The “Comps”

The “comps” or “qualifiers” are a stressful experience for PhD students.  Here is PhD student Dorothy Maguire behind a stack of reading (yikes!):

Dorothy behind some required reading

The comprehensive examination is a process by which PhD candidates defend their research proposal in front of a committee of Professors.  In our Department, this process typically occurs within the first year and a half of a student entering the PhD program.   The format is as follows: the student presents their proposal to the committee, and this is followed by a couple of rounds of questions. The first line of questioning typically focuses on the candidate’s research proposal, and a second round is typically broader in perspective.  Sometimes this can be very broad – from everything from the philosophy of science, to underlying theoretical foundations of a discipline.   Although I try to stress that these exams should be treated as “fun” discussions about science, they remain an intense process for PhD students, and often there is a pretty big sigh of relief when they are over!  I still remember vividly my own comprehensive examination – and that one question that I flubbed still haunts me! (maybe I’ll share my experience in a future blog post)

Are the exams some odd relict of academic institutions and serves no purpose anymore?  Is it an archaic rite of passage that merely reminds PhD candidates that they are still below Professors in the academic hierarchy?  What are the benefits of these exams?

Well – I actually believe the comprehensive examination is an important step in the academic process.  It is very important that PhD students are on a road to success, and the comps helps to ensure this – their examination committee is typically made of experts in their discipline, so they are in the best possible position to judge the quality, scope, novelty and depth of the PhD student’s proposed research.   The exam also helps to ensure there is consistency (e.g., year-to-year, Department-to-Department, Faculty-to-Faculty) in what we call a “PhD” degree.  Some would argue the process can be too variable, but by at least having the exam, with its academic memory, there is a chance of having standards.

I also think the comps help students to think about their work critically, and in the context of their larger field of research.  This exam is often one of the first times we really force students to do this, and these future academics must do this over and over again in their future (e.g., writing papers, grant proposal).   Finally, it is very important that students are able to effectively defend their work.   This process, which also involves a lot of critical self-appraisal, helps to refine a research project and pave the road to success.

PhD student Dorothy Maguire is going to have her comprehensive examinations later this winter.  This means that she is currently editing her proposal, reading a lot of primary literature related to her research area, and I have encouraged her to also spend a little bit of time reading secondary literature – hence the stack of books.


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  1. Pingback: Professors take the summer off (another myth of Academia….) | Arthropod Ecology

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