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Comprehensive Examinations: An Overview for Master's and Doctoral Students

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Comprehensive Examinations: An Overview for Master's and Doctoral Students Ccarlstead / Flickr

As an entering graduate student I remember the more senior students mentioning taking comps and nodding knowingly to one another. Sounded scary. Yes, comps - comprehensive examinations - are a source of anxiety for most students.

What is a Comprehensive Examination?
A comprehensive examination is just what it sounds like: a test that covers a broad base of material. It assesses the student's knowledge and capacities to earn a given graduate degree. Depending on the program, it may test course knowledge, knowledge of your proposed research area, but also 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.

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams
Nearly all doctoral programs require that students complete comprehensive exams. It is after passing comps that students can use the title "doctoral candidate." The comprehensive exam serves as the gateway to the dissertation. It is only when a student passes comps that he or she can begin the dissertation, the final phase of doctoral student.

Master's Comprehensive Exams
Not all master's programs offer or require that students complete comprehensive exams. Some programs require comps for entry to the thesis. Other programs use comps in place of a thesis. Some programs give students a choice of comps or thesis.

What Is the Format of a Comprehensive Examination?
Comps 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 administered in 2 8-hour blocks on consecutive days. Another program administers a written comp exam to master's students in one 5 hour period.

Why Are Comps Important?
Students who are unable to pass a program's comprehensive exam are weeded from the graduate program and will not complete the degree. Programs generally allow a student who fails the comprehensive exam another chance to pass. However, most programs send students packing after two failing grades.

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