Friday, 29 April 2011

Comprehensive Exams

[Note: I did not have my philosopher look this over today because I was in a hurry, so there might be serious errors or lapses in judgment. Please excuse me in advance].

Perhaps you’ve heard rumors of a terrible test or a series of terrible tests that all Ph.D. students must slay before they can move on to dissertation-writing. This beast of a test (these tests) is (are) always lurking in the background for a grad student, waiting for that day when it (they) will attack your philosopher and rip out their soul.

Okay, so comprehensive exams (comps) are not that bad.  They are annoying, they are time consuming and frustrating, they are usually seen as a complete waste of valuable time, they might end your philosopher’s academic career, but they will not rip out any souls.

What is a Comps Exam?

Comps are usually a series of tests for Ph.D. students that cover very large selections of material. For example, your philosopher might have to take a comps exam in the History of Philosophy or in Ethics and Metaethics. Well before each exam, your philosopher is given a reading list, with thousands of pages of philosophy texts that they must read and absorb and then answer a few questions about at a 3-ish hour exam. They will not receive these questions before the exam.

These are not ordinary exam questions, though. Your philosopher will be expected to examine other philosopher’s ideas in detail, with examples, and contrast a philosopher’s ideas with other philosophers’ ideas.

What Happens Next?

After your philosopher graduate student takes this exam, it is graded by a group of philosophy professors, who then decide if your philosopher answered each question adequately enough to pass or instead should fail.

What Happens if My Philosopher Fails?

If your philosopher fails the exam, they will have to take it again, and if they fail it a second time, they might get booted from the program or lose funding or something else drastic (pledge their firstborn to the philosophy program, etc). Sometimes bad things happen on the first failing.

How Does My Philosopher Prepare for a Comps Exam?

Your philosopher will spend hours of time reading, note-taking, and answering practice exam questions. They may form a study group. They may try to cram all of the preparations for the comps into one month, which is trouble, trouble, trouble.

Do all Programs Require Comps?

Nope. Some programs—usually the more “with the times” programs—have stopped requiring the comps exam. There is actually a huge debate behind comps in philosophy-world. Some professors (usually the old-guard or the students-these-days-are-weak philosophers) think something like, “I had to suffer through comps; so should everyone else. We’re making these programs too easy!” Some professors (usually the younger, more ‘in the field’ philosophers) think, “We should not make students take comps because philosophy-world is such that students have to publish papers and attend conferences before they finish their Ph.D., and the comps takes away valuable time from these activities.”

You can see how people would be very opinionated about the comps.

The hard thing is that philosophy-world really has changed in the past 50 years. Philosophers used to be able to finish their Ph.D. and get a job without publishing or conferencing at all, and now they have to have articles published and give conference talks and, ideally, be working on their first book. 

So if your philosopher has to prepare for comps exams, approach your attitude to the exam like, “this is just going to be a really long paper-writing season.” Bake lots of cookies.

You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). You can also email me if you have questions, blog ideas, and/or want to be friends. Stay tuned for my conference reporting this weekend/early next week. Also stay tuned to see a picture of my cat wearing a philosiology t-shirt, which he will be wearing very reluctantly, though he will look absolutely precious.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. Well, my philosopher recommends cookie dough instead of baked cookies, but otherwise agreed with the thoughts here. He starts comps *again* (2nd round, not a retake) next week -- with a new baby due in 2 weeks. Gonna be a busy summer!

  2. The PhD program that I am in actually introduced a so called "area-exam" a few years ago, which they didn't require before. It's like comps, but only in the area you write your dissertation in, e.g. ethics or epistemology. It's a lot of work, but it makes you read all the things you should have read, which is quite useful.
    Also, you get a big list of questions ahead of time, and a subset of them is on the exam. Not a bad system, I think.

  3. Where I did my PhD in phil about a decade again, there were two parts to the comps. The first part was 8 hours of written comps in the history of philosophy (2 hour exam on ancient, 2 hour on medieval, 2 hour on modern, 2 on contemporary). The second part, which we took a term or year later, was a 2 hour oral comp in the area that we were going to focus on in our dissertation (ethics or metaphysics or ancient, etc...). For both part of the comps, we were tested on a reading list and coursework.

    I hated the written comps and didn't see much value in them at the time. However, given that most of us (not only from that program, but most philosophers who are lucky enough to get TT jobs) will teach at teaching universities which tend to have smaller departments, and thus we have to cover a wide range of courses, what is learned on those exams becomes very valuable down the road.

    Word verification: mifenged, as in "I was so mifenged that I had to study Kant and Spinoza for my written comps!"

  4. Funny as usual, you're doing a great job! Two minor points. At some schools, these are rather called "prelims". Interestingly, such exams are very rare in Europe, where I live now (too bad, I think, having suffered through them some time ago in Canada before moving after my PhD to Europe).

  5. I've got my comps on Thursday! I should not be reading this blog now, but this did help me to take them a bit less seriously.

  6. Just stumbled across this blog. I did my undergrad in philosophy.

    Comprehensive exams are stupid, and I wish that philosophy departments could realize that this is so.

    Ok, there can be some value in preparing for such an will have read all the texts and know something about them. And you might know a lot of things worth knowing as a result. But, I think it's important to let grad students specialize and focus on writing papers, and not require these stupid exams.