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.”

Comprehensive Exams

Used by Creative Commons license from Alberto G. http://ow.ly/MZjw6 

Used by Creative Commons license from Alberto G. http://ow.ly/MZjw6 

Today I am taking my written comprehensive exams for the PhD at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. For this program it consists of six hours at a computer typing four essays on different topics.

However, this experience and the preparation for it (the most intense parts of which always get pushed later than they should) remind me of my comprehensive for Nuclear Power School.

 The experience of taking an exam that covered Chemistry, Material Science, Systems, Reactor Theory, and several other topics was nerve wracking for all of us at 21 or 22 years of age. It seemed to us, much like Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, we had a short time to justify our existences.

 The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

 This has bounced around the web, so I can’t promise this is word for word what is in the NRTB, but this is certainly representative.

 If you have four hours, go ahead and give the exam a try. Or, at least think of me today trying to summarize my knowledge of Christian Ethics in 6 short hours.

Final Exam - Naval Nuclear Power School

INSTRUCTIONS: Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit: 4 hours. Begin immediately.

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: 2500 riot-crazed aborigines are storming the classroom. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

BIOLOGY: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to it probable effect on the English parliamentary system. Prove your thesis.

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with a flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Rameses II, Gregory of Nicaea, and Hammurabi. Support your evaluation with quotations from each man's work, making appropriate references. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory.

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high- powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, the wave theory of light. Outline a method from all possible points of view, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length on its socio- political effects, if any.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your stand.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: Describe in detail. Be objective and specific.

If you finish early turn your paper in at the table at the front of the room.