Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Lonely World of Comps

Hey everyone!

After a very long hiatus from blogging (reasons behind my MIA status will be revealed later) I am back at it again. This time it is to share some thoughts, maybe even some words of wisdom, surrounding one of the most dreaded processes within the PhD program - COMPREHENSIVE EXAMS

To go straight to the words of advice click here

A lot of people have asked me what are required of PhD students and why I was so busy over the last few months. The answer is here ...

Most students refer to this mandatory examination process as comps. What exactly are comps? Essentially it is a test to validate or verify your academic knowledge of a given field. Every single PhD student, at least in Canada, must complete the process and they greatly vary from faculty to faculty and department to department. For example, some science departments require students to edit a journal article, create a concrete and testable study (with all the necessary components of a formal lab study), and finally an oral defence of their suggestions. In the social sciences most programs require students to read a variety of books and articles on a chosen subject, write a 10-20 page literature review, and finally an oral defence of their review.

Having just completed my comprehensive exams in history here is a breakdown of our examination process:

1. Choose three fields (one major field and two minor fields) of study along with three professors to supervise your work by January 15th ie. Canadian History, Immigration History, Digital History, History of the First World War, etc. They can be broad or a little more specialized based on your interests

2. Confirm your reading lists - this requires a list of 60 books EACH, usually this breaks down into about 45 books or so and 40 journal articles. Due at the end of April

What my desk looked like after a while

3. Start reading - May 1st marks your official start date

4. Complete your readings and submit a 30-40 page historiography (a detailed literature review that draws connections and themes across this list) due on the first Monday of November

5. Start your first take-home exam - a 20 page response to 1 or 2 questions asked by your minor field supervisor due on the second Monday of November

6. Start your second take-home exam - same requirements as above due on the third Monday of November

7. One week off to gather yourself

8. Then a two to three hour oral exam with all three of your reading list supervisors. You sit and they grill you. In the first round each prof has 20 minutes to ask any number of questions. They can be broad or specific it is entirely up to the professor's discretion. The second round is the same thing except they have 15 minutes each. The third round is the same but 10-5 minutes if necessary.

You must be wondering by now, "180 books in 6 months is a lot?" The truth is it is more than many people will read in their lifetime. No one reads every single page but we all hope to get a solid gist of the book by reading anywhere between a quarter of the book to the whole thing. Safe to say I am thankfully done my comprehensive exams and I believe I did relatively well too :) The oral exam was particularly nerve wracking and I was a little off my game that day when it came to my performance. Fortunately, I was able to do well on the written portion so that balanced itself out.

As for my tips for success here they are:

- Create a concrete schedule of how many books you want to read per week.

- Make deadlines and stick to them. It is way to easy to fall 1 to 3 books behind per week but over the long haul that easily adds up to 15-20 books!

- Know what schedule works best for you. If you are a morning person get up early and get to work. If you can't start working before noon, no stress you are working on your own schedule and can read late into the night.

- If you are having a bad day and can't focus take the day off. You will easily get frustrated with a bad day's work. Your best bet is to recharge and have some fun and get right back at it the next day. Remember if you goal is 10 books a week you still need to stick to it if you take an unexpected day off. Additionally, there may be days where you will be in beast mode and are able to read more than expected which will help make up for tougher days.

- Reward yourself for completing your goals. Go out and enjoy the summer sun if you are done for the week. Cook yourself something special when you finished your day of reading. Go see a movie with friends or grab some drinks.

- MAKE PLANS OUTSIDE OF READING! No one warns you how lonely comps can get. Sitting in a room by yourself and reading all day can and will eventually destroy your social skills. Get out there and have some fun.

- Type all of your notes and save them to a cloud service like google drive or dropbox. This way you always have them on hand and it will come in handy when you need to look things up while you are writing your papers or prepping for your oral exam.

- Dress to impress during your oral exam. You'd be shocked at how many people wear casual clothes to their oral examination. Dressing for success is half the battle!

- Meet with your reading list supervisors often. These meetings will help you feel on track as well as reinforcing deadlines. During these meetings most professors will suggest themes to focus on your provide quick tips and hints as to what may show up on your written or oral exam. 

That is all I've got for tips on how to succeed during your comprehensive exam period. If you have more suggestions feel free to comment below or send me an e-mail and I will update this post with your ideas. I also would like to thank my entire PhD committee as well as friends and family for their support during this intense period of reading and writing. It is only through their encouragement and positive energy that I was able to pass my comprehensive exams!

Best of luck with your comprehensive exams everyone!

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