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.