Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive Exams

Thesis Alternatives in Curricula 681-84

Students enrolled in 12-month programs in Regional Security Studies (curricula 681-84) and who are not required by their sponsor to write a Master’s Thesis, may nevertheless elect to write one if they wish. Such election is accomplished via the submission of a satisfactory thesis proposal approved by the department. 


Students who wish to write an elective thesis should discuss their plans with their Academic Associate at an early stage in the development of their programs of study. The choice to write an elective thesis is final once the proposal is approved, and cannot be withdrawn thereafter. Students who have submitted an approved thesis proposal, but fail to complete the thesis, will receive a thesis extension, as is normal whenever a thesis is not finished on time.


Comprehensive Examinations

Students enrolled in 12-month programs in Regional Security Studies (curricula 681-84) who do not elect to write a Master’s Thesis must satisfy their degree requirements by other means, as follows:

  • Students in curricula 681-84 must complete an approved program of regionally relevant language education at the Defense Language Institute (or a similar institution) either before or after their attendance at NPS. In the event that language study follows attendance at the NPS, the award of an NPS degree will be postponed until the required work is complete.

In addition, any student who does not write a thesis as part of the degree requirement must pass a written Comprehensive Examination in his or her area of specialization, as described below.


Purpose of the Examination

The purpose of the Comprehensive Examination is to provide a basis on which to evaluate a student's ability to synthesize a wide range of information, and to develop analytic arguments based upon a firm knowledge of the relevant facts and the pertinent scholarly literature.


Structure of the Examination

Each examination will consist of two sets of questions, designated Section A and Section B. Students will answer one question from each section.

  • Section A—Section A questions are broad in scope. They typically draw on NSA departmental core courses and the student’s curricular core courses. They aim to get students to synthesize material from across different courses. Questions might focus on issues within the international system as a whole, on U.S. policy or strategy toward a particular region or problem, or on other similarly general themes.
  • Section B—Section B questions are more narrowly focused. They are often tailored to address material from specific courses the student has taken within their curriculum, either curriculum core classes or electives. Typical questions will focus on politics or security issues within a single country or region, or on a specific problem of strategy, civil-military relations, or the like.
  • Section A and Section B questions count equally in determining a student's overall grade on the examination.



  • Comprehensive Examinations are "take-home" exams. 
  • Questions will be distributed in the morning on Monday of the seventh week of each quarter.
  • Answers must be returned no later than midnight on the following Sunday.       
  • Answers should be submitted electronically to the Academic Associate as a single “.doc” or “.docx” file attached to an e-mail.  
  • Each answer should be approximately 3,000 words in length, double-spaced, using a 12-point font with one inch margins.
  • In preparing their answers, students should refer to relevant course readings and other sources as appropriate, and provide full citations to all sources referenced.
  • Students may not use generative AI or other machine-learning tools in preparing their answers.
  • Students may not seek assistance from the Graduate Writing Center in preparing their answers.
  • Students may be excused from class attendance during the exam period, at the discretion of the instructor. Course requirements remain unchanged.



Each exam will be graded independently by two faculty members chosen by the Academic Associate. Three grades are possible: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Fail. In the event the two graders disagree, the tie will be broken by the Academic Associate.


Recourse in the Event of Failure

A student who fails the Comprehensive Examination will be offered the opportunity to take a second written examination on the same terms described above. The second exam will consist of a subset of questions from the first exam, plus any additional questions the Academic Associate may wish to add. The questions answered on the first exam will not appear on the second one.

The second exam must be completed no later than the end of the eleventh week of the same quarter in which the first exam was taken. Like the first exam, it will be graded independently by two members of the faculty, who may or may not be the same graders who evaluated the first set of answers. Again, the Academic Associate serves as the tie-breaker in the event the graders disagree. Only two grades—Pass and Fail—are possible on the second examination.


If the exam is failed a second time, the student will be given the option of writing a thesis in abstentia, after departing NPS.



Students who take the Comprehensive Examination must enroll in NS0811: Preparation for Comprehensive Examination during their final quarter. NS0811 may not be taken as an overload except by prior arrangement with the Academic Associate. It is intended to provide time for students to review what they have learned in their classes, to strengthen their knowledge of the literature in their fields, to rectify deficiencies that may have become apparent during prior course work, or to pursue topics of particular interest in greater depth. Appropriate preparation methods will vary greatly among individuals. All those taking Comprehensive Examinations are urged to consult with the faculty working in their areas of specialization to ensure that their efforts are properly focused. The examination's take-home format is intended to afford students an opportunity to prepare sophisticated, well-argued, polished responses to difficult questions. Students should prepare for the examination with these basic expectations in mind.