Apr 23, 2016

Prepping for Master’s and Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

Way back when I was a first year graduate student I remember hearing the more senior students talking about “comps” and nodding knowingly to one another. I had no clue what they were talking about as I was a fairly naive and clueless student. Soon I learned that I would take two sets of comprehensive exams over my graduate student years: Master's and doctoral. What would these exams assess? Everything, I was told. It’s easy to see why comprehensive examinations, known as comps, are a source of anxiety for most graduate students

What is a Comprehensive Examination?

A comprehensive examination is just what it sounds like. It is a test, written, oral, or both, that covers a broad base of material (thereby, "comprehensive"). It assesses the student's knowledge and capacities to earn a given graduate degree. The exact content will vary by graduate program and by degree, Typically, comps are administered towards the end of coursework or afterward as a way to determine how well a student is able to synthesize the material, problem solve, and think like a professional. Master's and doctoral comprehensive exams share similarities but differ with regard to detail, depth, and expectations.

Not all master's programs require comprehensive exams. Some programs require comps for entry to the thesis. Other programs use comprehensive exams in place of a thesis. Some programs give students a choice of completing either comps or thesis. In most cases master's students will be given guidance on what to study, such as specific lists of readings or sample questions from prior exams.

In doctoral programs comps often serve as the gateway to the dissertation. It is after passing the comprehensive exam that a student can use the title "doctoral candidate," which is an informal label for students who have entered the dissertation phase of doctoral work, the final hurdle to the doctoral degree. Doctoral students often receive much less guidance on how to prepare for comps, as compared with master's students. They may receive long reading lists, some sample questions from prior exams, and often instructions to be familiar with classic articles as well as recent research published in prominent journals over the past few years.

What if You Bomb Your Comps?

Graduate students who are unable to pass a program's comprehensive exam are weeded from the graduate program. Most programs allow a student who fails the comprehensive exam another chance to pass. But most send students packing after two failing grades.

How Do You Study for Comps? 

Learning all there is to know about your field is daunting. The truth is that you can’t learn it all. Don’t let that fact overwhelm you. Prepare systematically, as follows:

Locate old exams.  Most departments store old exams. Ask for sample questions. Old exams can provide info about the kinds of questions to expect and the base of literature to know.

Consult peers. Look to students who have successfully completed their comps for info, such as: How were their exams structured? What kinds of questions appeared on the exam? How did they prepare? What they would do differently? How confident did they feel on test day?

Consult with professors. Usually one or more faculty members will sit down with students, often in a group setting, and talk about the test and what to expect. Otherwise ask your mentor or another trusted faculty member. Ask specific questions, such as how is the exam organized? How important is understanding and citing classic research as compared with current work? How can you best prepare?

Gather your study materials. Gather classic literature – the sources that form the basis for recent work. Next, conduct literature searches to gather the newest, most important, pieces of research. Use your course materials as a guide. What theorists and researchers come up again and again? Review those authors’ most recent work and most important work. Be careful though - it's easy to become consumed and overwhelmed with this part. You won’t be able to download and read everything. Make choices. Use your coursework as a guide.

Think about what you’re reading. It’s easy to get swept away with the task of reading, taking notes, and memorizing oodles of articles. Don't forget that you will be asked to reason about these readings, construct arguments, and discuss the material at a professional level. Don’t memorize. Stop and think about what you're reading. Identify themes in the literature, how particular lines of thought evolved and shifted, and historical trends. Keep the big picture in mind as you think about each article: What is its place in the field at large?

Consider your situation. What are the challenges you face in preparing to take the comps? How does life interact with your study plan? Do you have a family? Roommate? Do you have a quiet place to work? Space to spread out? Think about all the challenges you face and then devise solutions. What specific action will you take to combat each challenge?

Plan your study strategy and manage your time. Many students, especially at the doctoral level, carve out time that they devote exclusively to studying - no working, no teaching, no coursework. Some take a month, others a summer or longer. More often, students instead limit their other activities as ceasing all other work may be unrealistic. Many take a couple of weeks of “vacation” to study-binge just before the big day. Regardless, it’s your job to plan. It's likely that you have a better grasp of some topics than others, so distribute your study time accordingly. Devise a schedule and make a concerted effort to keep it. You will find that some topics take less time and other more time. Adjust your schedule and plans accordingly. Set weekly goals and daily to-do lists.

Seek support. Remember that you're not alone in preparing for comps. Work with other students. Share resources and advice. Simply hang out and talk about how you’re approaching the task and help each other manage the stress. Consider creating a study group, set group goals, and then report your progress to your group. Even if no other students are preparing to take comps, spend time with other students. Reading and studying in isolation can lead to loneliness, which certainly isn't good for your morale and motivation.

Apr 11, 2016

Coping with Criticism: Improving Your Writing

Receiving feedback, criticism of your work, goes hand-in-hand with graduate study and academic careers. It might take the form of scrawl on the margins of your manuscript or strikeouts, additions, and comments in a tracked document. If it’s a peer reviewed manuscript, you’ll probably receive a lengthy single-spaced letter and accompanying 2 or 3 single-spaced reports. No matter the form, you’ll likely feel at least a little apprehensive and nervous about what lies within. Criticism often(usually?) stings but it ultimately leads to a better product. If you plan on an academic career (or any career), you’ll have to learn how to deal with criticism. Learning how to read and act on feedback is a skill and essential to your productivity and, ultimately, your success.

So, what do you do when you receive feedback?

Read the reviews and comments, then put the paper aside.
Take a deep breath and open the document. Skim over the comments. Then, if you’re brave, read it all in depth. Then put it aside to give yourself space to wrestle with your mangled pride. Time makes it easier to step back from critical comments and analyze your work objectively. Put the paper aside for at least a day, but ideally much longer. A week, even two or more, can help you gain perspective and realize that you’re not an impostor.

Don’t fret over reviewers’ tone.
Try not to let the tone and wording of reviews and comments sting. Frequently written comments may seem harsh and blunt, but terse comments often reflect the reviewer’s haste and desire to use time effectively by communicating clearly and concisely. Concise communication can often come across as terse. Try to look at the message itself.

Organize comments and suggestions.
Once you have read the review once or twice, read again while taking notes. List comments and organize them into meaningful categories. One list might consist of easy suggestions to address. Another will likely include suggestions that you need to think about. A third might be suggestions that you are inclined to ignore. You might later break the list down by content, for example, listing items regarding data analyses and interpretation, or the literature review.

Don’t ignore comments.
As you plan your revisions, be sure to address all comments. Remember that your mentor, dissertation committee, or reviewers have spent time reading, evaluating, and attempting to improve your work. They will expect to see that their advice is considered and their comments addressed. The more comments you receive, the more time your reader has spent considering your work. Ignoring a reviewer’s comments sends the message that you don’t value his or her work. While you don’t have to act on each suggestion, you should acknowledge and comment on each. If you don’t take a piece of advice, be prepared to explain why, which brings us to the next item.

Prepare a revision memo.
When you receive a recommendation to revise-and-resubmit a manuscript to a journal, it is customary and expected that a revision letter or memo will accompany your resubmission. An effective revision memo lists the substantive comments and suggestions made by reviewers and then notes how each is addressed in the revision. A revision memo is a useful preparation tool as it encourages you to consider and address all comments. Such a memo can be an important communication tool in your conversations with your advisor and dissertation committee. Even if not required, writing a revision memo can help you frame your work and ensure that you use feedback constructively. Consider writing revision memos in response to comments on your dissertation, even if you don’t share them with your committee. The process of writing a memo can help clarify your thinking – and it provides a record of your revisions that can help you document the evolution of your dissertation.

I’m not going to lie, receiving criticism is always challenging, but it gets easier. Devise a system that works for you so that you can take advantage of feedback and use it to improve your work

Apr 2, 2016

Make Grad School Papers Work Double Duty

Just about every class that you take in grad school will require you to write a paper, and often, multiple. New graduate students often approach writing grad school papers as they did undergraduate papers, by choosing topics that easily fulfill the course requirements. This approach will get you through your coursework, but your job as a grad student isn’t just to complete a marathon of coursework – it’s to become a professional. Take advantage of class papers as they are an opportunity to advance your own scholarly work.

How do you use class papers to your advantage?
It’s a little more difficult than choosing the topic that most easily fulfills the course assignment. Instead, think about your own academic interests. You may not have chosen a dissertation topic yet, but class papers are an opportunity to explore topics that can inform your own research. Carefully choose topics for your class assignments. Each paper you write should complete a course requirement, further your scholarly development, and help you figure out your own interests.

Make your papers serve dual purposes.
Choose a paper topic that will permit you to review an area of literature related to your interests. Use paper assignments to test your ideas. For example, not sure if a topic is complex, broad, or interesting enough to study for your dissertation? Integrate it into a term paper assignment and you’ll be able to do some research and thinking while completing a class assignment. The feedback that you get from your instructor can help guide your thinking. In this way, each assignment you write should do double duty: help you advance your own scholarly agenda (test ideas and get instructor feedback) and get course credit. 

This approach may not work for every class, but most students can find ways to integrate their interests with course goals and assignments. For example, consider a student in developmental psychology who is interested in adolescents who engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use. While enrolled in a course in neuroscience, the student might examine how brain development influences risky behavior. A class in cognitive development might yield a paper examining the role of cognition in risky behavior. A personality course might push the student to look at personality characteristics that influence risk behavior. In this way the student examines multiple dimensions of his or her research topic while completing course requirements. Will this work for you? At least some of the time. It may be easier in some courses than others, but, regardless, it is worth a try.

Don’t submit the same paper twice.
That said, take care in how you plan and construct your papers and be sure to write different papers covering different angles of our topic for each class.  In other words, attend to ethical guidelines of writing. Submitting the same, slightly revised, paper for more than one assignment is unethical and will get you into a great deal of trouble. 

Class papers are opportunities to test ideas and get feedback about your ideas and writing style. Approach each paper assignment as an opportunity to fill in a clearly articulated gap in your knowledge. It takes a little more work, but there are big rewards.