Comps Advice

The following came from a panel that was held in November 2018 where Dr. Suzanne Sinke, Dr. Laurie Wood, and Ph.D. candidate John Cable shared their thoughts on the comps process.

Dr. Sinke’s general comments:

Don’t think of them as  comps, think of them as ‘qualifying exams’. They are not meant to be comprehensive, instead they demonstrate that the student is able to teach in those respective fields. It demonstrates to the department that they can stand behind you and that you are a potential educator down the line. None of your committee members should sign off on your program of study unless they think you will pass

Your exams should demonstrate the breadth of your work, not only your specific field. You should be discussing with your adviser exactly why you are taking each field and what they contribute to your growth as a scholar/educator. At the end of the comps process, you should have a greater breadth of knowledge at that point in time than any other time in your academic career.

Dr. Sinke’s explanation of the overall process:

Each professor has their own system, so be sure to speak to them first about what they expect from you. Comps are offered twice in the fall and twice in the spring. Most take it in the second round of the semester, but the first has its benefits. If you take it in the first couple weeks of the semester, it allows you to turn your DIS credit hours into dissertation hours. However, if you are taking comps in the first round, you are expected to also defend your prospectus that same semester.

There are two kinds of exams: in-person and take home. In person exams are taken at the testing center and you are given 6 hours to complete them. Take home exams are also common, but they don’t have a set time limit. She has heard of exams being given time limits anywhere from 48 hours to over a week. 

Most questions are historiographical. You can practice your questions in advance, and it is highly recommended that you do so. Write practice responses and speak to professors/students about your work.

She also highly recommends that you work closely with that professor if you haven’t taken much coursework in that field. They can guide you through the historiographic trends and help you organize your thoughts.

After written questions comes oral exams. They *should* take place within two weeks of the written exams. Scheduling sometimes prevents this, but it is supposed to work that way. Orals can sometimes be a continuation of the written exams, but other times they will ask you new material. Some will even start asking you about the dissertation project. The actual content of the oral exams is extremely dependent on your committee and major professor. Don’t be afraid to ask them what to expect.

The University Rep is in the room to make sure everyone follows the rules. You should try to find someone that is of some use to you, not just a warm body. Reps can provide unique perspectives from other departments in the university. The best reps will ask questions and offer some insight, others will remain silent.

After your comprehensive exams, feel free to change your committee for your dissertation

Dr. Wood’s comments:

She agrees with Sinke that the exams are not supposed to make you learn everything. Instead, it’s about developing a body of research that you are an expert in. Comps turn you from a consumer of history to a producer of it. You need to show that you can deeply engage with a body of scholarship. Your committee members already know that you can look up scholarship, we want to know if you understand it. You should be able to identify the debates, the stakes behind them, historiographic trends, the upsides and downsides of certain perspectives, etc.

Your comps list should reflect not only what you are interested in but a wide breadth of perspectives. Your comps list will determine your teaching fields, for better or worse. When studying and compiling your lists, ask yourself why those fields look the way they do and how those fields developed. Who are figures speaking to? If these scholars met at a conference, what kinds of things would they say? What fights would break out? Who would try to grab drinks afterward?

Also, think about where you fit. Where do you see yourself in this body of work? What methods would be useful to you outside your core fields?

Your fields can be constructed to support your main field, but leave room for deviations. Ask yourself why this history matters? What can I take from this work? Your minor fields will help you stick out from the pack within your major field and help you develop into your own unique brand of scholarship.

While it is natural to feel overwhelmed, that is not the purpose of the exams. Use comps as an opportunity to improve your own work. Don’t think of orals as a quiz. Treat it like a valuable conversation with senior scholars. And your dissertation prospectus should be a natural progression from the comps process. You should outline exactly where you sit within the scholarship that you just got tested on.

John Cable’s Strategy for Success:

5 steps that he outlines for success at comps. It’s mainly about preparation.

  • Choose your fields
    • You should already have an idea of this. Think about what exactly will help you the most. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. A group of fields that is too specific will hurt you in the long run, but testing in a field you are not well acquainted in will also hurt you. Speak with your major professor for guidance early on and try to plan your coursework around the eventual written exam.
    • Reading widely allows you to have more options on the job market. You might be asked to teach a world history course someday. Being able to teach outside the Atlantic world or Europe will be invaluable to you.
  • Organizing your list
    • This should be a collaborative effort between your professor and you. Some will give more feedback than others, but they should be able to provide some guidance on your choice of books.
    • Organize it into chunks. These can change over time, but they help you study and organize your thoughts. Also helps you strategize your reading.
    • Most of your reading material will come from your coursework, but make sure you cover all the major scholars in your field. For example, an Atlantic World field without Richard White is incomplete.
  • Make a reading plan
    • Set a date for each ‘chunk’ of reading. Keep yourself on task.
    • By holding yourself to a schedule, you ensure that you will never fall behind
    • Successful scholars should not feel unprepared before a written exam. Make sure your schedule leaves room for review and practice before the exam itself
  • Prepare your book notes
    • If you have items from your courses, then use them.
    • Reviews and discussions are incredibly valuable in collecting the different thoughts and perspectives on a body of literature. Think of your M.A. and PhD coursework as preparation for comps.
    • Your notes should address at least three major items about each book: the date it was written, who he/she is speaking to, and what their argument is. It should also have a short synopsis of the rest of the book.
    • If a book has a specific intervention, make sure you know it. The big historiographical questions and trends are the most important element of your studies.
  • Study
    • Continual process, don’t cram at the end. Stick to your schedule.
    • When you complete a chunk, make an outline and study it. If a book feels like it belongs in a different chunk than when you started, add it and go over its connections. Why does it belong in that body of literature?

The last piece of advice he has is that you should find a multitude of ways to prepare and cool off. Audiobooks are a great way to get some studying in while taking a break from reading. Find some activities that help you relax when you are stressed. For some it will be exercise, others might have shows that they can binge-watch. Either way, take care of your mental health while you work. Don’t let comps overwhelm you.