[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.
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