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A Guide to Preparing for and Taking Comprehensive Examinations

  • Comps are not just an exam to ensure you "know the literature" (although they are definitely that!) but are rather one part of the larger process to ensure you are properly prepared for the job market.
  • Knowing the literature in a field is crucial to being able both to publish and to teach in that field. Most of you will eventually be in positions where you will need to do both. Comps are the first step to laying the foundation so that you can be suc cessful in both endeavors.
  • Therefore, the main goal should NOT be to try to satisfy your faculty members (again, although you most definitely must do that [see Rule #1 below]) but rather to understand the literature sufficiently well that you can "place yourself" in the literat ure when writing your dissertation and can teach an introductory undergraduate course in that field. If you can do those things well, you should also be able to satisfy your committee. However, asking committee members "what do I have to read and what wil l I be responsible for," (although reasonable questions) will evoke the "know the literature" response from at least some faculty.
  • By taking the time to really immerse yourself in the literature until you do see the connections between various authors and can structure the literature into different threads and different schools, you will find it much easier to identify interestin g questions to write your dissertation on and also much easier to develop courses in your first years out teaching.
  • Major and minor comps are only given in weeks 5, 6, and 7 of fall and spring terms. See the graduate program for further rules and stipulations about comps and to see a schedule for preparing for comps.
  • Preparing for comps (see the Graduate Program for a recommended schedule/timetable for preparing for comps).
  1. RULE #1: Make sure you clearly understand what your committee members expect from you in a comprehensive exam!
    1. This rule cannot be stated too emphatically. Every other guideline and rule that follows should be disregarded if it conflicts with RULE #1.
    2. Several processes exist to accomplish this rule:
      1. Make sure you also begin the process by talking to the field committee chair. The department office manager or graduate secretary can tell you who the chair of the relevant field committee is.
      2. Talk to your committee members individually, and if necessary collectively, to clarify expectations
      3. Look at past comp questions (the graduate secretary has or will have a typed list of all past comprehensive questions for each field). If possible, attempt to decipher which ones were written by your committee members to get a feel for their style.
      4. Look at past comp answers, successes to see what you should do, and, if you want, failures to see what to avoid
      5. Talk to other graduate students who have worked with your committee members to see what their experience was
    3. If you have any questions about anything regarding your comprehensive exam, make sure you get answers early on from all your committee members.
  2. Create a clear, well-specified contract of readings for the comp
    1. Negotiate your contract with your committee members and make sure that they are clear what you plan to do and that you are meeting their expectations for a comp
    2. Put your expectations in writing
      1. This should include an explicit reading list
      2. Do not feel limited to the comp exam contract that the graduate secretary has, but write up your own contract and attach it with your reading list
      3. Specify how many questions the committee will provide per theme. Make sure all committee members are clear on this expectation.
      4. Make sure you and your committee are clear on what the reading list signifies. Some faculty view reading lists as merely suggestive of the types of literature you are responsible for knowing and will feel quite comfortable asking you to comment on rea dings that were not on the contracted reading list. Others view anything not on the list as "off limits" during exam time. Make sure you know which type of faculty are on your committee.
  3. What you should know. As always, see RULE #1. However, good general ideas are:
    1. Know the arguments of all the "major" authors in your comp field and the corresponding themes
    2. Read the last two years' worth of issues from the top 3 to 5 journals in your field. If you are comfortable with most (not necessarily all) of the articles in those, you will probably have a good grasp of most of the issues your committee will ask. Bu t again, see RULE #1.
  4. Studying for comps
    1. Take notes on all your readings
    2. Structure and organize your notes in a manner which will make them readily accessible to you during the short period of time you have to write the comp answer. Some ideas include:
      1. Take notes on all authors you read and summarize them in 25-50 word paragraphs, using a computer filing system or 3x5 cards or any other system that works for you.
      2. Creating thematic strains that run through the literature. Put different theories and different authors into categories that allow you to see how they relate to and are distinct from each other.
      3. Compare and contrast major schools of thought in your field
      4. Noting the use of key concepts in the literature
      5. Developing a flow chart of how key ideas have cross-fertilized or are otherwise connected in the field
    3. Do not take an attitude of "I will be able to respond to the questions they ask." Rather have arguments already prepared. Make sure you know the range of possible questions AND know exactly how you would respond. Spend at least an afterno on writing up your response to the question.
  5. Take practice comps. Most students believe it is crucial that you take practice comps under the direction of one or more of your committee members. This serves several functions:
    1. Helps you achieve RULE #1 of clarifying expectations. It is far less painful to get heavily criticized for a bad practice comp than for the real thing.
    2. Helps you place yourself in a setting that closely matches the setting you will face during the comp itself. You need to get comfortable with the stress and atmosphere that is involved in taking a comp.
    3. Use the practice comp as a means of finding out what you need to make your comp successful, especially learning what works best for you personally. There is no right way to write a comp. However, you may find that some ways work better for you than ot hers.
      1. It is often difficult to make sure you have sufficient uninterrupted time. This may require advance negotiations with partners, family members, and/or friends to make sure that you can have this time available when you need it.
      2. Test out what conditions work best for you: for example, intense short writing sessions with frequent breaks, or less intense but longer writing sessions with only one or two breaks per day.
  6. The details. Make sure you have all the details taken care of well before comp day:
    1. The main point here is to complete everything needed for a good comp before the week that you begin the comp. If these things are in place, they you can focus exclusively on the thinking and writing of the comp. This stuff can all be done before han d, so why not do it? Admittedly, a professional-looking paper with bad ideas will not pass a comp, but likewise a sloppy paper with good ideas has a "bad initial impression" problem to overcome. Since properly formatting a comp is easy to do, can be done beforehand, and can be maintained in a single file that you use as a template for all comps and future papers, why not get this done and make sure your paper makes a good first impression?
    2. Make sure all your books and articles are on hand and organized so that you have quick and easy access to them on comp day.
    3. Make sure your notes are organized, just like the books and articles.
    4. Make sure your bibliography of all possible citations you may use is typed, proofed, and spell-checked, ready to be attached to your comp once it is complete. Long before you take your comp you should have a complete bibliography of all citations you might use in your comprehensive exam, already formatted in APSA or Chicago Manual style. You should keep a running bibliography, making sure you have all relevant information for each possible citation you might use. If you have a complete and consisten t bibliography made up when you sign your comps contract, then using n-text citations will allow you to simply attach that bibliography (minus those books and articles you didn't cite in the final comp).
    5. Prepare a template document for each answer that has a good-looking title page, page numbers, proper footnote format, etc. ready to go so all you have to do is start writing and not worry about formatting. Take a slow afternoon to make up a draft fil e on your computer weeks before the comp that already has the following:
      1. Title page with name, placeholder title, comp subject and date.
      2. Page numbers in header or footer.
      3. Tentative headings for different paper sections (Intro, Section 1, Section 2, Conclusion). You can replace Section X with appropriate headings when you write the exam.
      4. Complete bibliography (see above).
    6. Make sure you have a new printer ribbon or ink cartridge for you printer.
    7. Most students suggest that you not study the day before your comp, but rather take the day off and rest up. Also, plan on taking three days off after the comp is over to recover.
  7. Sequencing of preparation: each student should do whatever it takes to make sure they are prepared for their comp. However, most evidence suggests that the minimum preparation for a comp involves the following for a comp to be taken in Term 3:
    1. Term 1: Take the field seminar for the comp field or begin extensive preparations on the long, generic, reading list for the field that has been prepared by the field committees. If needed (and it probably will be), ask your committee members to updat e that list.
    2. Term 2: Continue focused readings. Take practice comps with one or more committee members. Write contract towards middle or end of this term. Final reading list should be a subset of the long, generic, reading list you have already completed.
    3. Term 3: Make sure contract is signed and date for comp is set.
    4. Again, there are many styles for preparing, but the bottom line is it takes most students 6-10 months to prepare properly for a comp. Plan accordingly.
  • Writing a comp
  1. Substance:
    1. Answer the question
    2. Make an argument
    3. Use a clear structure
    4. Use empirical examples, if appropriate. See RULE #1.
    5. Make sure you understand how to make an argument that fits the political science model in both argumentative style and prose style. This should be second-nature but, if not, should have been remedied by taking your practice comps. Again, see RULE #1 < /LI>
  2. Process
    1. Only you will know what works best for you and you will only know that if you have practiced beforehand! What follows are some suggestions that MAY work for you but may not.
    2. Either begin with an outline, or if that is not your style, make sure that you write a quick draft and then organize those thoughts subsequently. You are unlikely to be able to write a coherent, well-structured answer without either using an outli ne or going back over a draft and organizing it afterwards.
    3. If you have prepared well and are lucky, at least some of your practice comps or the answers you wrote to questions you thought you might face will be relevant to the questions you receive. Its unlikely to work well if you just plug in a previously w ritten answer. However, it may well help to incorporate some of what you have previously written in preparation for comps. But do so very carefully, doing it only if it will help your argument.
    4. Stay normal and calm but serious. Make sure you eat and sleep properly, or at least the minimum to ensure you are operating at optimal quality.
    5. For some people, it may be appropriate to use an egg-timer or alarm-clock to keep you aware of the passage of time. Consider making a daily schedule for when you should have each section done, e.g., finish outline 10am, finish intro 12noon, fi nish draft of 1st section 2pm, finish draft of 2nd section 3:30, finish draft of 3rd section 5pm, finish draft of conclusion 7pm, break for dinner, etc.
    6. If you get stuck on a section, consider moving on to the next section and returning to that section later.
    7. Make sure to review and edit your work on the last day. Spell-check and proof it after all revisions are made and just prior to printing.
    8. Remember, this is not a dissertation.
    9. Write your introduction last and make sure it tells the committee what is the main argument of your comp.
    10. In general, shorter is better, but again, see RULE #1.
    11. Complete one answer per day and use the last day (day 3 in a minor or day 4 in a major) to edit, review, revise and improve those answers. Again, this depends on style but there is some consensus among grad students that this approach works best.
    12. You are likely to experience a range of emotions during and after the comp. Many students feel depressed and confused during and/or after the comp. That is normal. You learn during the comp and so, naturally, will feel after the fact that you could have done better. Don't sweat it. As long as you did the best you could, then be satisfied with that and try to relax as much as possible until you hear the results.
  • Taking the oral
  1. Student responsibility for organizing
  2. Relax before oral
  3. Bring notes if necessary
  4. Get feedback from other students on your answer
  5. Intelligent conversation about the material
  • Failing a comp
  1. Although it does not happen often, and is unpleasant for all concerned when it does, some students will flunk their first comp. Indeed, some of our best students failed their first comp., bottomed out, but then started over and went on to success in t he profession. So, please, do not give up if this should happen to you.
  2. All students are allowed to re-take a comprehensive exam once. If you fail your first attempt at a comp, and many students have done so over the years, do not freak out. Your committee will work with you to help you pass it successfully on the second try.
  3. Some students who have failed their first attempt at a comp have gone on to get a pass with distinction in the retake. So, it is possible to recover.
  4. Set up a meeting with the graduate advisor and with your committee members as soon as you have recovered from receiving the failure notice to begin setting up a plan that will allow you to successfully complete the retake.
  5. The retake must be taken in the next term in which the comp is offered. Thus failure of a comp in fall term must be retaken in spring term and failure of a comp in spring term must be retaken in fall term.
  • Other stuff
  1. Any questions, ask your committee
  2. Work with other students
  3. Read efficiently and strategically
  4. Follow RULE #1
  5. Faculty are here to help, are on your side, and want you to succeed.
  • A word of advice for dissertation writers from John Tullius (PhD, 1997)

Carefully track your citations and bibliography from the outset!!! Since the bibliography is the last piece of the dissertation, it is easy to fall into the trap of waiting until the end before compiling your references (which is what I did). Instead o f relaxing these last two weeks before my defense, I have spent five unnecessary days hunting down journal volumes and numbers, inclusive pages of articles, etc. Too bad I did not take the following advice to heart: Know the grad school requirements BEFOR E you start writing, have an organized system for tracking your references, and ALWAYS keep your bibliography updated with each new citation!

Please note: These notes are the results of a meeting held in Spring of 1997 and Spring of 1999 talking with graduate students who had taken comprehensive exams about their experience and their suggestions for how to succeed. Your experience may be qui te different. Following these suggestions does not guarantee that you will successfully complete a comprehensive exam, but they may help.