What are Comprehensive Exams?

When applying to graduate school or a doctoral program you may have thought about what their requirements were for the dreaded comprehensive exams. Or perhaps you never heard of comprehensive exams and were rudely awakened to their existence when reviewing program requirements for various schools you were applying to. The idea of a comprehensive exam can be intimidating, especially for adult students who have not been in school for many years. Students wonder, will I have to memorize facts? Will I have to write essays? How will I study? What if I fail?

This post was written by Dr. Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD in Social Work from University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life, and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

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This blog post reviews various types of comprehensive exams and tries to dispel fears and misconceptions about this stage of graduate or doctoral studies. There are also some recommendations at the end about how to study for and pass what many of us have come to know as the “comps” or “cores.” 

Comprehensive exams overview

Comprehensive exams are sometimes referred to as comps, cores, or candidacy exams. The purpose of comprehensive exams is to gauge whether a student has integrated their learning from the doctoral program. It provides an opportunity for students to show what they know, how they think, how they integrate key components of the program curriculum, that they can think critically, and that they have a comprehensive grasp on the knowledge in their field. Again, this may sound intimidating, but in fact, if you are a good student and have done your reading and assignments, this integration is continually taking place each semester. You are building your knowledge base and thinking more critically and about the material as you learn more.

Comprehensive exams typically are given after all required coursework is completed. If your program is four semesters, you may take the exams in the following semester. For example, if you finish coursework in the spring, you may take exams in the fall semester. Often schools provide a window of time within which students must complete their exams. For example, you cannot take a three-year break after finishing coursework, then take the exams. The program wants your learning to be fresh in your mind, but they also want to give you the summer or a semester to study. Generally comprehensive exams will be taken and completed prior to beginning the thesis or dissertation phase of the program.

Different types of comprehensive exams

Typically, comprehensive exams will involve authorship of a series of papers, either onsite during an allotted period of time, or at home within a specified amount of time given. Some programs may include short answer questions, multiple choice questions, or essays, but more typically at the doctoral level, comps will involve several long answer “papers” submitted to and reviewed by a panel of professors. Typically, also at the doctoral level, students will be asked to orally defend how they have answered the comprehensive exam questions. This will involve answering questions from two or more professors. So really, there are generally two phases to doctoral level comps: Written responses and an oral defense. Some graduate Master’s level comps may not be as intense and simply include a multiple choice exam or shorter essays. Many graduate programs do not required comps at all, but rather just a thesis.

In his vlog below, Dave discussed more about comprehensive exam procedures for doctoral level business programs, and other programs in general. For business programs, he described them as typically a 3-day exam where students are asked questions about their learning from the coursework phase of program. The questions on these exams could be about methodological or theory concerns.

In other social science fields comprehensive exams may be fewer days for onsite exams or written exams may be completed at home over a given time period. Some social science programs have done away with comprehensive exams or changed how they are administered. For example, many programs have decided to switch from onsite to take-home written exams. There are several reasons for this change including that many adult students simply are not used to writing a comprehensive, quality paper in a narrow period of time in a classroom. It places too much pressure on many students who take inordinate amounts of time to study for the exams. They may be able to use notes, but the quality of their writing is not as good compared to a paper they could write at home.

Comprehensive exam topics

Many doctoral programs will require comprehensive exams to gauge your expertise and ability to communicate learning in the areas of research methodology and theory. There may also be a separate set of exams that are more focused on knowledge in particular area or subfield. You may be able to choose to answer questions about an area that you have a particularly strong knowledge base in. In his vlog, Dave provided an example of some questions that might be asked in a business PhD program comp, such as provide several reasons why managers operate a business in a certain way.

Dave said that, often, comprehensive exams help you think about theory from a higher or different perspective. Exams force you to think about theory from a macro perspective, integrate theory with your learning about your areas of study, or apply theoretical concepts to a proposal or research study. Comprehensive exams can be very good practice for writing a thesis or dissertation. You might even be able to use your study notes, outlines, and exam responses as a springboard for writing your dissertation.

How to study for and pass comprehensive exams

Many people wonder how to pass comprehensive exams, as they perceive them to be very difficult and intimidating. Strangely though, studying for comprehensive exams can be enjoyable and help you synthesize the literature you have read over many years and your understanding of learning from the program. Comprehensive exams are given in part to force you to review your learning from the coursework phase of your program, think about concepts in different ways, make sure you understand theory, and make sure you understand research methodology. If you have done well in the coursework phases and have done your due diligence with studying and completing assignments, you are halfway there towards passing the comps. On a related note, you might be interested in reading our recent blog about how having consistency in your research focus as a PhD student can benefit you at the end of the program and even after graduation.

You should watch this great video on comprehensive exams:

Most programs will have an informational meeting about the comprehensive exam process. They may provide you with sample questions from past exams and even past responses from real students. Study this material carefully. What are they typically trying to get at in the questions for each type of exam? Is there a pattern in what was asked in prior years? Talk to some students who have already taken their exams and find out where the pitfalls were and how they studied.

Also, review your coursework notes and instructor handouts from your courses. What were the course papers about? What was the key learning the professors wanted to see exhibited in your writing? Reflecting on the material now, would you have written or looked at anything differently now? Review the key takeaways from each class. Outline the major learning objectives for each class and write an outline describing what the key points were about practice, theory, research, history, practice, or whatever the focus was of the class. You should also collect some excerpts from seminal journal articles or eminent leaders in the field. You may be able to paraphrase or even quote excerpts from texts or journal articles in your comps papers. These quotes could be key in supporting your main points in written responses.

Look at your ideas and proposals from the coursework phase as well. What research study ideas did you think about or propose in papers? Use these ideas as a springboard to write an outline for a research study that you may be asked to propose in one of your exams. Integrate your area of expertise in preparing for theory or research exams. Write about what you know! It will be easier to write a coherent proposal or response when discussing an area that you know a lot about.

If you are taking a more traditional multiple choice test or another traditional testing format such as short answer questions, study by using index cards to write down all of the main points from courses that you did not clearly understand the first time you learned them. I can’t emphasize enough how writing down, with a good old fashioned pen, facts, figures, and formulas can help you remember what you need to know for a test. Review tests you took in class as well because they most likely will offer clues about the types of questions that will be asked on the comps.

It can be tough to work up the will to study for comps. It can be an intimidating process, so there will be some procrastination involved. But know that once you emerge on the other side of comps you will feel a great sense of accomplishment. In the following vlogs, Dave discussed how to build motivation to study and offered suggestions on how to overcome procrastination and develop good study skills. In this blog, the team discussed why you should never lose faith in yourself as a student when things get tough.

On the day of the written PhD Comps

When it comes time to take the exams, if it is an onsite timed exam, make sure you have your notes well organized in a binder, if notes are allowed. If you can pre-write some basic responses to questions that typically are asked, bring those outlines and use them. Once you begin writing, if your exam is timed, don’t write so precisely and slowly in the beginning then run out of time. I made this mistake. I was so precise and careful about writing my first few pages on one exam that I started to run out of time during the second half which ended up being quite incoherent! Be measured in the pace of your writing. Jot down time prompts for each component of the response. For example, give yourself 10 minutes for the introduction, a half hour for the first two pages, an hour for the bulk of the content, then a cushion of another hour for the final pages, conclusion, and review.

The oral defense

If there is an oral defense component of your exams, immediately after you complete the written exam, jot down key points from memory. Were there areas where you could have provided greater clarity? Do you think you missed responding to a major part of a question? Is there something you would have added if you’d had more time? Think about what the panel may ask you at the defense and prepare your answers.

Often you can have notes at an oral defense, but either way practice responding to a few key questions you are pretty certain will be lobbed your way. The oral defense can be pretty intimidating, but know that if your written response was good, it most likely will be a breeze. If you think you made major mistakes in your written response, a good oral defense can save you. So, prepare as best you can with index cards, outlines, and excerpts from the literature. When you speak and respond to the professors’ questions, speak clearly and confidently. If you are unsure how to communicate your answer at first, take a moment. Think about it for a few seconds and express what you know for sure, first, then try to add some details to support your initial answers.

In the event you are asked to re-take the comps, do not despair. The process is meant to benefit you and ensure you are moving into your academic career with the strongest possible knowledge base and comprehension. Gather up all feedback and critiques and reflect carefully on how you can answer a question better or provide a better defense next time. Professors’ feedback can be invaluable, but not every professor delivers feedback clearly or in a positive way. Read this blog about how to deal with feedback that isn’t as constructive as it can be.

The bottom line

Just the thought of taking a comprehensive exam can be intimidating. In all honesty, I looked for doctoral programs that DID NOT require a comprehensive exam and made up my mind that I would not apply to any program that required one. But what happened was, I really liked the program I eventually enrolled in and decided I would not let the comps requirement prevent me from experiencing a program that was best for me in other ways. I decided that whatever was thrown at me during the comps phase, I would be able to handle if I made it through the coursework phase successfully. Do not reject a program just because it says comps are required. And if you are really scared about it, talk to the program director, a professor, or former students about your concerns, and most likely they will be able to allay your fears.

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