Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You Ask, I Answer: Comprehensive Exams.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

What do you know?? A few weeks back, I answered a set of questions from a prospective graduate student who was wondering what to expect. The post wound up finding its way all around the academic world - and I suppose has inspired others who have endeavored to take the higher education plunge to issue more questions.

Like I said, I would answer anything that came my way. This latest concerns the qualifying examinations, aka comprehensive exams, aka comps (or...the dreaded comps if you prefer). As always, I will protect the identity of the individual asking the questions - lest someone try to dissuade said person from giving it the "old college try," as it were.

At what point in graduate school do you take your comprehensive exams? How did you prepare for them and what should I expect?

Good questions...and ones that you will surely be asking your classmates as the inevitable draws near. As far as when students take these...I know that different programs schedule their exams at different points. At the University of Virginia history department, we take the exams in the spring of the third year - so we get a lot of time to freak out before we have to stand tall before the faculty.

In terms of preparation, my own experience is probably typical of most history grad students at UVa - those of you out there who read this and disagree...feel free to give me your story. Here's what you will be dealing with in a nutshell - at least if your department is anything like UVa. As an Americanist, I had to contend with pretty much all of American history - divided roughly by the Reconstruction period. For each half, a faculty member of my choosing prepared a series of questions. In addition, my dissertation advisor prepared questions concerning my area of special study (the Civil War era), and in addition to that, the professor who was handling my outside field (West Africa) let me have it too.

So - that's four really smart people who could ask me anything they wanted. Nervous yet? Well...it gets worse. In my department, we have both a written and oral component to the exams. The written part takes place over four days (one for each field) - and we get 8 hours each day to write. I wrote close to 100 pages over the four days. The professors can ask you any number of questions. They may give you a choice of questions to answer, or maybe not - that is entirely up to them. You'll be under the gun and have to come up with some pretty lucid prose - so prepare to get a lot of good writing done in very short order.

But the the real fun begins later. The oral exams - a few hours in a room with all four professors on your committee - were for me the most unnerving part of the whole experience. In this section - they ask whatever they want - they may ask you to clarify your written exam, they may ask you to discuss something you didn't write about, they may ask you something completely unexpected.

So - how on earth would one prepare for something like this? I mean....they can ask you anything! Your committee will help a lot by giving you a huge (I mean huge...hundreds of books) reading list - and if you are lucky, you might get a few trial questions for practice.

Step one in preparation: relax. Everyone who has passed comps will tell you the same thing. You have to just calm down about the whole thing. Of course, you won't - but I feel I have to tell you to anyway. Next: be able to talk about the books on your list. Yes...all of them. You have had three years to get to know the literature so you better be able to discuss it by now. Now, you don't necessarily have to read everything cover to cover, but you should know the central arguments and themes of each book. Hint - there are plenty of historiographical articles out there that discuss the major works. Read them carefully. Hint two - keep a good set of notes about each book you are assigned starting on day one of graduate school. You can refer back later and you won't have to scramble at the last minute to figure out what these books were all about. Next: relax some more. Seriously...all this work might make you go around the corner, if you know what I mean.

There are a few other strategies that should serve you well. One - have regular meetings with your peers to discuss the subjects at hand. This exercise will prove invaluable when it comes to test time. Two - ask some senior graduate students about their experiences. Trust me...they will want to share their horror stories. Three - try to anticipate the kinds of questions you might get asked (think thematically). But be careful - it is easy to lull yourself into a false sense of confidence because you trick yourself into thinking that you already have all the questions. I found this out the hard way. I had a few figured out - but certainly not everything. My committee asked me things I would have never expected. It was pretty brutal indeed!

But I will say just once more my ambitious friend - come test time (or close to it), RELAX. Try meditating, try thinking about the big picture, think happy thoughts...and when it is all over and you have passed (I rarely hear of people failing comps - but it does happen from time to time), go have a drink or something. You will need it :)

Bon chance!


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