How to…conquer comprehensive exams!

Most doctoral programs have comprehensive exams (or some programs call them qualifying exams). Usually, these exams happen after coursework is completed and passing comprehensive exams (or, “comps” as they are affectionately called) means that you are officially a “doctoral candidate.” There is a lot of variability in what these exams look like. Some schools’ exams are really more of a portfolio where students have to complete certain milestones, like apply for grants, write and submit a specific number of papers, etc. Other schools have a sit-down exam that happens over the course of 1-5 days where they can be asked any kind of question from the entire field, and they have to answer them in an allotted time.

At my school, comps are 3 take-home 15-page papers on the topic of your dissertation, and they must be completed in 2 weeks. Two of the papers focus directly on the dissertation topic: specialized methods, and specialized content. And the last paper is a grab bag general statistics question. Students get to contribute to the questions and actually draft them with the help of their committee. Trust me, it’s really not nearly as bad as it sounds. By the end of comps, students from our program have most of their dissertation proposal already written, so it comes together pretty easily. Many students from my program are taking comps in the next year, and since I just passed comps (woot!) I figured it would be nice to compile all my suggestions, recommendations, and well-wishes in one place for future students to use! So, here they are… my tips for how to conquer comps:

Before comps:

  • Start reading/studying early. I asked many students when they started going through their reading list, and the responses ranged from 1 month before to 3 months before. So I’d say, do what makes you feel comfortable, but maybe start a little earlier than you think to give you some time to take it slow. BUT, keep in mind, starting too early might work against you, as you can forget the articles you read first by the time comps actually start.
  • Ask questions. When coming up with your dissertation topic and drafting your proposed comps questions, make sure you ask lots of questions along the way. If you’re confused about something (the way a question should be worded, what to focus on, what topics are important to read about) ask your committee and/or your advisor beforehand. Make sure you go into comps feeling extremely clear about what topics you will be asked to write on.
  • Take notes while reading. This might be a no-brainer, but this really helped me and many other students. It’s not something we’re used to doing often (at least, I don’t really usually do this), but I found notes helpful to organizing everything. My notes typically broke down the paper by introduction, methods, results, and conclusions. I made sure to take extra careful notes on the methods section for papers that pertain to the specialized methods topic, and extra special attention to the intro and conclusions for the specialized content question.
  • Related, make notes on your notes. This is another tip passed down to me. Once you’ve read a few articles and start noticing themes, commonalities, and overarching ideas, just jot down some of your thoughts. I would make notes about which articles generally said/found similar things, which articles used similar methods, etc. You might think you’ll remember these thoughts later…you won’t…so write them down. I paid special attention to trends in methods used and kept track of which papers used what methods and why. I also organized my notes based on which theoretical camp they were in; this helped organize my specialized content paper really well.
  • Take notes during your pre-comps meeting. This was another suggestion passed down to me. During your pre-comps meeting, just take notes on what you and your committee talk about. This will help you figure out what the comps questions will look like and how to structure your studying.
  • Prep food. This might seem weird, but the last thing you want to worry about during comps is to prepare meals. Just make a few large-batch meals, like chililasagna, or soup. Freeze them, and just grab-n-go during comps.

During comps:

  • It’s a marathon…NOT A SPRINT. Two weeks is a LONG time, use your time wisely, but also, take…your…time!
  • Schedule fun things during those 2 weeks. This was key for my sanity. Schedule some fun exercise classes – this yoga studio gives you a free first week!  – or dinner/coffee with friends. There is lots of solitary time during these two weeks, so make sure you are still engaging in fun social activities so you still feel like a normal person. I went to the gym almost every day and tried out new fitness classes I had never been to. This helped keep my sanity in check. I also scheduled dinner dates with my friends – this also helped to make me feel more normal and relaxed.
  • Figure out how you work best, and fit to that schedule. This kind of goes for everything in grad school, but especially during comps. When you have nothing else on your schedule, it’s really important to figure out where and when you work best, and arrange your schedule to fit this. I know I work best in the morning, so I would wake up, exercise, and get started between 8am-9am every day. I also worked at home (which is unusual since I typically prefer the coffee shop vibe), but I enjoyed it because I all my articles and class notes were at my finger tips. This worked best for me, find out what works best for you.
  • Reward yourself. Go to a coffee shop and actually get that $7 drink your frugal-minded grad student instinct wouldn’t usually allow. Eat chocolate…every day. Go out for ice cream. Indulge in whatever you love, it’s worth it.
  • Measure your progress. This was key for me. Half the battle of comps is just mentally dealing with the enormity of the assignment. Since it takes two weeks to finish, each day can feel like you accomplished nothing and you have so much left to go. So, every night I would write down how many pages I wrote that day. This really helped keep my progress in check, and helped me feel like I actually did something each day.
  • Answer everything. You have to answer each and every question you are asked for comps. This might sound obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away in your writing and forget what the prompt was actually asking. One thing I did that made me feel a lot better about comps was after I had a good first draft, I went back to the comps questions and meticulously went through each question and made sure I had written a very clear answer. You have 15 pages to write your answer to the question, use it all!
  • Remember…you can do this. You might start doubting yourself during comps, don’t let this get the best of you. You’re a grad student, you made it this far, you’ve done much harder things before…you’re prepared, and you can do this.
  • There is no good writing – only good re-writing. You have time, re-write what you wrote, revise, re-structure, move things around, etc. You don’t have to get this right on your first try, you have two long weeks to revise and edit what you wrote to make it the best version you can.

After comps:


  1. Ari says:

    Woo congrats on passing comps! This was really helpful. I’m going to save this one for future. 🙂 Do you have any advice on the Master’s thesis?

  2. Tanya says:

    Oh yes! I will get right on writing that post! Good idea. 🙂

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