PhD Comprehensive Exams, Pre-2010

What Are the Comprehensive Exams?  

These exams measure your readiness to move from heavily supervised, broadly distributed coursework to the self-designed, specialized work of the dissertation. After a period of independent study, you will be expected to demonstrate mastery of three specialized areas through extended essay examinations. Your committee will look for both breadth and depth of knowledge, and for your ability to synthesize the “facts” of each area into various coherent narratives. Your goal is a comprehensive understanding that allows you to make solid, confident critical judgments, plus a grasp of the process that permits such understanding. 

The Structure of the Exams  

There are three exams: a four-hour “major period” exam, and two three-hour exams, usually one on another period or a genre, and one on a major author. Generally, although not always, each exam is made up of the appropriate number of hour- or 45-minute-long sections. Most sections offer a selection of essay topics, so that you write one long essay per section. Some exams include mandatory essays and/or short identification sections. Ask your committee what your exam will be like. 

Choosing Exam Areas  

As you decide what exams to take, consider both your coursework and your dissertation plans. What strengths do you already have? What else do you need to know as you approach the dissertation? A good combination of areas should both give you security and challenge you. Remember, too, that you are preparing for your professional life. We do not allow overly “nested” exams that overlap almost completely (for instance: nineteenth-century British, the novel, and Dickens), primarily because you will need considerable breadth of knowledge to teach and do research. 

The Committee  

You choose your exam committee, with advice from the Director of Graduate Studies and your comps director, once you’ve identified him or her.  The exam committee is typically quite different from your Qualifying Committee, and it may even be different from your dissertation committee. As you work to identify your committee members, you’ll likely consider the professors with whom you have done coursework.  You may also wish to include someone with whom you have not had class, but who works in one of your exam fields and may be needed on your dissertation committee. Think both in terms of comfort and growth: with whom have you worked well in the past? And who will make you think in new ways? 

Setting the Exam Dates  

You should allow at least three months for your exam preparation; six months is common, and a year is not unheard of. The time you allow will depend on many things, including whether you teach, work, and/or run a household, your own sense of preparation, and your committee’s advice. 

You will set the dates for the exams, with the advice of your director. While you want to have some sense that the end of your studying is near before you set the dates, you also want to set them enough in advance that your committee can plan to be available. Set the dates at least a month ahead, allowing more lead time if you feel comfortable doing so. Regard the set dates as your deadline: there is always more you can learn, and you will never feel completely finished. But if some problem develops, or if a date set far in advance begins to seem impossible, consult your director. It may be wise, in some circumstances, to delay the exam.  Remember that your ideal dates may not be available to you; faculty members are often not available during the summer, for example, and you will need to plan accordingly.

Taking the Exams  

People often take the exams on three consecutive days, one exam per day, but some prefer to take them with a day’s break between (for instance, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). You decide what order to take them in. One of the conference rooms will be set aside for your work. You may work in longhand or bring in a computer.  Choose the times of day when you feel best. Choose a time of year in which other stresses are not too great (for instance, teachers shouldn’t take their own exams while giving finals, etc.). 

Waiting for the Results  

Before you take the exams, ask your director when you can expect to learn the results.   Of course, he or she may not be able to give you a specific day, but normally he or she can tell you roughly when they’ll be able to read the exams. You have a right to know, and (under ordinary conditions) a right to a reasonable turn-around time.  

It is neither usual nor rare for people to fail part of their exams. If this happens to you, do not despair. Committees make such judgments unwillingly, and with your interests in mind. They would do you no service if they let you go to the dissertation with inadequate preparation. Retaking a failed exam (the normal course of events in this case) allows you to work out some potential problems before they hurt your dissertation work. 

Everything In-Between: Preparing for the Exams  

We now come to epistemological questions: how do you know what you should know?  and, once you know what you should know, how do you get to know it? 

It used to be that there was a “list” or, in fancier language, a canon. This canon named all the absolutely essential literary works, authors, critics, and ideas. We still have canons, but now we have lots of them, and they’re much bigger. Moreover, for reasons you’ll know something about if you’ve done your critical homework, many are now reluctant to set down such lists. The trick here is to recognize the various canons pertinent to your own studies, that is, to your broad fields of study and to your dissertation specialty. There are a number of ways to discover your own canons. 

1.  Talk to your committee.  Let your director (first) and then the rest of the committee vet your reading lists.  Ask your examiners what they will expect you to know, what kinds of questions they might ask, and how each thinks you can best prepare yourself. Then, take their advice. Not following, or perhaps just not quite “hearing” what your professors say can be disastrous. Keep in touch with your committee throughout your study time. 

2.  Go beyond their advice.  Paradoxically, most professors also will expect you to work out a good deal on your own. This does not mean that we will refuse to help you through difficult ideas or decline to assist with bibliography, etc. Nor are we trying to be obscure about what we want. Rather, we rely on your growing ability to analyze texts and literary critical problems to produce independent, thoroughly informed work that proceeds from the baselines we’ve set. It is precisely this “going beyond” that marks your readiness for the dissertation. 

3.  Read old exams.  We keep copies of previous exams on file. Find the ones for your areas, especially period exams. Look at the way they’re structured, what kinds of questions they ask, who wrote the exams, and so forth. While your exam will be for you, and so will be different, seeing what others have done may give you some valuable information about what you want to know.  Write practice answers, both without and with the time constraints that will mimic the exam process, and ask your director to take a look at them to see if you’re “writing” in the right direction.   

4.  Go back to your anthologies.  The most commonly agreed-upon “lists” are the still-quite-canonical Norton Anthology selections. You should recognize every author in your exam areas named by the Norton Tables of Contents; you should be able to briefly explain what each text listed in those areas is, and to talk about many of them in some depth. Reread the introductions to each pertinent author, period, etc. It is probably obvious that if you master the Norton lists, you will just be repeating, although in more depth, what you did in literature surveys as an English undergraduate major. As a Ph.D. candidate, you must move well beyond this level. 

5.  Continually expand your reading of literature.  For your major author, read less-regarded works, getting as much of the whole as possible.  Look for ways in which the standard canon has been expanded to include non-canonical, works.  Read “minor” authors in your period and/or genre, as well as “major” ones you’ve missed. Even one representative work—a single Gothic novel, say—gives you some purchase on a weak category. Keep filling in the gaps. 

6.  Read some cultural and historical surveys of your areas, and particularly of your major period. What historical events seem definitive? What controversies engrossed the people of this time? Who were some of the important non-literary figures of the day? What place does literature have in all this? What differences do these studies suggest between the attitudes of the people of the period, and our own views now? 

7.  Read the standard biography of your major author, and then browse a selection of other biographies ranging from the author’s time to the present. Think about how our Views of the author may have changed, and why. Browse through your author’s letters, journals, etc. Identify the less well-known people who had important relationships with the major authors; familiarize yourself with the broad outlines of their lives and (if they are writers) their work. 

8.  Begin to develop bibliographies of criticism on your major author/genre, and for important authors in your period/ genre. What critical works are considered “classic”? What critical issues seem to be central to the study of this author/genre? What is the history of criticism for this area—that is, how did issues and approaches succeed each other as criticism proceeded? What are the current critical concerns in this area? 

We should pause here to notice the place of critical theory in the exams. You have begun to engage theory, and to read criticism critically, in your coursework.  When you write the dissertation, one of your main tasks win be to place yourself in the critical discourses surrounding your thesis. This, in turn, will requires that you do some work on what is usually called “theory” (substitute “method,” “rationale,” or “philosophy,” if that makes more sense), as well as on your literary texts. 

The comprehensive exams, obviously, stand between coursework and the dissertation. While exam questions usually will ask for your own readings of literary texts, some may ask for your assessment of a well-known critical position, or for a brief history of critical positions on an important issue. You should be generally familiar with the major critical theories and terms, because you will not be able to read criticism accurately without them. If you don’t already have one, get a good overview of literary critical approaches/theories/terms, and review its general outlines. 

Some Final Words 

As our introductory comments suggest, “comprehensive” does not mean “complete” or “entire.” No one can master all the information about all the stuff in any area, not even a fairly small one like a single author. What should be “comprehensive” is your understanding of your exam categories. Obviously such understanding entails learning a great deal of information. But it also demands thinking through that information, connecting the bits and pieces into meaningful patterns. For instance, if you study “the novel’” you need to think about what “novel” means at various periods, why and how the novel appeared, how the classic critical approaches to the novel work, how critical approaches may be outgrowths of the novel’s own techniques, etc., etc. You must be able to outline the ‘big picture” and also to describe much of its detailed structure. 

The methods you discover and hone as you prepare for the exams will serve you your whole professional life, whether you continue to specialize in your exam areas or not. This is, of course, the larger purpose of the comprehensive examinations, the purpose that makes them something more (we hope) than an arbitrary infliction of pain. They are your exams: make them work for you.