PhD comprehensive exams

Hi, all

Here I am hiding behind the tag of PhD comprehensive exams to justify my lack of posting on this blog. I thought today (as I was taking a break from studying), that I should share my preparation experience.

To the uninitiated, most PhD programs require the student to pass one or more exams called the comprehensive exams (comprehensives or comps for short). Some universities also call this the qualifiers (quals for short). Either way, once you’re done with these exams, you’re considered a doctoral candidate in most universities. In  my particular university, the comps come in two waves:

  1. Part A/B: This involves theoretical and applicative questions from every course taught to the students in my program. Every course! Whether you took it or not. As long as that course is being taught, you can expect questions from it. There will be some questions out-of-portion as well, mainly testing whether you can apply your knowledge and think on your feet.
  2. Part C/D: This is taken the next semester if you pass A/B. That is a big ‘if’ by the way. In this exam, they give you a research article and ask you to critique it. You must understand the article, question the research motives and methods, attack the rationality of the conclusions drawn from available data, and suggest ways of carrying the research forward. Of course, all this happens if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, they give you a part of the article, or sometimes just data that look like they were ripped off someone’s excel sheet. Then they ask you questions that require you to explore the ambit of your subject, all in one sitting session. That’s just Part C. In Part D, you are given some bottleneck questions in your subject and expected to solve them. Again, the idea is that they’re testing your approach to a problem, not so much the solution itself.

phdcomics.com

I would love to question the wisdom of testing a student’s qualification for a PhD program three years into his PhD program, but something tells me that’s not how the world works. Written qualifiers/comps tire me a lot, simply because while doing research, we completely lose touch with the idea of physically putting pen to paper. Many colleges have take-home quals which solves this problem, as the answer mostly needs to be typed not written.

In my school, each professor in the department puts in his questions, and the committee chooses ten of them. Of those, we need to do six. Of those, we need to pass five. Sounds easy right?

This reminds me of a biology professor I had in 11th standard who said that in older times, when the topper used to score 60%, all a good student had to do was to study hard and write a good paper. In today’s 99% times, a student needs to probe the psychology of the professor to determine what he wants from the question. Amen to that! From what I’ve heard, one needs to read a question and then decode whose question it is from the language and style. Then, one needs to tailor the answer to the proclivities of that person.

The trouble comes when one professor sets the question and another one grades it. Professors are of various types. Some like succinct answers and penalize you for making them read more than they have to. Others prefer you err on the side of caution lengthwise.

There is a luck factor associated with any exam. This factor seems to play the biggest role in the engineering exams at the University of Mumbai, as a friend of mine found to his dismay. His paper was cleared after re-evaluation, but no one can repay him for the months of depression, disbelief and ignominy. Of course, the people who knew him, used this negative result as a referendum on Mumbai University exam methods than his prowess in electronic engineering. My comps exam has a luck factor too: students who’ve spent months reading and reading for an exam can choke at the final moment like the South African cricket team. No matter how well one prepares, D-Day has it’s own plans.

My next blog post is definitely going to be after the exam (Nov 10th). Hopefully, it is on a positive note.

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5 thoughts on “PhD comprehensive exams

  1. yes..it was a good note on the process of exams. Wish you all the best! I hope you will come out with flying colours like you do always!

    • Damn right! You will not believe the stuff I did when I should have been preparing for this! Anyway, the result should be out in a week. Fingers crossed!

  2. My comps (an ice age ago), were 2 days. Each day was 9 hours long. On the first day I wrote 35 hand-written pages of answers and about 30 the next day. And yes, I remember that was exhausting. I had prepared a month for the exam – 6 hours of studying each day (with some TV and running breaks). The week before the exam, I can not forget this, I was overcome by an incredible panic attack. I just could not breathe.. I called a friend of mine over who brought a brown paper bag and had me hold it and I slowly came back.
    I scored 114/100 on that test including the bonus questions. I nailed that sonofabitch.

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