Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Yesterday, Professor Babacar M’Baye [and check out his new blog here] was kind enough to let Seth and I miss half of class to attend Kent State’s Faculty Professional Development Center’s presentation on “Preparing for Qualifying Exams.”  When Seth and I arrived at Moulton Hall, I learned that Jillian Hill, AGES President and all-around awesome individual, was leading the presentation.  She did a terrific job giving us some ideas and strategies for getting ready for comps.  

I looked around online for comp preparation strategies when Yufang began reading for her comps over the Summer.  However, I didn’t find much information on the Internet for comps preparation.  So, I figured I would post some of the things that I learned from Jill’s presentation yesterday for others taking the penultimate step prior to the PhD dissertation.

  • Write a project description first, and then tease out three contents areas based on your project/dissertation abstract.  It’s important to consider asking faculty that are recognized in your content areas rather than just working with faculty members you like personally.
  • After forming your committee, compile your content area reading lists.  Use “forward searches” on Google Scholar and database searches to find relevant material that is well cited in the body of work in that content area.
  • As you circulate your reading lists with your committee members for final approval, include your project description, a brief contextualization and justification for those readings, and a number of questions to guide your reading.  This front matter will eliminate the need of your committee members to refer back to older emails with that information, and it will facilitate your lists staying on track.  
  • Email your lists to committee members prior to meetings so that they can read over them before you show up, and leave more meeting time for more important discussion time.
  • Create a reading schedule that breaks down your book and article reading lists on a week-by-week basis.  This will help keep you on track as you work through your lists.
  • Maintain an annotated bibliography on each of your reading list sources.  Also, scan pages with significant passages, charts, or graphs.  
  • If you are a visual learner, you should map out your sources’ arguments.
  • Assemble a binder will all of your notes and review material.
  • Leave yourself time prior to your exams to review all of your notes.  During this review time, write a literature review to help synthesize the material that you’ve read and to make it fresh in your mind.
  • Remember that you’ll be locked in a room for several hours to take your exam, so you may consider replicating the environment at home or in your office.  Prepare for the experience–shut the door and write down everything that you remember.
  • Some faculty may ask us to write sample questions.  Give this some thought.
  • If you show your committee members that you put a lot of effort into your studies and reading, they will probably be more willing to guide you in preparing for the exams.
  • Remember that selecting your committee and reading lists are organic processes that involve negotiation on all sides.  
  • If your program or committee requires an oral defense following the exam, then you will want to carefully review what you wrote on your exam.  At the beginning, you may be asked to speak for about 15 minutes providing justification for your answers and a self-assessment of your work.  Each committee member will take turns asking you questions about your responses on the exam, and there will be some back-and-forth between them as the defense goes forward.  Additionally, the defense is supposed to be about your exam, but your committee may turn their questions toward your dissertation prospectus.

If you have advice or pointers from your own experience, please share them in the comments.

Good luck to everyone on your exams whenever you take them!

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.