Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Part Two

Clayton: In many graduate programs, the culmination of the years of work and studies are Comps, or the Comprehensive Exams. These are the exams given near the end of your time in graduate school in order for your professors to test all you have learned during your time in the program. While these exams can vary from program to program, at USF the main focus of the Comps was to test your knowledge of various historical subjects and your understanding of the general ideas and historiography. These subjects are chosen based on what you studied in your program, for example, mine were American Imperialism, and American History 1789-1865 and 1865 to 1945. Usually your committee members are very flexible when it comes to the categories and will work with you based on your knowledge and coursework to make them fit.

While the idea of Comps and even just getting all the material together to prepare for them can be an intimidating task, there are a lot of things that are working in your favor during this process. As I mentioned before, your committee members are generally pretty flexible and willing to work with you on your categories and subjects. Since most likely you have worked with these professors a lot in the past and taken their classes, they know what you do or don’t know in the historiography, and will help point you in the direction of books/authors that will be the most useful for you. These personal relationships also mean you can go to them for advice on how to prepare and with any other questions you may have during the Comps process. Comps is a long and challenging process, but there are aspects that help make it bearable.   

Kiri: Comprehensive exams can feel like a daunting process, especially when you’re in an MA program and still feel like you’ve just started really learning all the things you need to know to become an historian. For me, I was lucky in that the professors I had asked to be on my committee were very flexible and understanding about the strain that taking comps can put on a person. In my institution, MA comps lasted for 6 hours: we had to answer a total of three questions and we had two hours per question. I answered questions based on Britain, women and gender studies, and the Mediterranean. For my women and gender as well as Mediterranean fields, I received the questions beforehand and Dragana and I had an independent study with the professor where we mapped out our responses for each of the questions. For my other professor, I had a general idea about what my questions were going to be, but nothing was set in stone. For each of these fields, I made flash cards with the names of authors I wanted to talk about on one side, and their main arguments as well as the date they published their books on the other. Connecting the dates to the authors really helped me to organize my answers effectively, as each answer functioned pretty much like a historiography.

Comprehensive exams are intimidating because it seems like they were built as a way to test the limits of students. For many exams, students are expected to answer questions through little more than rouge memorization of historians and their books. Truly, it seems that no matter how quickly we devour various historiographies, there is still so much more to learn. As Geoffery Chaucer once said of courtly love in The Parliament of Fowles, but which seems apt for academia as well, ”The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” Although in my opinion this type of test is outdated, it seems that it still dominates the historical field and it’s important to know to engage effectively with a large corpus of text in order to answer broader questions about historical trends. 

Stephen: All the contributors of this blog went to the same MA program and had to take their comprehensive exams in the same format. The only difference between each one of us was the area of study, the amount of information needed to be studied, and questions that were going to be asked during our respective exams. Everyone is going to have a different comp experience, but there are some general guidelines that may be helpful in preparing for your final exams.

My first piece of advice is to collect your comps list early. Begin reading and taking notes as soon as possible. Chipping away an article or book chapter a day months before your comps date will ease your anxiety. This will make you better prepared for when the day comes. My second piece of advice is you should take mental breaks during the time you prepare for your exams. Constantly reading and writing is not productive. Burnout is real and it will happen to you! Try to fit in some activity or exercise between study sessions to reset and refocus both your mind and body on the tasks ahead. My final piece of advice is to relax. Comprehensive exams are going to be a challenge, but they are not the end of the world nor even an indicator of what a student truly knows on the subject.

Frank: Comprehensive exams are often considered an intimidating and daunting task, however, not overthinking them can be helpful towards your mental health and your success as a scholar. It is important to remember that your professors want you to pass the exams. They will start preparing you when they think it necessary, walking you through how the process will go and likely not putting you in a position to take them unless they think you are ready. Therefore, over-stressing about comps or stressing years in advance is not only misplaced, but can sap your mental energy for other important tasks such as individual research projects, publications, job searching and networking, and professional development. Indeed, your professors (hopefully) care more about your success in those other areas than in comps as well! As Stephen mentioned, burnout is real, and with enough academic, financial, and health pressures for graduate students, keeping comps in perspective is going to help in the long run.

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