Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Arguably the hardest part of getting your PhD. If you haven’t done it yet, you probably have stress dreams about it, and if you’ve already cleared this hurdle, your palms might sweat at the memory. The oral comprehensive examination (AKA comps, quals, prelims, generals; this beast has many names) is an exam taken by most PhD students in the US and Canada to assess their readiness to complete a dissertation in their field. The timing, format, and standards of these exams vary widely among programs and universities, but they are a universally important step in the academic trajectory. This makes them intimidating, but remember, you got yourself into a PhD program! A panel of experts in your field reviewed your credentials and agreed you are capable of this challenge when they admitted you to your program. There’s no reason to be scared. So, get reading and keep thinking, and you’re going to do a great job on your comps. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find the process of immersing yourself in the topic you’ve dedicated your career to enjoyable! Below is a list of tips, techniques, and resources to help you organize your studying and maximize your learning.
Below, find a roundup of my tips detailing how to organize your study regimen to prepare for your oral exams, followed by some advice for your performance during the test. I’ve linked other web pages with suggested tips at the bottom of the article in case you want to read further.
Before the exam
- Learn the format, protocols, guidelines, etc. of comprehensive exams in your program. Go to your PI, your graduate advisor, or your graduate program handbook to find out what the requirements are so there are no surprises the day of and you’re adequately prepared. In some programs questions about your dissertation proposal or methods may be fair game, while in others these may not be discussed. Knowing what topics to prepare for will help lay down the basis of your research plan.
- Talk to your PI and ask what study topics they suggest for you. They likely already know you well enough to see where your strengths lie and what the gaps in your knowledge may be.
- Set aside lots of time, way more time than you think you need, and block it out to set deadlines for certain study goals to keep you on track. When you factor in all your other obligations, such as teaching, coursework, research, etc. you may find you don’t have as much time to dedicate as you’d hoped, so be generous. Leaving a buffer of a few days, in the end, can give you a safety net if you fall behind or a breather and time for review if you stay on schedule.
- Stay focused when you’re studying. We all have lots of distractions these days, and you’ll use your time better if you’re dedicating all your attention to studying. If you struggle with focus, try a quick guided meditation, such as Deepak Chopra’s go-to 3-minute meditation to stay focused, or put white noise over your headphones (try this Spotify playlist). The pomodoro technique of alternating working and resting for set timed periods is a popular method for staying on task. Silence your phone and leave it in another room.
- READ! Read read read read read!! Your committee probably assigned you a bunch of readings, but if they didn’t, email all your committee members for suggestions. When you’ve finished those, keep reading. Read early foundational papers, read breaking-news hot-off-the-press research. Your committee wants to see that you read what they assigned, but you also want to show them you have done more digging on your own by referencing work outside the explicitly assigned materials.
- Practice active learning. While you’re reading, actively engage with the information. If you’re following the previous tip, you’re going to be reading so much it will be hard to keep facts, examples, and processes straight, but every time you interact with the information you solidify the knowledge in your mind. Make a routine of reviewing the information you read. While you’re brushing your teeth before bed runs through the chapters/papers you read that day and what the take-home from each was. Do the same thing the next morning. You can make PowerPoint presentations about concepts, draw mind maps connecting ideas, or answer practice problems. Something I do whenever I study is to write myself an exam as I go. After reading every paper, section, or chapter, make a list of vocabulary you need to define, throw in some simple fill in the blanks, write conceptual questions requiring long-form answers, and ask yourself to draw out patterns or expectations from theory. Give yourself a few days or weeks, then take the exam (no notes!). Finally, think critically about your answers and mark them. The purpose isn’t to anticipate every question you’ll be asked and have a ready-made answer, but to zoom out when you’re in the weeds and ask yourself why this matters, how it connects to the big picture, and how it informs or intersects with your research questions, and to do so repeatedly to really set the information into your brain.
- Once you’ve filled your brain with knowledge, practice discussing it any way you can. Ask your lab-mates or other graduate students in your program to run mock comps with you, especially those who have passed theirs and know what type of questions to expect. If you don’t have science buddies on hand, have your parents, friends, or a partner ask you questions from the test you made yourself in the previous step. Even explaining broad concepts to your spider plant will reveal the gaps in your understanding. The process of thinking out loud and on your feet is one that comes with time and practice.
- Treat your body like a human body. Eat right, exercise, and sleep. For real, this is part of your comps regimen. It keeps information in your brain, and it helps maintain good mental health to keep you in a position to keep learning. Meditate, go to therapy, drink water, get some sunshine, and do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy. There’s no point staying up another hour to read one more paper if your brain is too tired to process and store the information. You’re not helping your comps odds if you work yourself into burnout or mental breakdown.
During the exam
- Take a breath! You’re allowed to take a few moments to collect your thoughts after you’re asked a question. Take a deep breath or a drink of water while you do so.
- Use the space. If you have a chalkboard or whiteboard, use it to draw out expectations, fundamental principles, or processes. This will help you organize your thoughts and help your committee see your understanding.
- If you don’t know the answer, say so! Your committee doesn’t expect you to know everything; rather, they’re trying to find the limits of your knowledge. If your committee is doing their job right, they’re going to ask you things you can’t answer and that’s expected. When asked a question you don’t know the answer to, try speculating based on similar systems or processes you do understand in relation to the question, but be clear that you are doing so! For example, you might say “I’m not sure about that, but based on what’s been seen in EXAMPLE X or PAPER Y, I might expect Z”. Your committee also wants to see that you have the critical thinking skills to apply or extrapolate your knowledge to new problems.
Tips for comps preparation:
“8 Ways to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams.” 8 Ways to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams | Graduate Connections | Nebraska, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/connections/8-ways-prepare-comprehensive-exams.
General tips on how to make a good impression in an oral exam:
Loveless, Becton. “Study Skills Guide: Oral Test Preparation Tips.” Study Skills Guide: Oral Test Preparation Tips, Education Corner, https://www.educationcorner.com/oral-tests.html.
Fleming, Grace. “Tips for Taking and Acing an Oral Exam.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 14 Sept. 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/preparing-for-an-oral-exam-1857439.
Pichler, Christina. “The Best Oral Exam Tips: How to Successfully Prepare.” STUWO, 21 Jan. 2021, https://www.stuwo.at/en/blog/oral-exam-tips/.
Thanks to The (Un)Scientific Method podcast and SciCATS for hosting this workshop series, with funding from NSERC Science Communications Skills Grant.