A Note About Masters and Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

Passing Comps Is a Major Milestone

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Graduate students take two sets of comprehensive exams, both master's and doctoral. Yes, it sounds scary. Comprehensive examinations, known as comps, are a source of anxiety for most graduate students.

What Is a Comprehensive Examination?

A comprehensive examination is just what it sounds like. It is a test that covers a broad base of material. It assesses the student's knowledge and capacities to earn a given graduate degree.

The exact content varies by graduate program and by degree: Master's and doctoral comprehensive exams have similarities but differ in detail, depth, and expectations. Depending on the graduate program and degree, comps could test course knowledge, knowledge of your proposed research area and general knowledge in the field. This is especially true of doctoral students, who must be prepared to discuss the field at a professional level, citing material from coursework but also classic and current references.

When Do You Take Comps?

Comps are generally given toward the end of coursework or afterward as a way to determine how well a student is able to synthesize the material, solve problems and think like a professional. Passing a comprehensive exam lets you move to the next level of study.

What Is the Format?

Master's and doctoral exams often are written exams, sometimes oral, and sometimes both written and oral.

Exams are usually administered in one or more long test periods. For example, in one program written doctoral comprehensive exams are given in two blocks that are each eight hours long on consecutive days. Another program administers a written comp exam to master's students in one period that lasts five hours.

Oral exams are more common in doctoral comps, but there are no hard and fast rules.

What Is the Master's Comp Exam?

Not all master's programs offer or require that students complete comprehensive exams. Some programs require a passing score on a comprehensive exam for entry to the thesis. Other programs use comprehensive exams in place of a thesis. Some programs give students a choice of completing either a comprehensive exam or a thesis. In most cases, master's students are given guidance on what to study. It might be specific lists of readings or sample questions from previous exams. Master's comprehensive exams are generally given to an entire class at once.

What Is the Doctoral Comp Exam?

Virtually all doctoral programs require that students complete doctoral comps. The exam is the gateway to the dissertation. After passing the comprehensive exam a student can use the title "doctoral candidate," which is a label for students who have entered the dissertation phase of doctoral work, the final hurdle to the doctoral degree. Doctoral students often receive much less guidance on how to prepare for comps as compared with master's students. They might get long reading lists, some sample questions from previous exams and instructions to be familiar with articles published over the past few years in the prominent journals in their field.

What If You Don't Pass Your Comps?

Graduate students who are unable to pass a program's comprehensive exam are weeded from the graduate program and cannot complete the degree. Graduate programs often allow a student who fails the comprehensive exam another chance to pass. However, most programs send students packing after two failing grades.