student to withdraw. After a usually short deliberation, the faculty members decide on the outcome of the GE. The options are:

  • Pass: the student demonstrates sufficient knowledge of the field, and the ability to organize it and clearly articulate the core aspects within it. Work on the prospectus can begin immediately.
  • Conditional pass without new exam: some minor changes in the literature review or in the answers are necessary. Faculty may also require other additional writing to be submitted.
  • Conditional pass with new exam: more substantial changes in the literature review and/or the answers are necessary. A new exam meeting has to be scheduled in order for the student to pass.
  • Fail: Knowledge of the field is extremely fragmentary, its organization unclear and major contributions to the field have not been considered.


1 Majors dealing with modern architecture will include for instance classic books like Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age or Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History. In technology research a ‘classic’ might be considered Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: On Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Joseph Pine’s Mass-Customization, or D’Arcy Thompon’s On growth and form.

2 If one takes modern architecture, what are the key chronological divisions usually mobilized to analyze its evolution? Are there debates regarding some of them? Have new propositions been made recently regarding the definition of the relevant periods to be considered? From history of architecture to urban studies, similar questions arise when dealing with geographic or cultural entities and boundaries. The definition of the non-Western by opposition to the West is among the most common and the most disputed of these boundaries.

3 An example of such as source would be Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture, or Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, for twentieth-century architectural theory.

4 An example might be a book on the history of American society for a post-war American architecture field, a book on the history of technology when working on a topic in the materials area.

New for students entering Fall 2022 and later: Guidelines for the General Exam and Prospectus.

Download the General Exam Completion Form – to be signed by your advisors and returned to the ASP office.