Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Advice from a PhD

By Guest Contributor Rozzmery Palenzuela

Qualifying exams tend to be intentionally mystified and that often makes preparing for them an arduous experience. Typically, doctoral students begin prepping for their comprehensive exams in their final semester of coursework and the process takes anywhere from 6 months to a year.  The process is simple: identify your committee, make your lists, do the reading, study the material, and pre-write. But simple processes are not exempt from complications and are certainly not removed from stress. These are my tips and takeaways on how to advance to candidacy (relatively) stress free:

1.  Identify your committee early: for those who have stayed in their field of study for a long time, it’s more likely than not you go into the program having identified professors that you want to work with and fields you want to specialize in and that makes this process a lot easier. For those that are switching fields or face departmental hiccups –– i.e. professors leaving, retiring, or disputes over advisor status and who gets to chair) –– do your best to identify these people early on and get an informal committee set up for when you start prepping for exams.

2.  Bureaucratic work: Many universities require doctoral students to fulfill language requirements and submit a number of forms; identify the deadlines and always submit your paperwork at least 60 days before those deadlines (it can save you a lot of grief to get those things taken care of early on)

3.  Comps Lists: After preliminary conversations with your committee about what your field with them will look like, you will then start forming your Comps lists. Some professors have a strict list that they want you to use, while others allow you to use their lists as a guide but expect you to make your own list.

  • Pro-tip #1: if you have taken classes in any of your fields, do the best that you can to include books that you’ve already read. For example, if your field is Modern European History and you’ve taken a class on 20th century Consumer Culture, create thematic subfield and include the readings from that class.

Remember: Your lists are not fixed. They are very, very fluid and will change periodically as you make your way through each section. Usually, professors will “greenlight” a list and tell you to jump into reading, but will make modifications and suggestions for further reading as you have conversations about each subfield and your reading/research interests.

  • Pro-tip #2: Let your proposal inform your list. If you’re planning to write a dissertation on Gender in Early Modern Spain, make that a subfield, or subcategory in your list. Your readings for each field should help guide you in the way you structure your teaching and should serve as a foundation for your dissertation proposal and bibliography.

4.  Comps prepping: Your lists are “done” and it’s time to start reading. Starting is often the hardest part. Depending on your field/department requirements, talk with your advisor about which lists to tackle first especially if temporally, it makes sense to tackle one list before the others. The order, in the end, is up to you.

  • Pro-tip #3: By now you should know what kind of a note-taker you are from having taken years of graduate coursework; Comps prepping is about making that process more efficient and less time-consuming.
  • If you’re a person who types, find the best platform for storing your notes; if your preferred annotation style is to handwrite, find the best way to note-take that’s separate from the marginal notes that you write in the source (book, article, etc.). Whatever your style, just remember to digitize your notes. Having the ability to Ctrl (or Command) + F and search through your notes will save you so. much. time.
  • Pro-tip #4: Once you finish a subfield, get in the habit of writing a “Comps Question” for that section and doing a rough outline or writing a short paragraph about how you would answer that question (and what readings you’ll pull from). This is a good habit to get into as some professors will expect you to contribute largely to the formulation of your comps question.

5.  Proposal writing: Every university has different requirements for what the proposal should look like. Get a firm sense of what your requirements are and ask advanced PhD students/candidates to share their proposals with you for guidance and make sure that you are clear about deadlines.

  • Pro-tip #5: Begin thinking about your proposal early on and in your meetings with your committee; after you finish each subfield, think about how the readings in the subfield inform your approach to the proposal: do they force you to ask methodological questions? Do they help you narrow your proposal idea? Etc.
  • Remember: your lists should help you write your proposal.

Begin writing the proposal at least two months before the deadline to give you ample space for your committee to review and make suggestions for revisions.

Take away suggestions:

  • Have very open and candid conversations with your committee about their expectations for the meetings as well as the written or oral exam. You don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.
  • Think like a professor. Role play and flip the script. If you had a graduate student, what things/themes/arguments would YOU want them to know from the readings in the subfields/lists
  • Also get to know your professors: who trained them and who they’re friends with and collaborate with. Odds are that they know their work best and it will come back and bite you if you don’t understand or are not familiar with their work or approaches.
  • Know when to stop reading and when to start pre-writing. This is very important; stop reading 30 days before the exam and start pre-writing as soon as you have or relatively know what your questions are or could be. 
  • Remember that your professors are rooting for you. We all are. Imposter syndrome is unavoidable but have faith in yourself that you have done the work and you are capable of proving your mastery of the field. Your committee would not let you take exams unless they know that you’re ready. Stew in that and let that give you confidence as you take the written and/or oral exams.
  • Before the exams: Get a good night’s rest, eat well, drink lots of water and remember to breathe. Your body and mind will thank you and will take over from there.
  • After exams: go out and celebrate with friends. Distract yourself and take a much needed rest. You did it!

Rozzmery Palenzuela Vicente is a third year Ph.D. student at Florida International University where she studies gender, family and childhood in Modern Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba. She is also interested in comparative communist cultures, black internationalism, and tackling heavy theoretical works – most notably, affect theory. In her spare time, she is an avid film buff, beach bum and actively engages into arguments with Miami-Cuban Republicans.

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