Comprehensive Examinations

The “Clinical Psychology Curriculum” provides a statement about Comprehensive examinations. The following is intended as elaboration of that policy in an attempt to answer some frequently asked questions about the purpose of Comps and the process of preparing for them. This is not a policy statement but hopefully provides some useful “nuts and bolts” information.

First, a word about terminology: in one old version of doctoral education, there were two big exams, “comprehensive” exams and “qualifying” exams. The former tended to be associated with the Master’s degree and examined the student’s “comprehensive” mastery of the “core content” of the discipline. The latter, usually associated with the doctorate, were less focused on content and more on the student’s ability to address questions or think through problems in a way that indicated to the committee the student’s readiness to begin the dissertation project. Thus the student had to “qualify” to do the doctoral dissertation.

Here we have an examination that serves mainly as a qualifying exam but is called a “comprehensive” exam. These exams follow the Master’s degree. Generally speaking they serve as a jumping of point for the dissertation. They are highly individualized, so how they are designed and how they are taken is up to the student and examining committee. Each student should consult with his/her committee chair and arrive at a plan to suitable for the individual student.

Step 1: Write a statement of professional goals.

Imagine yourself 5 years post-PhD. Where do you want to be professionally, and what steps do you need to take to prepare yourself to achieve those goals? Carefully assess your program of study to date, whatever coursework you have left to complete for program requirements, and your planned area of dissertation research. Think about what reading in what areas will advance you toward your goals, including the reading necessary to write your dissertation proposal. (In other words, doing the literature review for your dissertation should be a major part of your preparation.) Although we do not keep a file of goals statements, many students who have passed comps are willing to share their goals statements with students preparing for comps. It is perfectly appropriate to ask.

Step 2: Define your areas of study.

These should follow from statement of goals. The typical exam has three or perhaps four main areas of study. Keep in mind, however, that you are expected to have developed both a knowledge base and a perspective on psychopathology, diagnostic assessment, and therapeutic intervention–topics addressed in the modules and in the clinical practica. Committee members are also free to examine the student on topics covered in seminars and other clinical courses taken prior to comps. In this sense, our exams retain some of the flavor of the old-style Master’s level comprehensives. 

Step 3: In consultation with your advisor, select your committee.

Your committee will consist of five graduate faculty members, one of whom is outside the department and participates in the oral examination. You’ll want people with expertise relevant to your areas of study and career goals. It is possible to invite someone not on the faculty to serve on your committee if you and your chair agree that that person would be uniquely valuable in terms of your interests. That individual would need to be appointed as an “adjunct” member of the department. It is important that both your chair and the graduate school representative (the “outside the department” member of the committee) have Level A standing in the graduate school.

Step 4: Decide on the format for your comprehensive exam.

In collaboration with your advisor, determine whether it would best meet your professional goals to complete the comps requirement through taking essay exams (the “traditional”) format or whether another format would meet your needs (the “alternative” comps). Whereas it has been traditional in this program for the comprehensive exam to consist of a two-day written exam, the examining committee may approve alternative formats for part or all of the exam. Generally, students opting for an alternative format choose methods of displaying their knowledge that correspond to the kind of work they might go on to do in their professional lives, such as writing syntheses of research, theoretical critiques or grant proposals. For example, students might write a review paper modeled after a Psychological Bulletin or Clinical Psychology Review article. A mock grant proposal might be written, which may be in fact become a draft for a genuine one. Other options may be approved by the examining committee.  As with many things in this program, there is room for flexibility, creativity, and diversity. The most important consideration is whether the format and content of the exam will help to prepare you to meet your scholarly and professional goals.

Step 5: Compile your reading list.

In formulating your goals and identifying your areas of study, you probably already have identified a number of things you need to read. Begin there and then spend some time in a scholarly literature review of each area to identify additional readings. Share your first draft with your advisor, who will make suggestions for additions and deletions. When you and your advisor are satisfied, circulate the list among your committee members for feedback.

Step 6: Approval of the plan of study and exam format.

A preliminary meeting of the committee is typically scheduled to approve the reading list and exam format, incorporating whatever revisions are deemed necessary on the basis of committee feedback.

Step 7: Study, read, and write.

Keep in mind that research indicates studying with others is superior to studying alone. Preparation for comps does not necessarily mean you should disappear into your version of the ivory tower for an extended period of solitary study. (Descartes did that and look what that led to!) In addition to discussion with other students, take advantage of your committee members. Discuss what you are reading with your committee as you go along. If your comps will be in an examination format, some faculty members like to give practice questions and provide feedback on your answers as a part of this dialogue. You are also free to read old exams and review papers, which are available through the sr. program assistant (Pam) in the department office.

Although it is acceptable for committee members to view drafts of your papers and/or practice questions for comps and to give you general feedback about whether you are on the right track, the expectation is that your comps products reflect your own independent work.  Therefore, you should not expect your advisor or other committee members to provide line-by-line edits or extensive editorial comments on your work-in-progress.

Step 8:   The final product.

“Traditional” examinations typically consist of 2 consecutive days of full-time writing. Keep in mind, however, that committees may approve some modifications to this plan. If you have some alternative in mind, be sure to discuss it with your chair prior to the time the committee approves the plan of study. Most students write the exam from 8 to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on two consecutive days.  Space is a sometimes a problem in the psychology building, as we all know, so scheduling a space in the building for your exam is a very important detail to attend to well in advance of the exam date. Most students take the exams on a computer. If you choose to do so, it is up to you to provide the computer. If you choose to write the exam on paper, it will be up to you/your chair to arrange a procedure to get your answers typed and distributed in a timely fashion.

Comps that are in the form of a written paper are usually submitted to your committee members 2 weeks prior to the date of the oral defense.  Be sure to confirm with each of your committee members the length of time they require your paper in advance of the defense.

Step 9: The oral defense.

The oral defense must take place no later than 4 weeks after the written exam and your “outside” committee member must be present. Prior to the oral defense, it is generally advisable to meet with individual members of the committee (subject of course to their willingness to do so) to discuss the written exam or papers. Many faculty members are willing at this stage to suggest areas of weakness or vagueness or incompleteness in the written answers. This allows the student to prepare more adequate answers for the oral. In the same vein, you often already will be aware of weaknesses in certain areas of your answers. The time between written and the oral may be spent preparing better answers. In other words, the writtens are not your one and only chance at the questions. The orals provide an opportunity for the committee to ask you to go more deeply into your answers and for you to defend (i.e., elaborate, modify, qualify, or otherwise improve) them. Keep in mind as you prepare that even your best answers may be the focus of committee scrutiny during the oral. If you had that much to say during a 2 hour block of writing, someone on the committee may want you to take the already good answer further. After all, committee members are often learning a lot from your answers to these questions; and they are free to ask for more!

The oral is typically scheduled for a 2 hour time block. For passing the exam, there can be no more than one dissenting vote among your committee members.

Step 10: Post Comps.

Many oral exams include a discussion of the student’s dissertation topic. Whether or not this occurs, it is typical (but not required) for the student to form the dissertation committee from the same group of faculty who have just served as the comps committee. Thus, the two projects typically fold into one.

It is also possible, of course, for a student to fail the exam. This is rare in the clinical program but has happened.  In some instances, the written exam is judged to be of such unacceptable quality that the committee fails the student at that stage and requires remedial study with no oral exam taking place. After completion of additional study, the student again writes the exam. Assuming the written exams are passed, the student moves on to the oral exam. If the student fails the second written exam, however, the student is terminated from the program. In other instances, the written exams may be judged to be problematic but the student is given the opportunity to go forward with the oral examination in order to demonstrate knowledge that was not reflected in the writtens; however, if the student’s performance on the orals is unacceptable, the committee may vote to fail the student and the student would need to take the re-take the entire exam. Finally, in some instances, the committee may judge most of the exam to be of passing quality but require either remedial work or reexamination in a specific area. This technically constitutes a second exam which if failed would result in dismissal from the program.