Comps. Comprende?

by Teresa Lynch

For doctoral students, when classes are complete there comes a point when efforts turn toward a different type of task. Comprehensive exams, the four days of four-hour blocks answering questions from each of the members of your committee, mark that point. Tamara Kharroub and Nic Matthews just took their exams. Tamara has already finished the final portion of the exam process, which is defending her answers. Nic still has that part to go.

Although they focus on different programs of research, Tamara and Nic have been very much in sync with one another. They began and ended doctoral coursework in the same semesters, share the same committee chair and advisor (Andrew Weaver) and minor (Psychology), and even took their comprehensive exams within a week of one another. “The funniest thing about our similarity is that for years, we didn’t even realize it. It didn’t hit us immediately that we were always checking things off the list at pretty much the same time. It’s probably part coincidence, part guidance from our committee members…who are mostly the same,” said Nic with a laugh.

That similarity meant that they were readying for the exams simultaneously. For Nic it was the two weeks prior to beginning that involved the most intense preparation. In that time frame, Tamara says what helped her wasn’t just reading, but “thinking beyond the material while reading, trying to connect different readings and ideas together, constructing arguments, and thinking about how they might inform my dissertation.”

The hardest part, we’re always told as junior classmen, is actually going and sitting in the room. For Tamara, that was true. “.. sitting in that small room for 4 hours and knowing that I [would] have to do the same thing the next day – for 4 days! I soon realized how difficult it was for me to think, remember, and write under time pressure and space constraints…also, being a little claustrophobic [didn’t] help the situation.”

Although they both say they feel relieved at having the daunting portion of sitting in the room and writing furiously for days on end behind them, there is still more to go to achieve the doctorate. Tamara admits she does feel a bit overwhelmed, “because now I have to start working on the next serious steps; dissertation, finishing research projects, job, etc.” And those next steps have begun for both of them immediately in prepping their dissertation proposals.

“I had a basic idea of what I wanted to study [in my dissertation], but it was a nebulous concept. As I read more and more, that nebulous concept fundamentally changed into something more concrete and it fundamentally changed my ideas…and it was really, really useful. You read all of this work over years, but it’s really hard to put it in a frame until you have comps to help you organize it all in a flash. You start re-reading all these concepts with theory and philosophy so fresh in your mind that new connections are made,” says Nic. His general dissertation direction will use video games as environments to test and explore our understanding of morality. For Tamara, prepping for the exams meant expanding and refreshing her knowledge on social identity and relationships with media characters ultimately to inform her dissertation proposal.

Ever studious – after completing the four days of exams, Tamara and Nic put their noses right back to the grindstone. Although, both said they made it a priority to reacclimatize to “normal life” by catching up with friends and relaxing.

Having so recently completed the entire process, when asked for any tips for success, Tamara modestly admitted with a laugh that she is no expert as she has “only taken the exams once.” Still, she offered a few pointers that helped her along the way, paraphrased below:

  • Know how well you can work under these conditions and prepare accordingly
  • Read with a purpose
  • Sample questions written by the professors on your committee
  • Discuss preparation with your committee members (a few months in advance) so you know what is expected,what kinds of questions you might get, and how to prepare
  • Write and answer potential questions for yourself
  • Write the main points and your ideas and arguments while reading
  • For defending, read your answers very well and be prepared to explain your answers, even beyond what you wrote. The oral defense is also a great opportunity to correct answers, so prepare well if you need to correct something. In both parts, it is important to provide complete answers.
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