January 15, 2009

Comp comparison

We’ve recently been advised that our comp papers can be any length whatsoever, with some people having produced a 10,000 word paper and others up to 35,000. Like everything else in PhDLand, “it depends”, and I can’t tell you how annoying it is to have absolutely no guidance whatsoever. I’ve mentioned in here briefly that at our school the comp exam is an oral exam with the student and their committee, based on this paper that is written beforehand. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check a few other schools and see what their comps were like.

One-part exams

University of Maryland has a formal structure: with four faculty members: the student’s advisor, two faculty familiar with the student’s work, and the theory professor. It’s a three-day take-home exam. The content is based on an agreed-upon reading list. Each committee member writes one question; in total there are two questions from the major field of study, one from the minor field of study, and one theory question. The student becomes a candidate after passing the exam.

University of Waterloo has the same structure as our school (go figure): one exam with three parts, including theory, methods and research question, normally taken at the beginning of the second year.

Two-part exams

UC Irvine has a two-part exam: field or area, and methods. Comps are offered at the end of the summer and usually at the end of the second year, so it’s an actual exam.

University of Michigan has a take-home written exam over several days and an oral exam normally occurring in the third year, based on an agreed-upon reading list.

UCLA is similar, with the major field exam (6 hrs) taken 6 months after the Advisory Committee Meeting (usually by the end of the first year) and the major field oral exam (2 hrs) taken within ten days of the written exam. Candidacy is not reached until after the successful proposal defense (called the oral qualifying exam)

Three-part exams

NYU Wagner has the traditional three fields exam: research methods and two fields of interest. All three exams must be completed within three semesters of the first one. Research methods is a take-home, the other two are five-hour written exams scheduled twice a year by the school.

University of North Carolina has a set of written exams including research methods, theory, and the area of specialization. There is also an oral exam, which sounds more like our prospectus defense.

By the way some schools have comps for their Masters Degrees, including the University of Toledo and University of Kansas which they offer instead of the thesis option! Honestly, although some people complain about the ridiculousness of an exam at the doctoral level, at least there is a level playing field in terms of what PhDs are expected to know when they graduate. I mean, I don’t crave the three full days of exams that our geography department has…but loosey goosey is no good either.

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  1. Haha, Ren. This is exactly still the turmoil. A “person who shall not be named” was so pleased to finally have a proper exam recently. He had submitted a long paper on questions that had been skillfully set by committee members, did a presentation, and then received a proper grilling, as he puts it. So satisfying. My “whatever” pass was no grounding at all. Perhaps that is the bigger issue; once your “qualifying exam” is done, you should feel grounded and properly prepared. Then doubts can be removed, and any questions that come can be attributed to the complexities of constructing what you are doing. The easy road is not a helpful road, sometimes.

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