Some Musings on Comprehensive Exams


A few weeks ago I completed my PhD comprehensive exam and advanced to a PhD Candidate. So what exactly is a comprehensive exam? Well after having just completed the process, I will do my best to explain. It is basically a test to ensure you have both the background knowledge appropriate for someone with a PhD in that discipline and the specific knowledge required to complete your dissertation. Although the specific format of the exam varies immensely with the institution, at UM we have fairly strict guidelines. The first part of the exam is written and covers 5 days, 8 hours/day. The last part is an oral examination of up to 3 hours by your PhD committee of 5+ members. Although the testing process is in itself grueling so is the preparation with full time study beginning months in advance.

For many students, “comps” as they are sometimes called are the most difficult part of the PhD process, and may feel like an academic hazing ritual more than anything else. However, they can also foster academic growth and allow for exploration of topics and ideas that you would normally never have time for. As Scott is fond to say, “This is the only time in your life where you will be paid to learn”. Many professors also say that by the end of this process students will likely have a more in depth knowledge of their field than at any other time in their career.  Although people tend to forget many of the details of what they learned during their preparation for comps, some knowledge does stick and the confidence gained by becoming more scientifically well-rounded lasts forever.

Besides the intimidating nature of comps and the sheer amount of time needed to prepare for them, my biggest critique of the process is the lack of standardization between universities. While the UM process is fairly strict and intense, other universities may only require a review paper or may skip writtens altogether and just have a short oral exam. However, in the end everyone gets the same 3 letters at the end of their name.

Are comps unnecessarily hard? Probably. Do you gain anything by taking them? Of course. Could the process benefit from some standardization especially across universities? I think so. Am I glad to have them over with? Absolutely!

Alex Kumnar, PhD Candidate

Feature Image: Fellow graduate student James Goerz with just some of his own comps readings and; attitude is everything.