Lessons Learned from My Comprehensive Exam

I recently passed the comprehensive examination for my PhD in Theological Studies. The moment of elation is gone now, replaced by the anticipation of the approval of my dissertation prospectus and the official beginning of the biggest writing project I have ever taken on.

What is a comprehensive exam?

For those unaware, American doctoral programs are different from those in Europe and other nations. Since we are box checkers, Americans tend to like discernible benchmarks and quantifiable progress checks.

We, therefore, have seminars or courses for our doctoral programs. (There are certainly exceptions to this with American programs that use a more typically European model, but I will generalize for the sake of simplicity). This allows a neatly compartmentalized program of study with easy to measure milestones.

At the end of coursework comes an exam. At some point every student says to himself, “This is the last test I’m ever going to take.” In reality that just isn’t so. At least not on this side of the Atlantic. We keep testing until there’s nothing left to test.

Southeastern's version of the Exam

The comprehensive exam takes different forms at different schools. Often there are differences even among programs within the same school.

My exam consisted of two parts: a written section and an oral section.

The written portion of the exam was six hours long with four essay questions. Two of the questions were two hours long and the others were one hour long. I sat at a computer in a little conference room one day a few weeks ago and wrote for six hours on one day with a one hour break for lunch.

After spending four years in the program, six hours seems like too little to demonstrate mastery of my subject. However, at several points during the day of typing my hands queried me if we weren’t done yet and could we have a break. In fact, due to the poor ergonomic arrangement of the computer (the chair is low, the desk is high, and the keyboard continually slides away from the tester) I lost feeling in my left hand and could only type with a finger until blood flow returned and normal typing could resume.

At the end of the day I produced about 14,000 words and my eyes were a little blurry. However, I survived.

The oral examination

Then began the waiting. My oral exam was scheduled for a little over a week after my written exam to allow time for the committee to grade the written product. I spent that hoping that what I wrote was cogent, if not complete in nature.

About a week later, it was time for the second portion of the exam. This consists of three faculty whose expertise is related to your subject matter asking questions about points from your written examination and looking for holes in your knowledge.

Like any good oral examination, this portion of the comprehensive exam is designed to find weak areas, to explore the extent of your understanding, and to see how you react when you don’t know the answer. After all, there is no way for a student to know more about every possible rabbit trail in a subject than the three examiners.

The interview process in this exam is challenging, but it is generally a collegial experience. The examiners are looking to test, but not destroy your confidence. By the time you get to that point, if there is a question about your overall competence it should have surfaced on the written portion of the exam.

One of the difficulties with the oral portion of the exam is discerning what question is being asked. It is much easier (though by no means easy) to write out a question that gets at what you want to know. In the oral exam it is sometimes a challenge to understand what the interviewer is looking for.

In any event, I survived. I am thankful for that. Now I just have to write a dissertation. No big deal, right?

Some Lessons Learned

  1. Begin preparing for your comprehensive exam from the first course you take. Some of my notes were helpful, some could have been more helpful. I found that even inadequate notes from earlier seminars jogged my memory and helped me study.
  2. Read broadly during your course of study. My subject matter is narrowly Christian ethics, I benefited significantly from reading deeply in that field. However, I was asked a question about value theory, too. Fortunately I was in the midst of a book on the subject and could address this tangential question with alacrity. Additionally, I benefited from the numerous books I read that did not apply directly to my subject area. They provided illustrations during my oral exam and moments where I wasn’t searching for specific factual information. Also, reading broadly is just fun.
  3. Practice the written exam. One of the most helpful things I did was create a series of written questions and practice writing essays in response. None of the essay questions exactly matched my anticipated formulations, but the process of both inventing potential questions and writing structured responses in a timed environment helped me find my own weaknesses and sharpen my arguments.
  4. Scope out your committee. Here at Southeastern, I work closely with the three examiners on my committee. Therefore it was fairly easy to figure out the trajectory of potential follow up questions. I also tracked down recent syllabi and course offerings from the committee so that I could see what they might have been lecturing on or reading with a class most recently. As a result, I picked up a book on virtue ethics (a favorite topic with one of the committee members) and read it the week before the exam. That came in handy.
  5. Try to schedule the exam to your advantage. I intentionally worked to schedule my exam for the period shortly after the spring semester ended. Why? Because that is the period of time when the committee has graded a large volume of papers, turned in their grades, and is longing to get on with their summer activities. As tired as I was from preparation for the exam, the committee was tired from the end of semester flurry of activities. This presents a strategic advantage for the examinee, since you are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt in grading. Note: Don’t tell anyone in advance that this is why you are trying to schedule your exam at a particular time.
  6. Take the exam. Many of my peers seem to live in fear of the comprehensive exam. I will attest to the fact it is a stressful event and should not be treated lightly. On the other hand, sometimes students tend to be perfectionists and work too hard to learn everything before the exam. News flash: You can’t know everything. Work hard, prepare well, take the exam before you feel completely ready. There will always be more books and articles to read. Everyone knows this. In the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Get ‘er done.”