FAQ on the PhD (Comprehensive Exam)
- Should I have taken classes with the “additional committee member” before?
- How do I approach faculty members if I haven't taken classes with them?
- If I don't have anyone in mind, how should I choose a third person?
- Should all three members of my Comp Committee be on my Supervisory Committee?
- How long does it usually take to prepare for the comps exam?
- How long is the exam itself?
- Can I submit my dissertation proposal before I have my comps exam?
- What happens if I fail the comps?
- For some comments by students on their experience with comps, or their advice, please see the bottom of the webpage.
Should I have taken classes with the “additional committee member” before?
Some students prefer that, because then you will know the faculty members' viewpoint on some or all of the areas you will be tested on, but it is not a requirement.
How do I approach faculty members if I haven't taken classes with them?
If they are in SPTH, most of the faculty members would be willing to discuss your research areas and your supervisory needs. You can contact them by email and/or make an appointment for a meeting. You may want to make sure you can answer their questions about what is expected of them if you decide to ask them to be on your committee, and it is recommended that you take information from the SPTH program guidelines to the meeting. In addition, if they have specific questions, they can contact the program office or the Director for additional information.
If I don't have anyone in mind, how should I choose a third person?
Talk with your readers and the SPTH Director about potential faculty members. Generally the choice will be driven by the books you have chosen to be tested on, and your academic interests.
Should all three members of my Comp Committee be on my Supervisory Committee?
Usually the student uses this opportunity to see how the members work together and how she works with each of the members. If there are any problems, one can search out a new member for the Supervisory Committee.
How long does it usually take to prepare for the comps exam?
* For the student - his or her supervisory committee is the best judge of when the student's depth of knowledge is sufficient and broad enough to proceed to the exams.
* For the program office and the faculty members - one month minimum from when the Reader's Reports are submitted to the exam, as the program office needs to get the Director's rep, send out the letters, book the room, etc. while the Director's rep needs to review the book list and may need to refresh their memory on some of the texts.
Can I submit my dissertation proposal before I have my comps exam?
If there is a delay on holding the comps exam, the director may - in some cases - permit the proposal to be submitted and even reviewed prior to the comps - however, the proposal cannot go forward to the Faculty of Graduate Studies until the after the comps exam results have been received by the office.
What happens if I fail the comps?
If you fail your comps, you will need to meet with the Director immediately. After discussing the exam, the director will meet with the supervisor. A second exam would need to be set up when both the supervisor and the director believe you are better prepared.
Below are one student’s reflections on the comps process.
If you would like to add your comments, experiences, or advice, please send it to the program assistant, and we will add to it. Hopefully it will grow and address many of the questions students frequently have about the process, timing, etc.
Notes on one student’s comps process – what I did, what I would do differently:
- I specifically scheduled the exam so that it would give me only 3 months of preparation time, just so I couldn’t keep pushing it off. I crammed all of the comps reading into a 13 week period, scheduling about 3 texts per week.
- I sat in the basement of the OISE library from 9 to 5 for five (sometimes six) days a week. And it was surprisingly do-able – I had 6 books left for the final week, but these were the 6 that I scheduled for the end of the 3 months because I deemed them least relevant to my fields and so the least likely for my committee to ask about. (Luckily, I was right –but I’ve heard stories where people have followed the same strategy and guessed wrong, so this is still a risky approach.)
- This might not be reasonable during the fall/winter, but I had my exam in July and I had a split TAship for the summer that allowed me to free up my schedule, thanks to a gracious and helpful co-TA, in the weeks immediately before my comps.
- Following someone else’s advice, I made sure that I knew at least one chapter from each book really well. Most comps questions are pretty open-ended to begin with, so it’s easy to steer conversation in the direction of the idea(s) that you’re really familiar with – they don’t expect you to know everything, but you want to display that what you do know, you know well.
- It should be noted that the committee is asked to indicate on the form they sign for the comps, the level or degree of knowledge.
Here is the options they have when completing the examation form:
Excerpt from the PHD Oral Exam form
Pass _________ (with distinction _________________).
Failure ________, with recommendation that the Candidate not be permitted to continue in the Program.
Pass __________, subject to resitting the examination.
Results of re-examination Date ___________, with special conditions, if any:
Pass ___ with recommendation that the Candidate be permitted to continue in the Program
Failure ______, with recommendation that student not be permitted to continue in the Program
- You probably have an idea of which texts your committee members have read several times and which texts it’s possible none of them have read, or at least not read closely. (Nearly everything they recommend will fall into the former category, while you might – might – be able to sneak some of these latter category books on to the list on your own.)
- Obviously, if they know a book particularly well, make sure that you know it well, because questions about those books are what they’ll fall back on when they want to change the direction of the conversation or have exhausted the list of questions that pertain specifically to the fields you’ve defined or your proposed project.
- The books that they might only be vaguely familiar with are a bit of a crapshoot. You might not be asked about them specifically, and so they might provide you with an excuse to save some time and just skim them, but I found it useful to pull in bits from the texts that I suspected no one had read because no one could credibly question my ‘expertise’ on their subject matter. (Whether they knew that none of them were asking follow-up questions because none of them had read it, or because they perceived that silence as their colleagues’ tacit agreement with what I said, I don’t know. Hopefully, it’s the latter.)
- I gave my committee members a copy of a very early draft of my proposal in advance of the comps. I know that some people like to treat these two things as totally distinct, but it a) got me started on and thinking about the proposal much earlier than I would have otherwise, and b) provided substantial direction to the questions my committee asked. The major drawback here is that it requires you to redirect a substantial amount of your reading attention to the writing of the draft-proposal, which means that it might not be feasible for everyone to undertake. (Especially if you use my 13-week plan – it put me almost exactly a week behind schedule.)
- The good: It meant that virtually all of the questions they asked spoke to my interests and my work, so there was nothing unexpected or unanswerable.
- The ambiguous: It also meant that the questions were not about the content of the text, and instead about how I planned to use/apply that content to my dissertation. It’s probably my own fault – and the fault of my prior training, since my BA and MA were in English – that I expected more of a ‘explain your understanding of this concept’ line of questioning or even ‘explain how theorist A and theorist B differ on this particular topic’, and this is not what I got. Instead, it was ‘how do you expect to use this concept’ and ‘which theorist do you think is more appropriate to your work, theorist A or theorist B?’
- The bad: I was asked a number of questions about the proposal and my research in particular and, given that it was preliminary work that I hadn’t developed all that much because I was focused on my comps reading, I struggled to answer them.
- I also had to make a 15 minute opening statement, which I understand to be pretty standard among SPTH comps exams. I made it into a general overview of what I understood to be the major themes/concepts of my fields and where each theorist stood in relation to them. (ie. Here is what A, B, and C have to say about the representational function of whiteness, where they agree and how they differ...)
- If I had the chance to do it again, I would have done this differently. It was intended to show that I had a grasp of a wide range of perspectives and a sense of the major debates and disagreements that framed them, but at least one committee member seemed to think that it showed an inability to assume a position within those fields and stake out my own territory. I suspect that the other committee members agreed, on some level, because many of the subsequent questions were – as I think I’ve already mentioned – about which, for example, theory of the relationship between nation and state I thought would be most useful in my own work. There might be something frightening or intimidating about rejecting a text and then having to explain why you’ve rejected it, but it’s an expectation. Of course, there were plenty of texts that I found problematic on some level and so I had those opinions to draw on – I just hadn’t articulated them in the opening statement.
- Don’t be afraid to take 10 or 15 seconds to think through your response a particularly difficult question. They don’t expect you to be prepared for everything that they might ask.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions – either for clarification or to inquire as to the questioner’s opinion on the subject. (But don’t try the latter until after you’ve already offered a response to that same question, naturally.)
- Don’t be afraid to disagree with a committee member’s opinion. When I found myself disagreeing with one of them, it was often the case that another person shared my position – and being too eager to agree with one committee member will very likely prompt a question from the one who disagrees. (Although when this disagreement is verbalized, and they begin to question one another, it can provide you with a nice break.) You can’t agree with them all on everything, obviously, and the goal of the exam is not to display how you arrived at the exact same position as your interlocutors on every topic. (And even if, at times, it seems as if this might be easier.) Unless, I suppose, you have good reason to think that this is what they want.