Comprehensive Exam Guidelines

What are comprehensive exams?

Upon completion and final grading of all courses in the Plan-of-Study, the student takes a Preliminary Comprehensive Examination, with the help of the Comps Committee (which may or may not consist of the same members from the plan-of-study committee). Successful completion of the comprehensive exam shows: 1) that the student is experienced in secondary research in her/his area of program concentration and ready to move on to original research; (with the new format) 2) that the student demonstrates knowledge of the areas and subareas of the discipline and their position relative to these areas; and (3) that the student demonstrates pedagogical knowledge, techniques and literatures needed to teach in their specialty area. Another purpose of the exam is to demonstrate written and oral mastery of secondary research to qualify the student to move on to conduct primary research. The exams may also serve the purpose of synthesis, reflection, and evaluation of previous coursework as preparation for future research and/or instruction in the student's specialty area.

When should I start thinking about comps?

In an ideal world we’d chart our path in graduate school before we started, and every class would be part of the overall plan. But for many students, interests and ideas change upon exposure to new theories and ways of asking or thinking about phenomena. So, while it’s great if you start off with some ideas about what you want to be tested on for your exams, for most students planning begins during the spring semester of their second year for coursework. Of course, everyone begins the program with different background and familiarity with research in Communication and this impacts the numbers of courses you take and your familiarity with the discipline by the second year of your program.

See below for tips on how to go about studying for comps.

What is the format of the exams?

Changes have been made to the comps process and format. Please read carefully. Students who entered the PhD program prior to Fall 2016 have the option of following the new format (described below) or the old format (also described below). Students who enter the program in Fall 2016 or later should follow the new format. Questions? Contact the Graduate Program Director.

 

NEW FORMAT (as of Fall 2016):

The purpose of the exam is to demonstrate written and oral mastery of secondary research, reflect upon the student’s view of the discipline, prepare them for career as professionals in the field, and to qualify the student to move on to conduct his/her dissertation research. The comprehensive examinations will consist of a total of six components, three of which are specific to each student and his/her committee, and three which are standard across all students.

1. Three exam questions to be determined by the student and committee:

There is a minimum of one closed-book exam question, at three hours (or four for students for whom English is not their first language). The allocation of the remaining two questions between closed book and take-home exams will be determined by individual committees. All take-home portions of the exam must be completed within 48 hours of the student receiving the question. The three examination questions, all in the student’s subject area, will be distributed as follows: one question each in theories and methods, and one question in a specialty area defined by the committee and student. Specialty areas are defined as those areas in which a student wishes to focus her/his scholarship, e.g., ethnography of communication about nature, critical discourse analysis and race, cultural production and sustainability, gaming and media effects, performance ethnography and higher education. Theories and methods are generally comprised of theories and tools broadly as well as those that a student will most rely on for a research career in his/her specialty, e.g., social construction theories, and ethnographic research methods.

The two open responses should observe the following guidelines:

  • Maximum of 15 pages.
  • Should be a developed, integrated arc or line of argument using and in response to literature in the area, not merely a compilation of relevant research.
  • Should indicate and clearly respond to the question posed in an organized manner (e.g., utilizing subsections with headings.

2. Three elements standard for all students*:

The remaining three elements will be similar across all comprehensive exams, to achieve consistency across student preparation and across our curriculum. Guidelines for these three elements (two papers and a syllabus) are online and available from the Graduate Secretary. The student’s comprehensive exam committee may specify additional guidelines. The student will be required to submit one of each of the following documents:

  • A research paper in a “ready for journal submission” state.
  • A reflection paper in which the student provides a statement about the communication discipline and how they position themselves in this field.
  • A comprehensive syllabus for a 400-level seminar in the student’s area of expertise accompanied by a brief reflection paper.

*For more details and guidelines for these elements please read the attached comprehensive guide document.

At the initiation of the student, the examination structure and schedule will be determined by the Comprehensive Exam Committee at least three months in advance of the examination dates. The committee and student will meet in a “preparation meeting” face-to-face (or via online meeting technologies to share time and virtual space) to discuss the questions, timelines, and other issues relating to this process. The committee must consist of at least three members of the Communication Faculty (Additional examiners from outside the Department are optional.) The content of the examination is not restricted to coursework in the Plan-of-Study; students may be required to prepare in areas not covered in their coursework, as determined by student and committee. Subsequent to determining the examination structure, faculty members serving on the committee will work with the student to jointly develop study questions, reading lists, or other means for delimiting the subject areas. At least three months in advance of the examination dates, the student must complete an “Approved Examination Schedule.” This must be signed by the student, the advisor, and the Graduate Program Director and submitted to the Graduate Secretary, who will schedule an examination room. The exam question materials must be submitted over a maximum of ten days, and all materials (research paper, statement of the field, syllabus) must be submitted by the last day of the exam period.

Upon submission of the written examinations, all members of the Comprehensive Exam Committee will evaluate all the exam materials. They will provide the Student’s advisor their evaluation of the materials, to let them know if the student is ready to defend their comprehensive exam orally. In cases where answers are “Unsatisfactory” the student will have one opportunity for rewriting, within the regular semester following the submission of the written materials. Once the student has satisfactorily completed the written examination, the Comprehensive Exam Committee, chaired by the advisor, will conduct an oral examination. All written and oral portions of the examination must receive the unanimous approval of the Comprehensive Exam Committee. It is the responsibility of the student’s advisor to report in writing the results of the examination to the Graduate Program Director.

 

OLD FORMAT:

The comprehensive examinations consist of a total of 18 hours of exams. There is a minimum of 6 hours of closed-book exams. The allocation of the remaining 12 hours between closed book, take-home and/or publishable research paper will be determined by individual committees. A student must receive committee approval for format and cannot change the format (e.g., switch open and closed book questions) without committee approval.  All take-home portions of the exam must be completed within 48 hours of the student receiving the question, and all 18 hours of the exams, including  the publishable paper option, must be completed over a maximum of 2 calendar weeks.

Take home question responses should observe the following guidelines:

•   Maximum of 15 pages

•   Should be a developed, integrated arc or line of argument using and in response to literature in the area, not merely a compilation of relevant research

•   Should indicate and clearly respond to the question posed in an organized manner (e.g., by utilizing subsections with headings)

Students may elect to submit a research paper for a 3-hour portion of the 18 examination hours. The paper should be worked into publishable quality (with guidance and in conversation with the committee member assigned) and submitted to the Graduate Program Secretary by the end of the examination period.

The content of the 18 hours will be distributed as follows: at least 6 hours in the student's specialty area, at least 6 hours in theories and methods, and at least 6 in areas more broadly conceived as defined by the committee and student. Specialty areas are defined as those areas in which a student wishes to focus her/his scholarship, e.g., political economy, discourse studies, media effects, performance studies. Theories and methods are generally comprised of theories and tools broadly as well as those that a student will most rely on for a research career in his/her specialty, e.g., critical theories, media theories, ethnographic research methods. Finally, areas defined by the student are most often based on the student’s dissertation topic and the scholarship s/he wishes to study in this area.

What procedures should I use to set up a comps/guidance committee, construct areas, determine format, etc.?

At the initiation of the student, the examination structure and schedule will be determined by the Guidance Committee at least 3 months in advance of the examination dates.  The committee must consist of at least 3 members of the Communication Faculty.  (Examiners from outside the department are optional.)  Students should schedule a meeting with their Guidance Committee to help determine the best structure for their examination. The content of the examination is not restricted to coursework in the Plan-of-Study; students may be required to prepare in areas not covered in their course work.  Subsequent to determining the examination structure, faculty members serving on the committee will collaborate with the student to determine study questions, reading lists, or other means for delimiting the subject areas. A list of previous comps questions submitted by faculty is available in the office of the  Graduate Program Secretary.

At least 3 months in advance of the examination dates, the student must complete an "Approved Examination Schedule." This must be signed by the student, the advisor, and the Graduate Program Director and submitted to the Graduate Secretary, who will schedule an examination room.

Upon completion of the written examination, all members of the Guidance Committee will evaluate the entire examination (including take-home responses and comprehensive examination papers, where applicable) and questioners outside of the Committee (if any) will evaluate answers to questions they submitted. Together with their advisor, the student should construct a schedule for contacting questioners for their approval to move forward to oral examination.  In cases where answers are "Unsatisfactory," the student will have one opportunity for rewriting.

Once the student has satisfactorily completed the written examination, the Guidance Committee, chaired by the advisor, will conduct an oral examination. The student should contact all members of the committee to schedule the oral examination. The written and oral portions of the examination must receive the unanimous approval of the Guidance Committee. It is the responsibility of the student's advisor to report in writing the results of the examination to the Graduate Program Director.

Tips:

How do I study for comps? Where do I start?

A good place to start is to set up a meeting with your Comprehensive Committee (made up of three graduate faculty in Communication, although members may be added from inside or outside the Department). At the meeting you will need to:

1. Determine how many questions will make up the 18 hours (Note: the average and minimum number of questions is 6, or 5 questions and a publishable research paper). Questions are generally three hours, but may be constructed for more or less, to total 18.

2. Determine the format of the exams. Open or closed book (at least 2 closed-book questions are mandatory). A paper may be substituted for a 3-hour question (see description above).

3. Determine questioners: which of your committee will ask which questions?

4. How will you study for each question? Most committees ask the student to generate a reading list for each area and then the questioner will look over and revise the list as necessary. Some questioners provide a potential list of questions in advance, others do not give questions in advance, although they let the student know the general direction of the question.

***Please note that a similar copy of procedures appears in the Department's Graduate Handbook