Doctoral. Comprehensive. Examinations.
Cue the late-night studying, caffeine addiction, panic sessions and ulcers. Well, not the ulcers. But just about everything else.
The short story is: I passed! And the long story—for anyone interested in finding out—is how I prepared.
Obviously, doctoral comps are going to differ widely, depending on your field of study, area of concentration, school, and other factors. I don’t expect that my method will be helpful to everyone. But in case it’s helpful to some people, I’ve summarized it here.
For my major concentration, the instructions were shrouded in mystery (cleverly calculated to increase student angst). We were given a (long) list of books, with the exhortation to have a “firm and competent knowledge” of them. That’s all the guidance they gave me, so I came up with some personal goals for my preparation. I aimed to
- demonstrate a broad mastery of the concepts I had learned throughout my years of coursework,
- substantiate that mastery with specific argumentation and data, and
- state and defend my views in areas of controversy.
Here are the main steps I took to get ready.
1. Prepared early
I started preparing early. One year before the comps, I requested the book list (Thankfully, since many of these books were required for previous courses, I had written detailed book summaries). Then six months before the comps, I started re-reading my summaries and key sections of the books. I really kicked into gear about three months before the exam, memorizing the main lines of argument in each book.
2. Organized material
I organized my book summaries into one big outline, condensing some, expanding some. My aim was to put this big mass of information into a logical sequence. (It’s always easier to remember something that is connected and coherent).
3. Used Cloud Outliner
I typed these outlines into Cloud Outliner Pro (Thanks to Joel Arnold for introducing me to this useful app). This app was key for organizing and memorizing my material.
- I could collapse and expand headings to go back and forth between major concepts and supporting concepts.
- I could rely on information hierarchy to trigger my memory.
- I could tap to reveal or hide notes on a specific heading. I would hide notes and try to recall it from memory instead of just dragging my eyes over the text.
4. Memorized outlines
I memorized my outlines. By “memorize” I mean I could talk through it, as if I were giving a lecture, using it only occasionally to jog my memory.
5. Had a test-day strategy
I had a strategy for taking the written comps. Quite simply, my strategy was to quickly outline what I was going to write and then write it. Some of my friends said they just started writing without outlining. I was too afraid I’d miss some important points if I immediately started focusing on the particulars. Writing the outline first helped me pace myself and gave me the peace of mind that I had covered the important material.
6. Drank good coffee
I don’t expect these to work for everyone (well, #6 does apply to anyone). But for me, these steps helped make the comps more enjoyable. Two weeks before the comps, I felt I had reached a saturation point. Instead of soaking more information in, I needed to squeeze it out. So when comps time finally came, it felt almost exhilarating to write out—as fast as my fingers could type—what I had spent so long to retain.
If you’ve passed doctoral comps or a major exam, feel free to comment and let me know how prepared for it.