Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system.

And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty member, I have gotten to see how a slightly different system of comps works (mostly, it doesn’t).

So why do we persist in doing things this way?  One is likely the temperamental (if not political) conservatism of many scholars, who almost instinctively think that things should be done this way because they always have.  (There’s a kind of bittersweet continuity to that: hearing stories about how the intellectual giants who came before you went through the same terrible experience as you.  Eric Foner reportedly read the Lord of the Rings series the week before his exam to cope with the stress.)

Then there is institutional laziness—not wanting to convene yet another subcommittee to change things.  And the fact that no one can agree on a better way to do it.

For one thing, there are already many approaches.  In my PhD program, it was an oral-only exam, with four fields—three that everyone in your subject area takes, plus an outside field.  Others send students away to formulate their responses in the comfort of their bedroom or coffee shop, turning them in after a week or so to be reviewed by the committee.  In my current department, students write three exams on three set days of grinding, marathon writing; there is then an oral exam to probe in to their responses.

Virtually all of these approaches involve digesting a huge reading list of books and articles over the course of either a fixed or flexible period of time, prior to the exam.

I’ve heard people snicker that we got off easy in my program by only having an oral exam.  I’m not sure if that’s true.  One virtue of the oral-only approach is that it doesn’t require students composing (or faculty reading) a rushed, hastily written essay or series of papers. And the whole thing only lasts two hours, so at least the band-aid gets pulled off in one go.

Preparing for comps

However, expecting someone to field questions based on nothing but a lengthy reading list is not great.  I went into my exam a complete nervous wreck—of course, everyone said “you’ll do great” and “no one fails” but that didn’t help much.  It became a gigantic guessing game to anticipate what the committee members would ask.  (Are they going to ask about the Zenger Trial? The Sherman Anti-Trust Act? Phyllis Schlafly??) It is also difficult to articulate the entire breadth and depth of a given field in 30 minutes.

One might defend this approach by saying that it prepares one to do what academics do: call upon their knowledge, articulate it, and field questions, whether from attendees at a conference panel or students in class.  There is something to be said for learning to think on your feet, but it places a huge amount of influence on essentially performative, rhetorical skills, and it undoubtedly privileges some candidates over others.

Westward expansion was really all about Protestantism

Of the approaches I’ve heard, the best seems to be the one practiced in Princeton’s History Department: go away and write a reasonably polished paper over a fixed time, then come back and discuss it.  I’m not sure if it’s the best way, but it seems like the one most likely to reveal the student’s true capabilities among the methods currently available.

All this raises the question, though: what is the point of comps?  What are departments actually trying to achieve?

romeo's list
The map is fortunately not the territory

When I was in grad school, most of us assumed it was just hazing, a matter of ritual scarification that one must endure to get into the tribe.  (Those who came before you suffered, and by golly, you will too!  We all have scars.)  The most commonly held view—I think—is that comps are supposed to do two things: ensure that each student gets acquainted with a certain body of literature, and prepare the PhD candidate to possess the knowledge necessary to teach a more or less basic roster of courses in their field on day one as a faculty member.

These assumptions seem reasonable to me.  Coursework typically leaves one with a patchy set of readings based on whatever courses were available, and the expertise acquired in writing a dissertation is almost always fairly narrow.  Comps are at least theoretically meant to ensure a more well-rounded awareness of the broad swath of ideas, arguments, theories, and major works in a field.

Yet pretty much everyone hates the current system, as far as I can tell.  It’s extremely stressful for PhD candidates, and cramming 300 books in what is often just a matter of months is widely understood to be an ineffective way to learn.  I worked out a schedule of reading at least a book a day when I was studying, which is ridiculous.  (On the other hand, there were parts of the process of spending nine months diving deep into the literature and reading stuff I would not otherwise read that was fulfilling, indeed mind-expanding.  But there was a great deal I didn’t retain.)

The comps experience also places an extraordinary amount of importance on a single assessment.  I’ve been on committees before where a student did not do very well on either the written or oral component; you feel like a death penalty opponent who’s on a trial where you think a murder suspect is probably guilty, but you still don’t want to vote to convict.  Possibly ending their progress in grad school and shattering their self-confidence seems like an unwarranted cost.  For the faculty, it poses some thorny questions.

For the student, the burden of comps is obviously far heavier.  Being the one person who didn’t pass in your cohort brings the potential for embarrassment, and the whole process feeds into the crisis of impostor syndrome.  (“No one ever fails, but I will be the one who does because I don’t deserve to be here.”)  The incredible competition for admission to grad school and later for fellowships and jobs only deepens this debilitating mentality. Indeed, the Hunger Games-like nature of the academic job market obviously contributes; if even the best and most accomplished student is likely not to succeed, how will I make it?  It’s simply wrong to tell people that they can’t be a historian or a philosopher because they can’t perform this one, somewhat arbitrary trick on this one given day.

So what do we do to change the system?  How are departments reforming graduate education to prepare students for careers both inside and outside the academy?  I personally think there’s still value in ensuring that each PhD graduate has demonstrated fluency with a broad literature in their field(s), but there has to be a better way.

Let us know what you think in the comments—or if you’d like to write about your own experience or what’s going on in your departments, get in touch!

For more perspectives, see ToM editor Romeo Guzman on his own experience with comps, “A Map of Orals” and historian Joseph Heathcott’s “Improving Doctoral Education in the Humanities,” on his experience working to revise grad requirements in Saint Louis University’s American Studies Department.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

6 thoughts

  1. Yes, it was an extremely stressful experience. But I learned a tremendous amount–and I actually did read the majority of the books on my list and took detailed notes. In retrospect, it was an invaluable experience and one that has made me a better instructor and scholar.

    1. That’s good to hear! It seems like it can certainly be enriching with the right frame of mind and the right dynamic between the candidate and the committee

  2. After the three days of what a friend aptly called writing “six shitty little essays,” I was actually unable to formulate ideas clearly in the oral part of our exam. I can still see the kind eyes of my committee members, willing me to bring something out of the fog. And then followed a bout of crippling depression. So . . . not such a great experience, although I did like reading All Those Books and Articles. My department changed the prelims process afterward. I think it now involves writing a syllabus as well as some other components.

    1. God, that sounds awful… it’s amazing we ask people to be at their best when we’ve just put them under prolonged duress. I definitely felt depressed after mine. I went to Labyrinth books and bought a copy of America’s Best Nonrequired Reading the next day

  3. This essay disturbed me in two ways: First that gif of the guy being shot. Can that go please? Second, recalling the trauma of comps. It IS a bit of a hazing ritual and to think that our careers rest on that should give us all pause. I did not pass the first oral exams (although I did the written) because I simply froze, and had I not passed it the second go round, I would not have been allowed into a profession where I am now a full professor, the author of three books, and a public intellectual. I also believe that comps date from an era when one *could* read all of the books in his field (because it used to be mostly men). Just think of the intellectual gifts our profession has lost as a result of a small group of people deciding an individual’s fate over their ability to recall the argument made by one historian from a sea of 300 books. Gah!

  4. Four things come to mind in my experience with comps (way back before I learned I didn’t like teaching). 1) When I was preparing, I thought about a quote from Will Ferrell about the schedule of SNL. To him it was needlessly crazy, and he figured that it was set when people were doing lots of cocaine, but no one had thought to change it. I’ve always suspected the same thing about comps: institutional laziness. 2) My comps were relatively easy. I was certain I’d fail, of course. But one of my exams, for instance, asked me to write a syllabus. I wrote the syllabus, and then a looonnnggg essay explaining my decisions. At the oral exam, the committee faculty who assigned the questions said. “Your syllabus was great, and then you kept writing and writing.” Oops. 3) Under the gun, my thinking really improved. Something clicked and I was looking at a bigger picture and better able to articulate broader issues. I rocked the shit out of some Peter Fritzsche (Germans into Nazis, interesting book). 4) After that, I took months developing a dissertation topic and coming up with a prospectus. It took a few meetings with my adviser, and another meeting with the committee, but it got approved. Why can’t comps go at the same pace? It would’ve saved me a lot of uncertainty and angst in an already uncertain and angsty process.

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