Reflections on my first comprehensive exam

Last semester, I finished my fifth and final course required for my PhD at the University of Guelph. The fall before (Fall 2019), I passed my written and oral exams for my Secondary Area Qualifications. Here are some of my reflections on the comprehensive exam now that I’m about halfway through the program.

Secondary Area Qualifications exam

Typically, PhD students in my program have to complete their coursework before they sit their comprehensive (or comps) exam. However, since I’m a part-time student I received permission to do my secondary area qualification (SAQ) exam before finishing my coursework–this is our secondary comps exam. So, in March 2019 I pulled together a 3 page (double spaced) proposal and a list of 60 texts (very loosely defined at the time) on interdisciplinary feminist theory with a specific emphasis on feminist theories in digital humanities and media studies.

I made the mistake of not getting my list and proposal approved before the summer semester began, so it took a bit longer than normal to get approved. So, I started reading while the list was with the Grad Committee for approval. For the rest of the spring and summer, I spent most days and definitely most of my free time reading, taking notes, writing cue cards, and studying.

The Don’ts

I didn’t have a set plan when I started my reading. I thought I’d approach this reading just like I would readings for class. This wasn’t entirely a mistake, but I waffled several times throughout the spring and summer in how I took notes. This meant that when I was studying for my written exams, I had several places where I’d kept notes and had to spend more time than I would have liked reconciling them.

I also didn’t always think about connections between texts or how I might situate them in relation to each other, and this was especially true between newer and older work. That wasn’t great, but at the time I struggled to connect feminist theory from the 70s, say, with something like cyberfeminism or digital feminist work (and, to be honest, I still sometimes do).

The Dos

One key thing I did throughout my prep period, though, was to compile all my notes into a OneNote notebook with titles and author names to make it easier to search. I’ve used my notes several times since for papers or coursework and am so glad I took the time to do this. I also scheduled regular chats with a friend with a similar reading list, and we spent that time talking through the texts and how they related to broader topics in the field. This is how I started to think about the texts more thoroughly and how they related to my research interests, and was invaluable when it came time to sit my exam.

When I wrote my exam, I was extremely nervous. I remember reading over the questions and thinking I wasn’t sure how I would answer them. I took a deep breath and spent about 10 minutes outlining possible answers (with sources and examples I could use). And then I picked the two I was most passionate about in that moment and wrote what I wanted to say. Now, my advisor did say after my oral exam that I hadn’t answered one of the questions the way she’d intended when she’d written it and said she could’ve pressed me on this more in the oral exam. This was a heads up to make sure I was ready in case that happened during my primary area qualification exam (which is our official comps exam). At the time, I second guessed myself because I was so nervous at being tested. However, looking back I remember making a decision to answer the way I did and know I could’ve justified it if I needed to.

What I’ve learned

So, what did I learn in my SAQ? It’s a strange, outdated practice that will never occur again in your life but if, like me, your program still has them, then you just have to get through it. I enjoyed the dedicated reading time and was able to learn a lot, but the exam portion doesn’t make much sense to me.

However, the biggest takeaway for me was something one of my committee members said to me early on: by the end of the reading, the student is the expert. The written and oral exams are an opportunity for the student to share what they’ve learned and what they’re interested in, and demonstrate their expertise.

This was extremely helpful for re-situating the exam in my mind and calming my nerves (a bit…I still dislike being in testing environments), and at least partially turned a stressful event into a more comfortable discussion. It was a kindness and a confidence boost that helped me get through, and something I’ve tried to remind myself of at every stage of the PhD: I’m not just a student, I’m also an expert.

I’ll share my thoughts and takeaways on my experience with coursework in my next post. But for now, I’m curious: did you have a comprehensive exam (or exams) as part of your PhD? What was your experience?

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