Comps 101

Since I’m currently preparing for them, comps–or, comprehensive examinations–are on my mind, and I figured now is as good a time as any to tackle the subject as a blog post. Because this blog is intended as a resource for all graduate students, some of my readers who are farther along in their programs might not really need to know much or any, of this information. Hopefully, though, everyone will find some nugget of wisdom to mine from my thoughts on this process/rite of passage/degree requirement.

Let’s start at the very beginning–what ARE “comps”?

This is actually a rather loaded question. Basically, these are the major examinations that you take upon completing graduate coursework. At the Master’s level, some programs require you to sit for comps prior to writing your thesis, while other programs offer you the choice of either sitting for a comprehensive examination or writing a thesis. At the doctoral level “comps” are the written and oral comprehensive examinations you take after you complete your coursework and prior to beginning your dissertation and advancing to candidacy for the PhD. They can also be known as “qualifying exams”. They are intended to show your depth and breadth of knowledge in your chosen subject field, and in many cases they also can serve as preparation for writing your dissertation.

What is the process for taking comprehensive exams?

Here’s another loaded question. Every program has its own guidelines for the comprehensive examination process, but in general at the doctoral level you can expect the written portion to consist of a longer primary field examination and one or more shorter secondary field exams. You will usually also have an oral examination. The exams are based on reading lists that either are determined by the department, or that you write yourself in consultation with your dissertation committee.

At my institution and in my department (English), we are required to sit the primary field and two secondary field exams. We write our own comps lists and have them approved by our committee; I will share my lists in another post. These lists must be drawn up, ratified by our committee, and turned in to our graduate studies administrative assistant six months before we sit the exams. Our primary field examination is 5 hours long, consisting of five questions written by our committee members, of which we must write answers for three. Our secondary exams are 3 hours each, and we must answer two of four questions. The exams have to be taken within a 7-day period, we sit them in a designated room, and we use a department laptop to write the answers. Within a month following successful completion of the written exams, we advance to the oral examination, which is essentially a 2-3 hour free-for-all during which your committee members take turns asking you questions. You are permitted one failure and re-examination.

Things to consider

1. First and foremost–if you are working on a PhD, you are working on a research degree. Do your research on the comps procedure for your department! Check the department website, ask your mentor/advisor and/or graduate studies chair and administrative assistant for copies of all department documents related to the exam–policies and procedures, best practices, timelines, and similar. Read everything carefully. Start preparing sooner, rather than later–remember, in my program, if I did not have my lists written and approved this spring, I would not be able to sit my comps in the fall, which would put me back a semester in terms of progress to degree. Make a checklist and get important deadlines into your calendar. Be certain you know what is required, when. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what you need to know–be proactive. This is YOUR degree.

2. Along those same lines, make sure you know what is being asked of you. Remember–every comprehensive examination process is going to be a little different. How many texts will you need to have on each list? What kinds of texts? What editions/translations? Does your department have a required list of texts? Who writes the questions for your exams? What kinds of questions can you expect? See if your department has old exams –and better yet, old exam answers–on file somewhere, and read through them. Talk to people who have recently completed their own exams, they can give you invaluable advice (one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from a recent successful examinee was: have some hard candy to suck on, because the sugar will help your energy stay up. It would never have occurred to me, but she’s absolutely right–bring snacks and water, people!)

3. Don’t drag your feet—get it done and move on. A lot of older professors, thinking about their own experiences as PhD students, like to advise students to take a full year to prepare for comps, “because you’ll never have another chance to just spend so much time reading and thinking.” This is fine, if you have the time and resources to swing an extra semester or two. But it is important to remember that comps are the means to an end–an institutional requirement that must be satisfied prior to beginning your dissertation. If you take a year to read for comps and then, for some reason, you fail a portion or all of an exam, you’ll be required to wait a full semester before re-sitting the exam, which will put you back a year and a half on exams, alone. It will take between one and three years on average to finish a dissertation in the humanities. The sooner you get comps out of the way, the sooner you can get started on the dissertation. Time to degree does matter. It will take you longer than you think to finish the dissertation. Get to that as quickly as you can. I recommend taking comps no more than one full semester after completing your coursework, unless you absolutely cannot swing that schedule.

4. Don’t just read; write! While you are reading for comps, take notes. Don’t take your notes in the books you are reading (or, if like me you can’t help writing in your books, copy your notes into a notebook after each session.) Write summaries of what you have read, including particularly important quotes. Start looking for how these works fit together–common themes or ideas, common ideologies, how they are similar and different–and make notes on ways they can be used together to make a variety of arguments. One of the best pieces of advice I received on this is to get the larger-sized index cards and write one up for each text on your list, including author (when applicable), title, date, provenance, and a brief summary of the contents/major points or quotes. Shuffle these cards, pull out 5-7 at random, and see if you can find a way to connect them together to make a point. Use this as the basis for writing a sample answer to an exam question.

5. Talk to your committee members! Don’t try to go it alone until you have to sit the exams. Talk with your committee members every month or so. Let them know the progress you are making in the reading, ask them questions that come up while you are reading, arrange to sit for practice exam questions and discuss your answers with them. Make them partners in your progress towards the exams–first, this will hold you accountable to keep working on the reading, and second, you will feel more confident because you have checked in with them all along, so you know if they have concerns about your preparation.


And there you have it–Comps 101. In later posts I’ll share my own comps lists and how the prep for my exams is going. In the meanwhile, if you have questions, or advice of your own to give on the subject, or comps stories (preferably the uplifting, encouraging sort, or at the very least funny ones), please feel free to use the comments section below to join the conversation!



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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