Doctoral comps - when where and how?
December 16, 2011 5:01 AM   Subscribe

Doctoral comps - when to sit?

I'm a PhD (Finance) student attending a programme in Zurich. They run an American style programme and I'm sitting eight classes in two distinct phases. Just completing the first phase ("foundation"), I expect to finish my second phase ("specialization) in March 2012, then enter research. I should add that research is already underway as its one of my existing research interests, and they were made aware of this during the application and interview process.

I'm having a seriously great time in the programme overall, another "should have done this years ago" epiphany but I'm curious about comprehensive exams. This particular institution isn't requiring me to sit qualifications or generals, and will allow me to sit comps either immediately after completing classes, or shortly before I undertake my defense.

Some other students at my institution were offered the same choice (apparently its not universal, but depends upon the student) and I'm not sure how to play it. On one hand, some suggest getting the exams out of the way ASAP. I can see the value in that as it's one less thing to worry about.

But others mention doing it shortly before defense is preferable as chances of an unsuccessful outcome and having to retake are lower. The argument here goes if you attend and present at conferences (I am) and even get your work published (journal articles in progress with one of my profs) the institution has a bigger investment in you and you're unlikely to run afoul of something at comps.

At this particular institution comps take the form of a roughly half day panel discussion of your in class writings. At that point I'll have sat Phd eight classes, and probably submitted 40 written papers overall. Any and all of them are apparently fair game at comps.

What have you successful Doctorates done or what would you have preferred?
posted by Mutant to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'd do it before the defense.
(Although traditionally it is done after course work.)

(And I need to hear more about the time frame here - how much time is between course work and defense in your department? What do people do in that time?)

(And how much of a possibility is failure? It varies by department.)


I believe that comps are a good time to summarize what you're thinking about overall and that would work for either period.

But right before defense would allow you to kill 2 bird with 1 stone writing wise. (If your department is cool with double dipping.)

Comps were the hardest period of my PhD. Godspeed.
posted by k8t at 5:30 AM on December 16, 2011

Response by poster: "(And I need to hear more about the time frame here - how much time is between course work and defense in your department? What do people do in that time?)"

Roughly one but not more than three months. It mostly depends upon the prof's schedule.

"(And how much of a possibility is failure? It varies by department.)"

I haven't been able to get good data there but I do know folks have left the programme at that point, so non-zero but probably not excessively high (one would hope!).

"But right before defense would allow you to kill 2 bird with 1 stone writing wise. (If your department is cool with double dipping.)"

Yeh I was sorta migrating to that option, especially so as it would give me more time to get to know everyone in the department. I'm only getting exposed course by course and not even sure who will sit my panel. I haven't seen too much politics in this department (but I do know its about somewhere) and was hoping I'd get a far better feeling for folks / structure / etc if I did it all in one go.

"Comps were the hardest period of my PhD. Godspeed."

Thanks for taking the time to reply and especially for the well wishes.
posted by Mutant at 5:43 AM on December 16, 2011

Best answer: Are you having committee meetings during your degree? An argument for doing comps early, and the reason we had to do them early was as a prospective for our research. Our comps were half research proposal then half free-form oral exam. Doing the research proposal after class work allowed us to present our project---usually already in the early stages---to our committee, which they could then assess for feasibility; probability of a useful/novel result; safety; ethical standards, etc... Many of us came out of comps with modifications to our research plans, usually for the better, I have to say in hindsight.

If this is part of your comps process, I'd consider it. I found the research proposal stage valuable for my own degree and I've seen similar improvements to students' proposals from the other side of the exam table since.

If you are getting committee meetings and review separate from the comps process, I'd still consider doing them early. The defense is very stressful for many students, more than comps, IME. Doing them together could be a challenge. If you feel up to it though, more power to you.

Good luck. Grad school was 4 of the most fun years of my life, but the defense can look like passing through the eye of a needle from the frontside.
posted by bonehead at 5:59 AM on December 16, 2011

Best answer: This varies a lot by department, but when I was in school the comprehensive or qualifying exams were about half proving you knew the underlying material, and about half defending your research approach. In other words, they were something you wanted to do earlier rather than later, because there was an advantage to having taken the classes recently, and an advantage to doing them early in the research process in case a change in your direction was a needed outcome.

Your department may be different, but I never once saw or even heard of a surprise failure at the qualifying exams or at a defense. Failures were known ahead of time, and the exam was mostly ceremonial. (This was very different, though, from departments where the qual is used to cut down the pool by a given percentage; that's brutal and I would hate to have had to go through that experience.) If you are passing your classes, writing articles, and working closely with your committee, failing the exam is not a major concern, and should not be what drives your strategizing. Instead, choose the path that helps your research and keeps you on track to finish in a reasonable time.
posted by Forktine at 6:09 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Even in my own department, some faculty felt that the comps were merely to hone in what you were going to do in your dissertation and others felt that it was a 'test' for you to demonstrate your mastery of the field (or your sub-field within the field).

In terms of failing, in my department, you didn't 'fail' - rather you had an additional term to re-write your answer. I suppose if the re-write was not good, you would be kicked out of program.

(My department did a term-long 3 30-page papers (methods, theory, specific construct), which is unusual).
posted by k8t at 6:34 AM on December 16, 2011

Best answer: With only a one to three month spread it doesn't really matter. I'd ask your profs, esp. whoever might be your advisor, and do what they say.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:27 AM on December 16, 2011

Best answer: Seconding ROU_Xenophobe.

I don't really have much useful to say, because it sounds like what I went through in mathematics graduate school bears no relationship to what you're describing, but I did want to say how much I've enjoyed your various metafilter comments, and wish you good luck with all this!
posted by leahwrenn at 8:48 AM on December 16, 2011

Response by poster: bonehead committee hasn't formed yet, I'll get formally assigned an advisor in February. I'm hoping to get as much early feedback from that individual as soon as possible to refine.

Yeh Forktine, most of the students who have passed through this department are very laid back about comps, I guess nothing confrontational and its more they're looking you over for the research phase than they're gonna fail you. But I'm nervous about this as I have heard of folks leaving the process at this stage.

This is all good stuff, I've got a lot to think about as they're asking me to make a decision now that I'm almost done with foundation.

Many thanks for your kind words leahwrenn, I do try to add value when I comment here as I've learned so much myself …
posted by Mutant at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2011

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