Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To

I have spent the last nine months thinking about my Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, and, as of tomorrow, I am nine weeks away from THE day.  Yikes!  And since in my current stage of borderline freak out I can think of nothing else, I have decided to write a very practical how-to/how-not-to guide for comprehensive exam preparation.  Please learn from my colleagues’ and my experience and mistakes.  And PLEASE add your own suggestions in the comments below.  We grad students need each other’s support. I still have nine weeks, oh wise ones.  I welcome your advice and in return I give you mine.

A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse)
A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse), an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

To begin, let me describe the two comprehensive exam models I know from my Masters and Ph.D. universities.  Both universities position these exams as the transition between coursework and the dissertation.  At each university, students are tested over a group of lists specific to their areas of study, including primary texts of all genres and critical texts.  At my Masters university the exams were written.  Students prepared for the exams for an average of one and a half to two semesters.  The exam itself required students to write three 20+ page papers in response to the questions written by their committee (I believe the students have 4-5 questions from which they choose three).  You had 48 hours in which to complete the essays.  This style requires very organized and diligent note-taking, and communication with your committee members about types of questions to expect.  From here, you can begin drafting potential arguments to use during the exam days.

At my current university, the exams are oral. Three hours in a conference room at the mercy of five committee members. I’m reassured by my committee that the three hour exam is not so foreboding, but for dramatic effect and to garner your sympathy, I present it as an academic gauntlet. Four committee members are (roughly) in your area of study, and one committee member is recruited from a different department to ensure fair treatment and assessment of the tester. See? A gauntlet.

Students are to master three lists of texts (each of which is approximately three syllabi-worth of material) that cover our time period, an adjacent time period, and a list of our choosing (often a dissertation list, an author list, a genre list, or a theory list).  We are given three semesters in which to do this, but most students take only two.  My lists cover the long nineteenth-century with a decided focus on poetry and critical prose (though I do include novels as well).  I have a Romanticism list, a Victorian list, and a dissertation list, titled “Keats and the Cockney School.”  These lists are self-created with the help of your committee.  They must be approved, and you must provide rationales for them in the form of a 25 page document.

I did not get off to the best start in my studies. (Shhh! Don’t tell my committee!).  But after consulting with friends who had run the gauntlet and lived to tell about it, I developed a reading schedule, a realistic outlook on the process, and even an appreciation for this phase in my academic career.

So here’s a taste of what I have learned over the last few months:

Schedule your exam date far in advance: You can always reschedule, but having the conference room reserved and a date in your Google Calendar will give you needed pressure to complete your reading. Without deadlines, many of us lose focus and cannot take the task as seriously as necessary. I really floundered over the first few months of preparation because I had not set a reading schedule with completion dates. But once I had a date in mind for completion, I had a goal and a clear timeline.  I was able to set a reading schedule that ensured I would finish texts and rationales on time or early even.

Be reasonable about your reading schedule: Again, learn from my early mistakes.  I am stubborn. I do not like to admit defeat, but Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was a nearly month-long nightmare. I refused to move on before finishing it.  This is NOT okay, friends.  Be reasonable.  Leave texts mid-reading when you stall out.  Read fiction over holidays when you know you must travel home and your family expects you to visit every person you know within a five-mile radius. (Once, my grandfather dragged me to go meet his bank teller in the next town over because he had been telling her about me for months. I’m not kidding. I can’t make this stuff up!). Finally, read short texts and a lot of them in spurts between longer, more tedious texts.  This will build your confidence.  If you spend far too long on one text, knock out a chunk of your poetry over the next few days to feel like you are making significant progress. Crossing off ten titles from your list in one swoop of the pen is immensely cathartic–good for morale and mental health.

For general reading and study tips, I highly recommend this recent GradHacker article from The Chronicle. I am a very slow reader, but I find her strategies very reasonable and helpful (i.e. reading book reviews and select chapters instead of the full 200+ pages of criticism).  I especially like the note-taking strategy of answering questions about the book.  I find these types of notes best for comprehensive exam study and for general class prep for seminar discussions, etc.

Beware of the newfound “freedom”: Finishing coursework and being trusted to work at your own pace on a long-range project with months and months before you have to submit anything invites you to feel incredibly free to add on to your regular responsibilities.  This is a great opportunity to work on your professionalization goals.  Submit an article for review at a top-tier journal, apply to that conference, start blogging for a grad student group in your discipline (*wink, wink*).  But do these things wisely. At your conference, attend panels that will serve as study aides for your exam texts.  Don’t start an article from scratch, rather revise a former seminar paper, and get feedback on it from your committee before submitting it.  Use this opportunity to develop those relationships, and your article might give them an idea for an exam question, which you will easily ace!

Talk to people:  Firstly, you need to stay in contact with your friends, family, and colleagues in order to maintain sanity.  At this point in my program, I am not required to be on campus except to teach twice a week.  I work best from home, and so I must make an extra effort to be present and sociable sometimes.  Nevertheless, I must also be very protective of my work time.  While I need to attend events and have meaningful conversations with colleagues in order to stay in the departmental loop, I need to be at home in work mode for the majority of my time. On the other hand, I need to hold regular meetings with my committee members in order to get their help thinking through my readings.  I need sounding boards, and I need to be challenged on the ways I conceptualize the relationships between the texts, time periods, movements, genres, etc.  So, my solution has been to meet with two committee members each week, alternating the two each week.  I meet with one on a day I teach, and I come to campus only one day on which I do not teach.  This ensures that I am home at least two full days during the week in order to work uninterrupted.

Do NOT compare yourself to colleagues: I cannot stress this enough. I have wasted several days feeling down on myself because a fellow Ph.D. student is zipping through this intimidating phase of the program. Listen to your advisor.  If she says you’re doing well, believe her.  Do NOT become discouraged when the resident rockstar takes a single semester to complete the exam process. Besides, no one is really certain he’s not a cyborg.  You are human, you moved while studying, you adopted a second dog, you taught a new course, YOU ARE A ROCKSTAR IN YOUR OWN RIGHT.  You are not behind because your take more than three months to read and study nearly 300 texts.  Also, you absolutely should not compare yourself to friends in other departments.  Their exams are completely different and come at different stages in their program.  You have no fair basis for comparison, here.

Keep a daily tally of your accomplishments:  The director of graduate studies at my university gave this advice to my friend as she studied for comps. Write down what you accomplished each day. Even if you do not meet your reading goal for a day, you accomplished other important tasks.  You read two articles. You graded ten student papers. You cleaned the house.  You went to a yoga class to clear your mind.  You had a breakthrough in a brainstorming session, and now you know how you will explain the connection between Carlyle and Wordsworth in the exam (this is no small feat!).  Be kind to yourself and be reasonable about what you are juggling at the moment.

Keep a meat and potatoes mentality: Often at my university, students are advised to think of the time period lists as teaching lists–the meat and potatoes. This is not the portion in our program where we need to be worrying about developing original, groundbreaking insights into the time periods.  We can begin to attempt that in a few months with the dissertation proposal.  For now, we should not fall prey to the potentially paralyzing pressure of revolutionizing the field. Instead, I have been advised to ask of the lists: how do I want to work with the material? And how do I see the texts in relation to one another, creating a cultural narrative for this stretch of time I have selected?  This seems much more doable, right? And on a related note, Know the exam will be anticlimactic: In my case, I have three hours and far too many texts to cover in that amount of time.  So my exam time will not be literary Jeopardy–who said what to whom and why?  In fact, one committee member said the exam is like a long conversation, and often the first fifteen minutes determine the entire three hours.  The questions build upon each other and we will likely remain focused on a particular strain of thought for the majority of the exam.  I will have prepared for nearly eleven months, and we will cover maybe a third of my texts.

And for my last piece of advice:

Enjoy the process: When will you ever have this luxury again?  You are given almost a year to read extensively in the areas you love.  You get the opportunity to read texts that have long been on your literary bucket list.  And then you get to talk about them and all the great ideas that you have about them and all the great things you want to do with them in the future.

I hope this list proves helpful.  It certainly is not extensive, but that’s where you come in!  Please add to these suggestions in the comments.  Let’s make this a best practices discussion board of sorts.  Such a resource is truly indispensable.


Best wishes and best of luck, you rockstar Romanticists!


3 thoughts on “Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To”

  1. Thank you for this, it was so helpful! I’ll definitely be returning to it when comps year rolls around. Good luck with the next few months of preparation!

  2. All tremendously sound advice, Renee! I wish this list had been available when I did my comps… Best of luck!

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