Conquering comps

Man at desk

Yesterday I wrote my final comprehensive exam, which essentially marks the midpoint of my pursuit of my PhD in Media Studies. Next week I will defend my answers; my department requires four exams, so there will be questions from my comps committee regarding all four. Assuming that everything goes well, that will advance me to candidacy, and my focus will shift to getting my dissertation proposal approved and writing the actual dissertation.

I wanted to take an opportunity to offer some suggestions to other PhD students who might be facing their exams in the near future. While every discipline and every school varies slightly in terms of what comprehensive exams consist of, they are a universal in terms of earning a doctorate in the United States. Here are the strategies that I used to get ready.

  • Don’t overprepare. A lot of my initial anxiety came from the fact that I was simply overwhelmed by the prospect of having to recall a great deal of information on demand, and setting aside enough time to try and commit everything to memory felt impossible–likely because, frankly, it would be. Instead, I set a series of deadlines for myself; on any given day, I would block out two to four hours where I would set a specific goal, such as “write an outline for the exam” or “read articles on aspect X of topic Y.” This made the entire process a lot more finite and manageable.
  • Try to get the questions in advance. In many programs, your committee members will be willing to give you your questions well in advance. This is extraordinarily helpful; I found that writing my two exams where I had the questions in advance was much, much easier. Even if you do not get the question verbatim, don’t be afraid to approach your committee members to get an idea about what the question will be like. It can also be informative to inquire about past questions; most programs keep those on file, and that can give you an idea of what you might be in for.
  • Think strategically. You literally cannot include everything you might even want to include in your exams–instead, choose theories and examples that are demonstrative or representative. It is OK to generalize.
  • Write simply. I found that going back to the grade school essay format of “introduction-body-conclusion” worked quite well for me. Don’t overthink it; this is not the time to construct a literary masterpiece.
  • Take frequent breaks. I would try and take a five- to ten-minute break at the bottom of each hour just to shake out the stiffness from sitting in front of a computer, to get some water, and to use the restroom.
  • Leave time to reread and revise. At the SOJC, comps take place in a small office that contains a dedicated iMac with access to everything but Microsoft Word and TextEdit disabled (including the built-in OS X dictionary, which I discovered during my first exam); however, it is connected to a printer, so I left about half an hour at the end of each comps period to print out my response and read through it on paper. This was incredibly helpful and made it a lot easier to catch oversights and mistakes.
  • Relax, don’t panic!

I know that comps can seem daunting, but with a little preparation, you too will make it through!