Months ago GradLife McGill blogger Fannie wrote her post I found comprehensive exams… easy, and now that I have passed my comps as well, I’d like to echo her post with this one. My post will not be a list of recommendations—Fannie already did this very well, and I have little to add to her sensible and organized advice. This post will just gather some thoughts about the exam and its preparation.
First, not all the comprehensive exams follow the same structure. As Fannie noted, uOttawa students have to read 300 books, while McGill students, generally, don’t*. But it must be noted that also within McGill the structure can vary greatly, even within the same faculty. For example, in my department we have to send a 10-page proposal to our committee, and then we have an oral exam consisting in a presentation of this proposal followed by questions on the proposal and on 3 areas of expertise; while in another department of my faculty students are given questions in the morning and have to submit the answers in written form in 24 hours**. Quite a big difference!
Second, my understanding is that the exam is supposed to be a sort of a “preliminary defence” of your research proposal, and that on the one hand it is not designed to fail you, but on the other hand you have to do it when your research proposal is solid enough. Indeed, my feeling is that part of the “maturity” you have to demonstrate consists in doing the exam when you honestly feel your research proposal is well-thought and rooted in the literature, and your knowledge is wide and deep enough to defend it. This doesn’t mean you have to know “everything”, though: My feeling is that knowledge is important, but what matters the most is that you can rely on it to defend your proposal, deal with its problematics, and acknowledge its limitations.
Third, I found the exam different, but also somewhat familiar. Different from the tasks of my other courses/seminars at McGill, because it was the first oral exam in which challenging questions were one of the main components. Different from the typical oral exams I did at my previous university in Italy, because the comprehensive exam is not very much about remembering information you studied, but it is mostly about reflecting on this knowledge and demonstrating some sort of “maturity” in handling your research. Familiar, because part of the proposal is, in fact, not very different from a final paper for a “regular” class (I am referring to paragraphs such as the introduction and the literature review). And familiar, in the end, because the oral part of this exam is very uncertain, and this feeling of great uncertainty before the exam was quite similar to the feeling I had before oral exams at my previous university. Overall, I would say that the different aspects outweigh the familiar ones.
Fourth, you can actually have fun. Yes, during the exam. Because chances are some professor will ask you “let’s suppose you have a case study like this and that, how would you comment on it?”, and these questions can be intriguing. Not to mention that some professors, perhaps to lighten everybody up, purposely choose funny examples.
How was your comprehensive exam? Share it in the comments!
Haven’t you done your comps yet? Best wishes for a successful exam!
* As far as I know—feel free to refute this in the comments!
**Please note that this information has been given to me during some chit-chatting, and I didn’t make a proper search about it, and thus it might be inaccurate.