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Tips for Preparing for your Qualifying (or Comprehensive) Exams


MSc. Andrés Pagán, Associate Editor

April 2022

Many graduate students in doctoral programs are required to complete an exam that evaluates their broad knowledge in their research discipline through intensive written and/or oral evaluations. These comprehensive exams (commonly known as “comps”) are often administered over long time periods. Although the precise format of comps vary between universities and fields of study, below we provide some general tips that may be helpful regardless of your research discipline.

Understand what is expected of you

While the process of preparing for comps can be confusing and overwhelming, expectations of the student should be outlined and communicated clearly from the committee. Speak with your committee members directly regarding questions or concerns you may have regarding their expectations. Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with the body of work of all the members on your committee to understand the types of questions that they address in their research, as similar topics are likely come up in your own comprehensive exam.

Compile a reading list

Meet with your committee members to create a reading list of the relevant literature that you will be expected to be familiar with for your evaluation. If a reading list cannot be provided, a general guideline is to read two years of the most recent issues for the top 3-5 journals in your field. When compiling your own reading list, it is also a good idea to have your advisor review it to ensure you are on the right track.

Take notes strategically

Be sure to take notes as you complete the readings from your list. Taking notes helps you think critically while reading and provides synthesized information that you can refer to without having to re-read entire texts. Notes can be taken by hand, by typing them on a computer or digitally on a tablet; notes can even be taken using mind mapping applications to create dendrograms that link ideas. However, what is most important is to establish a system that allows you to organize your notes in a way that makes summarizing and retrieving information more accessible for you.

Learn from others, ask peers, and practice

Departments often archive previous exams or provide practice questions as training materials for comps. You may also consult with other doctoral candidates in your department that have recently completed their exams about what their experiences were like. Alternatively, you may have peers who are willing to help you create your own questions that you can prepare answers to. Better still, try to organize a mock exam that simulates (as much as possible) the conditions of an actual comprehensive exam. Reserve a workspace, have strict time limits, and eliminate distractions when practicing mock exams. Practicing and reviewing previous exams is one of the best ways to identify your knowledge gaps and the resources to fill them.

Set small, attainable goals

The typical doctoral student spends 6-10 months preparing for their comps. To that end, it is essential to establish a sustainable routine, to take breaks, and to set milestones. Preparing for comps is like running a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. Setting smaller, more attainable goals spread out over a longer time frame is usually more productive than undertaking hyper-intensive, short-term sessions. As you check off these smaller-scale accomplishments, also remember to celebrate with small rewards. By employing a more balanced approach you can more easily maintain the motivation required to successfully pass your comp exams.

Ultimately, although comps may appear to be a daunting challenge to overcome, the above tips can help make the process less intimidating. And remember, your committee genuinely wants to see you succeed.

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