Operation Kick Comps Ass: How I plan to survive comprehensive exams

A few stacks of my actual reading list. I don’t lie when I say
I’d much rather write two dissertations than do comps!

Visitors to this little corner of the internets might be surprised to know that in addition to writing random self-reflections and recipes, and obsessively posting pictures of my garden and travels, I’m a geeky graduate student. I think research is fun. I read, a lot. I get paid to torture undergraduates. Not a bad gig, really.

The reactions to my PhD school journey are varied, but usually include some element of surprise* or amazement, as in “Wow, that’s a lot of work” or “How on earth do you do it?” or “My, you must really like school a lot.” Typically I’m nonchalant. I admit it’s a crap load of work. I’m demure about how I get everything done**. I kid about being a professional student. Most of the time, I’m fairly pragmatic about the process. A PhD is what I need to reach my goals. It’s practical career progression more than a deep seated need for achievement. I see the fiery hoops and I jump through them (hopefully with as little singe as possible).

Come on, can you concentrate without a chicken
head hat? Thank you, Tom, for leaving your White
Elephant “gift” stashed in my house. Ah hem.

The truth is, lately I’m terrified. The first couple years were fairly straight forward. Take classes, write papers, go to happy hours, do research, survive. Focus on what’s ahead. Try not to screw up. Look forward to summer break. As an incoming third year, I’m staring down the beast, the beast known as Comps.

Before I can move on to the dissertation phase, I must pass comprehensive exams based upon my first two years of coursework and my research interests. In order to successfully clear the hurdle, I have to demonstrate expertise in my chosen subjects. Fundamentally, this sounds reasonable. Someone claiming to be an expert in an area damn well should be able to speak eloquently about it, right? Practically, the situation is a little more tenuous. The process of demonstrating that expertise is intense.

In my department***, comps mean 24 hours of testing. Twenty four houuuurrrssss. That’s three eight-hour days, two at home, one in-house. And by in-house, I mean eight hours in a little room with a word processing machine and no notes. Just memory. Demonstrating expertise and citing myriad sources (name, date, journal), by memory. Gulp. And that’s part one. Part two is an oral defense whereby I explain and defend my answers. Fun times. Oh and did I mention I don’t get my questions in advance? Fantastic.

Now, doesn’t that look fun and inviting?

So, how does one go about preparing for a test of this nature? Great question. To start, I made a reading list of what I wanted to be tested on with specific areas of research that I claim expertise in. This list went to my four committee members who drafted questions. Happily, my advisor spent an hour reviewing the questions with me and giving me a pretty good idea (I hope) of what I’m going to be asked. Then I made stacks and stacks of reading material by topic to pretend I’m organized. Then I bought stationery supplies like post-its and notecards and highlighters because they make me happy. I’ve been reading a lot and preparing to draft essays but mostly sitting around worrying about it.

And then it hit me: I should blog-study!

Yesterday, I wrote a post about laughter and positive emotions after Mr. T said I was kissing him “on purpose” (see here). At the end, I wove in some actual theory bits which made me realize I’d stumbled on a novel way to study… turn my blog habit into review time! (How have I not thought of this before??)

I get the point of comps, but it still feels like hazing.

So what do you have to look forward to? Well, my chosen areas of expertise include qualitative methods, emotion theory, discourse, organizations and identity, peer workplace relationships, work/life balance, sensemaking and organizational communication. My goal is to make those topics interesting and useful for anyone who’s ever worked or been involved with an organization. (That would be all of you I’m guessing!) After all, what good is this brain full of knowledge, if I can’t teach others?

Now, dear readers, this is where I need your help. I’m asking in advance for lots and lots of questions. Thought-provoking questions, thorny questions, “what the hell does this mean?” questions, “are you sure you know what you’re talking about?” questions, application questions, “why does this matter?” questions, etc. Poke, prod and push, okay?

Thoughts in the meantime? Click here to comment.


P/S Worry not, the recipes, photos and randomness will also continue as scheduled. I’m not that dedicated.

* I choose not to read the shock as “Wow, I wouldn’t have imagined you were that smart.”
** Like most people, I don’t. My to-do lists are always half finished and while my papers may be stellar, my house is a disaster area. Trade-offs, I suppose.
*** Comps differ throughout academia. A friend of mine in the management department had two 9-hour days in-house, but they were open-book, open-note. My master’s advisor said she had a month to complete her exams at home. I think the format entirely depends on your school and department.

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