Comprehensive exams

Prepare for the comps by getting feedback on a dry-run

Supervisors may help students to prepare by setting up a clear timeline and organizing a practice or a dry-run. Students working on similar topics may help each other by sharing knowledge (e.g., literature, theories) and providing feedback at dry-runs.


The comprehensive examination (or its equivalents, such as qualifying examination, core area examination, preliminary examination, candidacy paper, comprehensive evaluation, thesis proposal) is program-specific in terms of the time, format, and evaluation. Therefore, not only should students and supervisors become familiar with the University's PhD Comprehensives Policy on the University Regulations and Resources website, but they should also check the specific policy of their academic unit.

For supervisors: Setting up timelines and organizing dry-runs

Setting up a clear timeline including all steps towards the comps, such as setting deadlines for outlines, drafts and/or presentation slides, helps both students and supervisors organize their time. This can also help students feel less isolated, as demonstrated in this quote:

My supervisor is very good for reminding us of timelines. … last year when I was doing the draft of my comps she said ‘Okay, if we want to have it defended by April, let’s work backwards. It would mean that you would need to have a draft to me by February so that I would have time to look at it and you could do changes and then we give it to the committee.’ … I mean, maybe I would have been able to do it myself anyways, but it really makes you feel very good to know that other people are keeping track of that too and are interested.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

If applicable, supervisors may also organize dry-runs for students who are preparing for a presentation or oral examination as part of the comps. Supervisors may invite students who have had the comps to provide feedback. Dry-runs also help those who have not had the comps to have an idea about the exam.

I went to a dry run of a comps defence this week and it is another PhD student with my supervisor—we are sort of a cohort because we meet every once in a while—and there were five of us there. There were four people who came to listen to a dry run—four other PhD students with the same supervisor. And two of us had already done our comps defence and so we could make suggestions—we were there for 2½ hours with her.  … Last year when I did my comps defence, there were just as many people who had just as good suggestions.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

For students: Strategies to combat isolation while preparing for the comps

For most doctoral students, preparing for the comps is an isolated experience. However, it is possible for students in the same program or working with the same supervisor to prepare for the exam together. Here are some strategies to achieve this.

  • Attend and give feedback at each other’s dry-runs. Feedback given to others may also be useful to you- be sure to note any relevant information and consider it during your preparation.

  • Schedule regular meetings to study, write or rehearse together.

  • Use online tools such as wikis.

Wikis allow students to share information in an easily accessible manner where updates can be tracked by participants. They allow for the separation of shared pages and personal pages focused on a specific topic, the control over who can edit, as well as the opportunity to for others (e.g., supervisors or professors) to view the pages and give feedback. This collaborative effort helps students to combat loneliness, exhaustion, vulnerability, and inexperience (DiPietro et al., 2010).

What feedback do students expect after their comps?

Students tend to view the completion of the comprehensive exam as an important achievement for their PhD. Therefore, many look forward to receiving positive feedback from the comps committee. Also, they expect feedback that provides guidance for the next step that they will take, such as writing the dissertation.


For many doctoral students, the comprehensive exam is the first real doctoral exam in their study. As this student said below, it is a motivational challenge:

The sense of accomplishment … was bigger than finishing my coursework—it wasn’t as big as finishing my Master’s degree—but in terms of the PhD, it was the biggest sense of accomplishment that I’ve gotten so far.... And very hard work and very deep thought that I was proud of and that also I was quite excited I raised some questions in my comprehensive exam—I was quite excited to then start answering them, or trying to find out the answers. So I was really surprised at how good I felt when I finished my comprehensive exam.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Given the important status of the comps in the doctoral study, many students put lots of effort into preparing for it. The more they invest, the more they want to receive positive feedback. This student in education described her nervousness about feedback after submitting her comps paper:

I just gave something that’s very personal to three people who know more than me about the areas that I’m talking about.  And so I am a little nervous because I do respect them and I kind of want their approval. …. I’m very nervous about getting bad, negative feedback.  At the same time I’m excited to get [feedback]…but it still feels terrible at the end of the day. The feedback that they’ll give that’s constructive, I look forward to.  … I’m receptive to their feedback but I’m nervous if they have some sort of personal judgment about me based on mistakes that I may have made.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

The oral component of the comprehensive exam can be challenging, but it is also a good opportunity for students to reflect on what they have learned and what they will do next. This student, after having her oral exam, realized that her committee’s questions were actually “leading towards the next step”:

I thought that [my committee] might ask more specific questions about sections of the papers, which in the end they didn’t do at all. They were all sort of questions that went beyond … more bridging the gap or … leading towards the next step, the proposal, as everybody … myself included, was very aware that this would be the next thing I would be doing.(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

If you are a supervisor, how can you consider these common feelings when giving feedback on the comps to your students?

If you are a student, do you identify with the feelings expressed in these quotes? Are there any additional types of feedback that you would expect to receive after the comps?

The purposes of the comprehensive examination

Comprehensive examinations intend to test knowledge of the field, as well as critical thinking skills. The format of such examinations vary extensively across institutions and disciplines, and there is a lack of standard assessment criteria.


The comprehensive exam (or its equivalent, such as qualifying examination, core area examination, preliminary examination, candidacy paper, comprehensive evaluation, thesis proposal) is mandatory in most PhD programs. Across disciplines and programs, the comprehensive examination fulfills two major purposes (Estrem & Lucas, 2003; Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001; Guloy, Hum, & O'Neill, 2013; Manus, Bowden, & Dowd, 1992; Pelfrey & Hague, 2000; Ponder, Beatty, & Foxx, 2004; Schafer & Giblin, 2008; Straub, 2014).

  1. Testing students’ broad-based knowledge and comprehension of the literature in a certain field or area

  2. Testing students’ critical thinking skills, as mostly represented by their ability to synthesize and integrate the literature

Other reported purposes include:

  • the evaluation of teaching ability (Estrem & Lucas, 2003; Guloy et al., 2013);

  • communication skills (Pelfrey & Hague, 2000; Straub, 2014);

  • the ability to conduct original and independent research (Pelfrey & Hague, 2000; Ponder et al., 2004; Straub, 2014);

  • forming students' identities as members of a particular scholarly community (Guloy et al., 2013); and

  • helping students progress to the dissertation by providing an opportunity to integrate knowledge and take steps towards a publishable paper (Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001).

The diversity of comprehensive exams

The existing literature on comprehensive exams is very much program-specific. Most studies tend to focus on only one program. The reason for this, as one can imagine, is that the format and conduct of the PhD comprehensive varies between programs and institutions.

For instance, Schafer and Giblin (2008) reported that, despite considerable variations, the most common format for the comprehensive examination in criminal justice and criminology in the USA is a standardized questionnaire administered at a fixed time and location. Other researchers have noted that, depending on programs and schools, the comprehensive examination may be only written, only oral, or combined; and, regarding the written component, it can be closed exams, take-home exams, publication quality papers, article critiques, annotated bibliographies, writing or teaching portfolios (e.g., Furstenburg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001; Mawn & Goldberg, 2012; Straub, 2014).

Programs that are reviewing and revising their comprehensive exams tend to change it from a format more closed to one more open (Ponder et al., 2004).

Assessing performance on comprehensive exams

Researchers question whether there are clear criteria for assessing students’ performance, and structures that support students’ preparation. Estrem and Lucas (2003) noted that of the 59 composition and rhetoric PhD programs that they examined, only two indicated criteria for assessing student performance. Furstenberg and Nichols-Casebolt (2001) observed that many social work doctoral programs have different committees reviewing each student’s exam, therefore variations in grading criteria are likely. Regarding students’ preparation, a recent study conducted at Simon Fraser University suggested that while some students over-prepared for their comps, others had little idea of how to prepare for it (Guloy et al., 2013). Given the lack of criteria and support for student preparation, Schafer and Giblin (2008) raised the question of “whether the various processes are supported within the discipline and/or produce measurable benefits among new members of the academy” (p .276).



2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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