The Comprehensive Exam: A Reflection, with Qualifiers

BooksThe three or four minutes between when my qualifying exam ended and when I found out I had passed rank among the weirdest of my life. Not because I feared I had failed. In fact, immediately following the exam, which I took last Tuesday and which consisted solely of a two-hour oral interrogation, I encountered a calm and a confidence that I hadn’t known in months. Instead, the moment’s weirdness stemmed from a sort of whiplash. Ideas, arguments, and anxieties had been cramming themselves into every corner of my brain for over a year. Suddenly, they were free—unleashed and dissipated in the space a two-hour conversation. It felt more than a bit anticlimactic. A disappointing question seemed to cloud out any sense of accomplishment or pride: “That was it?” A week later, I’m feeling prouder—and still celebrating—but the question remains.

I relished most of the process of preparing for orals. There were bad books, sure, and there was plenty of exhaustion. The bouts of exhaustion passed quickly, though, and—thanks to a key piece of advice from a cherished undergrad mentor (“if you find a book that just isn’t useful, don’t dwell on it”)—so did the bad books. My lowest points came when teaching, research, grant applications, and other commitments meant that I couldn’t devote as much time to a given book as I thought it deserved.

But looking back on the past year, the moments of intellectual excitement and the relentless pace of discovery are the things that really stand out. Every Sunday, I’d pull the next week’s books from my shelves, and stack them on the table next to my reading chair. Chipping away at that pile day by day was terribly fulfilling. Most mornings, after reading the paper and downing a pot of coffee, I’d find myself feeling hungry for that day’s book—hungry to find out what it argued, to see what made it tick, to decide where it might go wrong, and to put it in my back pocket.

That sensation never faded, because brilliant books recharged it again and again. I was entranced by the archival magic and intense empathy of Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, and Mel Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox. I was stunned by the analytical rigor of Peter Onuf and Naomi Lamoreaux. I was dazzled by the intricate arguments of Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and Laura Edwards’s Gendered Strife and Confusion. The historiographical chutzpah of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War and Steve Pincus’s 1688 got me riled up in an intellectually productive way. Walter Woodward’s Prospero’s America, Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, and David Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters opened up new and strange worlds. I mulled the deep tragedy of Ed Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom over a bottle of wine. In a particularly serene and serendipitous moment, I read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction on a beach in the Virgin Islands; the significance of property regimes became terribly apparent as the sun set and the relative density of street and house lights illuminated vastly different degrees of development on the American and British islands—the former, developed and lit as could be, the latter, more sparsely lit and still largely owned by the descendants of emancipated slaves, thanks to property laws that favor community over individual choice. (I was delighted to find that another person on that very same beach was reading Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution!)

During the last month of prep, though, my voracious appetite gave way to terror. In the face of the impending exam, I became grumpy, reclusive, and bitter. Maybe even obsessed. The big day finally came, and sheer adrenaline carried me from my apartment to the room. The exam itself was surprisingly fun. I got to discuss many of my favorite books. I proposed plenty of new directions for future scholarship. I probably spent more time talking about the Iranian Revolution (for my comparative revolutions field) than American slavery, which was odd, but I did enjoy in-depth discussions of the state of colonial historiography, of the new “history of capitalism,” and of the turning points in the antebellum sectional crisis. And yet for all 227 books, for all the notes and reviews and historiographical write-ups and mock exams, on the other side of those two high-stakes hours, I can’t shake the question, “That was it?”

The question contains a hint of fear: did the past year’s work provide anything concrete I can carry into my future career? I fear the answer is “no,” which begs a broader question: what, exactly, is the goal of comprehensive exams, and are they structured in the best way to accomplish that aim? (This, of course, is an ongoing conversation, which has recently been raised elsewhere on the internets. And I admit that students in many other programs face hazing rituals far less humane than my department’s two-hour oral exam. Nevertheless, I have rarely heard of a comprehensive exam whose form and structure made total sense, so I think this is a conversation worth raising again.)

Most justifications for the comprehensive exam, it seems, fall into one of three categories. The first is “mastery of the field”—a notion that strikes me as entirely antiquated, a relic of the era when the exams were first implemented, perhaps, but no longer compatible with the discipline’s epistemology in the wake of the explosion of social and cultural historical scholarship.

The second set of rationales revolves around the dissertation. The qualifying exam, it is said, either winnows out those who are unprepared for dissertation work or, alternatively, in itself prepares you for dissertation work. Neither of these justifications seems to hold water, either. Nobody I’ve spoken with in my department can remember somebody who has failed their qualifying exams and has left the program; I suspect this is the case in many departments. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the skills an oral exam tests—memory, elocution, the ability to confidently manage the micropolitics of a conversation (or, put more crassly, to bullshit)—bear upon the actual work of researching and writing a dissertation.

The third set of justifications I hear has to do with teaching. This is the conventional rationale in my department: comprehensive exams prepare you to teach. And yet, on the other side of the exam, I feel far from prepared for teaching. I am ready to begin thinking about teaching, I suppose. But if teaching is the goal of the exams—and I think it should be, particularly in an era when humanities learning is under siege—then why doesn’t the qualifying process focus less on memorization and elocutionary agility and more on writing syllabi, lectures, and assignments? Many of us don’t really learn something until we have to teach it, anyways. Two weeks before my exam, I lectured on the Market Revolution for my advisor’s early republic course. It was among the most useful parts of my prep; it forced me to review books and arguments, to synthesize, to take a stand, and to confront the gaps in my own knowledge.

I had initially intended this post as a simple reflection that, I hoped, would encourage blog readers to share their memories (and battle scars) from their own comprehensive exams. But this lingering doubt about the exam’s purpose has also left me curious to hear why people think the exam is important, what it accomplishes, whether it’s worth the stress and intimidation, and how we might improve it. Thoughts?

18 responses

  1. Michael, Thank you for the thoughtful post. In the midst of a plea awhile back for using material culture to help with narrative making, I noted some retrospective thoughts about comprehensive exams and a question similar to your “did the past year’s work provide anything concrete I can carry into my future career?” I also included links at the bottom of my post for people’s amusement to our two versions of readings lists from the early 1990s vs. today’s lists. My exams were in American literature (not history) but it might be interesting for people to see how in at least one department things have changed. See the bottom of this page: .

  2. Ah, I remember that feeling well!

    I want to offer a few comments as a bit of a “Voice of Comps Future,” with the caveat that I am still early in my career and that I’ve never been on the teaching side of a Ph.D. institution.

    My basic point is that you’re absolutely right … in many ways. Comps are completely divorced from the rest of your career, and in a lot of ways are about proving that you can do it — which is of course your first justification. (I also know lawyers who argue that law school is not about training to practice in the law, so I don’t think our field is alone in that disconnect.)

    On the other hand, you just have to wait and see, because all three will prove true in the fullness of time, at least to a certain extent. When you start a teaching job in particular, and you’re writing 3-4 lectures per week, it’ll come in very handy to have good notes on Pincus and Morgan and Gallagher and Gordon-Reed, and to have done some synthesizing of the issues surrounding various topics in history.

    As for your dissertation, it likely will at some point prove useful, but that in part depends on how closely related your dissertation and comps fields are. In some way, everything you read should shape how you think more broadly, but one can only do so much.

    A last point as a possible fourth justification. Comps teaches you (in a very meta sense, I admit) how to read up on a field. Over the course of your career you may move in different directions to train and re-train yourself in new fields as well as keeping up with your first loves. Now you know how to do it.

    I don’t want to be the cheerleader for comps exams (God knows they were a painful experience), but I do want to suggest that they may not seem as disconnected from your career in five years as they do in the weeks afterwards.

    Now go take a week off!

    • I’m in a different discipline (literary studies), but I am on the teaching side of a Ph.D-granting institution, and I fully share your reservations about these exams.

      Personally, I think they could more usefully be structured as trial drafts of / discussions of an embryo dissertation project. The “field coverage” rationale might make sense if human long-term memory worked better, but given the way our brains actually work it seems a bit of a waste.

      I imagine different disciplines (and even subfields within a discipline) are going to have different needs. But a conversation about this is badly needed.

      • My comments above should not be taken as a full endorsement of the system, to be sure, but merely as a reference point a little further out. I fully agree that we need to re-examine the purpose and design of comprehensive/general/field exams, especially in the context of re-thinking what the purpose of the Ph.D. is more broadly.

  3. As someone that is exploring PhD programs I read this post with some interest and from the perspective of an outsider. It does seem that this hurdle has two things that keep it around: tradition and as a mark of accomplishment. Many professions have gatekeeping exams or trials that are divorced from the reality of what will happen upon completion. The Army has West Point, four years of drudgery and discipline that have no connection to actual military service besides a tradition dating back to 1803. Similarly, Ranger School is 2 months of little food, little sleep, and extreme hardship to “mimic combat conditions.” It’s all really to go through a trial so that the accomplishment carries sufficient weight. Lawyers pass a bar exam that has little relation to practicing law and medical interns work inhuman 72 hour shifts. Its all based up the idea that generations past have done it and it separates those that want from those that can. Like many trials it’s arbitrary but remains nonetheless.

  4. This is a very thoughtful post- thanks. I did my comps (gasp) 8 years ago. I had to read 100 books in each colonial, 19th and 20th century American history. I actually really enjoyed preparing and taking my comps (4 hour written, 1 hour oral) and I think it has proved useful in my current career (tt at masters-granting university). For one, it was great to rely on some books (an my notes) for lectures that I hadn’t thought about at all while writing my dissertation (hello books on Reconstruction). I also know it was useful to have a sense of where things were going in my dissertation when it evolved- I thought it was about one thing, now that I’m turning it into a book I know I was wrong and I’m grateful to have a sense of what else is out there. It’s also great to have that system to rely on- like Joe said, I now know how to gut 100 books effectively in a short time.

    I also think that it’s a good hoop to jump through. It’s how a school knows that they’ve taught you how to be a historian. Can you think like a historian, can you draw on the most recent books, etc…. As a professor now, I can tell you that we need to know that about our students. it’s a basic, “can you think like a historian” assessment.

    • I agree. Much like the dissertation, comps provide a way of winnowing those who are interested in history from those who want to practice it at the university level. It isn’t a perfect system, but it has a lot of practical benefits, as the comments are demonstrating.

  5. I never actually went through the process of comps myself. I’m very grateful for that – it’s always seemed to be quite a brutal process to me and one that could be made more efficient. At the same time, though, my undergraduate education consisted largely of being given a list of books and articles, and then having to come up with an analytical essay a week later – it probably wasn’t an unrelated process.

    And there are things I realize now that I never quite appreciated when going through the education myself. Firstly, being forced to read widely is incredibly useful. It was only as I got to the end of my dissertation, for example, that I realized I was much more closely in conversation with some other academic disciplines in which I hadn’t read so widely. An earlier, enforced wide reading stage may have been helpful there.

    Second, you don’t get too many chances to read quite so widely on an academic scale. I have reading lists of all kinds of fields that I’d love to get into but don’t really have the time to parse.

    Third is the value you get when you come to teach. While I don’t think comps are necessary for people to teach subjects, getting that broader grounding in the development of a field is a really helpful process when narrowing down dozens of books to a small series of lectures and readings. There’s an extent, when teaching, to be reading books with the thought of ‘what do I need to know to get across to my students’. Having a wider background in that reading makes that process a little bit easier, especially as time pressures creep up on you very quickly.

  6. Hi Michael!

    A wonderful post! I enjoyed it and yes indeed, did it bring back memories. Now that I am teaching and writing, I see comps as someone else said, as having given me a skill set to read a history book and by extension a field. That is incredibly useful when throwing together a class discussion (I hate to admit that but it has happened!) and I have seen that I just clearly outstrip any undergraduate’s or even graduate’s grasp of a reading. I got that from comps. So I see them as incredibly useful. I loved that moment in my education perhaps more than any other. It was nice to relive it through you and I am sure your retelling of it has colored my own memories. Thanks!

  7. I took my exams (written; my program didn’t do orals)… um, more than 8 years ago. I always feel like I’m in the minority on this, but I found studying for my exams to be extremely useful in the long run. Our coursework was loosely tied to our exam structure, which meant that we had some context for our exam reading in place while we were studying. Since as a US historian I knew I needed to be able to teach survey courses, I more or less used my exam studying as a chance to give myself a good historiographical run-through of US history, which served me well when I was teaching. I should say, though, that my sense was always that the exams were well set up to provide us with that kind of background. I began my career in a different PhD program and transferred into the one I eventually completed, and one of the reasons I switched was that the first school’s exams didn’t seem well-thought-out in the same way.

    Agree also that the skills involved (i.e. how to gut a book, how to draw on recent/standard scholarship, etc.) are invaluable long-term, both for research and teaching.

  8. Really enjoyed this piece, as well. I do wonder also how one’s comps experience corresponds to both the ways that the department structures the exam as well as to specific examiners. In general (and admittedly this is purely anecdotal) those that I know who “enjoyed” their exams had great relationships with their examiners that continued on into dissertation work. Those that I know who had conflicted relationships had sour experiences and ones that carried over into dissertation stage.

    In my own experience, my committee chair went out of his way to try to demystify the process and frame it in a positive manner (an opportunity to read works that I have also wanted to but did not have the chance, as well as to read historiography related to my dissertation). The oral part of the exam followed this model and once getting over the initial jitters really did just feel like a conversation. In fact, it felt like the first time that I was being approached by these excellent scholars as a colleague (admittedly that was my own built perception since the dept. went out of its way to make everyone feel like they were on an even plane). My notes do still continue to be helpful, even in a public history context. So yes, in many ways the exams feel like a relic or a part of an odd, stressful initiation ceremony. But in hindsight I do also see their value.

    Of course, the year after I completed my exams the department restructured the entire process, so…

  9. I’m a recent PhD grad and have since taught undergrad courses. I have found my comps to be important in at least two pragmatic ways. 1) In teaching new courses, I constantly find myself bringing together a synthesis of what I remember from my comps. It has become a type of “ownership” of knowledge that is now easily accessible and has given a breadth that exceeds that which is gained from earlier courses. 2) In transforming my dissertation into a book, I find that I have to bring into conversation various ideas from different books in ways I didn’t need to do (though perhaps should have done) in my dissertation. Publishers really want to know how your work departs from other similar works or adds to the discussion. Doing that in my comps was excellent preparation for that, though now I wish I would have better understood that then.

  10. I had the EXACT same response after my comprehensive exams, is that all? There have been some excellent comments on the importance of comps but let me me contribute my own 2 cents. First, reading all of those books is not really about memorizing the arguments, but about seeing how arguments are made. Sadly, graduate school does not teach you how to write a book, if you do your comprehensive reading carefully you will learn a great deal about how to write a book–not a dissertation. Second, if you want to truly make an impact on the research side of history, you MUST master the historiography. When I was a graduate student I did not understand this. You must place your work in conversation with an important argument; to do that you must know the argument. One more thought, these really are among the best days of you career, enjoy them.

  11. I picked up my MA in History in February and am planning my first courses to teach at a community college for the upcoming fall semester. The act of writing out lesson plans and planning what you are going to give the students as to readings and homework involves a lot of reading. As a first time instructor I find myself lacking in what I have read and now I am making up for it. This is where I think the comps or more accurately comprehensive reading gives you a good advantage. The more you read in history the better off you will be.

    I am already teaching a computer class for beginners which I have found to be an excellent prep job in learning how to teach. The amount of knowledge you possess is considerable, but teaching involves the process of communicating your knowledge in a coherent pattern and form for the students to learn. The fact that you know your history because of your comprehensive reading makes it easier for you to focus on teaching. Personally, I feel teaching is an art form. I think there are plenty of people that can get up in front of a class and reel off data for an hour or two, but will that result in the students learning anything? Based on my experience, no. (Keep in mind I’m dealing with first and second semester community college students. In the case of the computer class they’re first time students with almost no computer skills at all. I start by explaining where the ON button is.)

    I think Dr. Gannon and the rest of the posters here are correct in their assessment of the comps. They may not have much to do with actual teaching, but for a Ph.D holder having a very good grasp of historiography is absolutely vital. I think of those of us with the MA as the nuts and bolts historians. We’re vital to our fields in our capacities. The Ph.D holder is the theoretician. They’re vital to our field in their capacity. Both advance history in their own ways. Both can teach. The MA holder is detail driven while the Ph.D holder needs those details, but uses theory to really connect the details into the broader fields. Hence why comprehensive reading is so vital for the Ph.D holder, but personally I think the MA holder should always be expanding their reading as well.

  12. Thanks to all of you for such thoughtful comments. Seems like there is a bit more (usually tacit?) support out there for the exam than I imagined!

    I’m not sure I share Andrew Gaboury’s view that the exam is worthwhile because it’s a traditional gate-keeping mechanism. In my mind, tradition just isn’t enough to protect something from skepticism or revision. I also don’t quite agree with Mark Cheathem’s view that the exam is a useful winnowing tool. I just don’t see much winnowing going on, and I think that research papers during the coursework years and the dissertation proposal are much more effective indicators of whether or not a student should continue on in a Ph.D. program.

    But in general, the comments have convinced me that the past year’s efforts won’t melt into air as quickly and irrevocably as I had feared they would. That said, I fully maintain that the exam can be greatly improved and made much more efficient.

    The general thrust of the comments seems to be, “the exams are impractical, yes, but they’re also worthwhile in x, y, and z slightly intangible ways.” Fair enough. (And glad to hear it!) But I am positive that all the benefits and positive takeaways various commenters have identified–breadth of vision for teaching and dissertation work, the ability to gut a book, heightened reading comprehension, proof to the department that you can think and argue like a historian, a rigorous hoop–could still be accomplished with a less unpredictable, more practical process. Why not read 150 books (more carefully and strategically chosen) rather than 225, and use those extra weeks to write syllabi and, say, 15 lectures? Wouldn’t that still leave you with all the exam’s slightly intangible benefits, wouldn’t it ground you broadly in the historiography, and wouldn’t it still serve as a hoop/pressure point in the degree program, while also giving you a practical leg up in your first semesters of teaching? This is what I was getting at when I said that the exam hasn’t prepared me to teach. After that much work, reading, thought, and stress, I should be ready to launch a course in short notice. I shouldn’t just be ready to *start* thinking about teaching–I was at that point about 1/4 of the way through my lists, if not earlier. I should have already been required to do the thinking!

    Fellow Juntoist Rachel Herrmann mentioned to me yesterday that one of her comps fields at UT required her to write two syllabi and two lectures. I think that sounds excellent–though I would say we should go even farther. And it leads me to wonder why similar formats aren’t catching on like wildfire. A syllabus makes you synthesize and organize a field, and lectures make you grapple with the details of a given debate in order to determine how best to present it to students. Don’t those two things encompass the bulk of the benefits that people have ascribed to the exam? (I should mention that my department, in the past week, has decided to take a tiny, gingerly step in that direction. It’s not nearly enough.)

    Thanks again for all your responses!

    • In response to your comment here, I just wanted to say that while I think comps are very useful, they are not the ONLY useful assessment in a MA or PhD program. Before i could become ABD I had to- complete my coursework (8 courses in US History, 3 courses in European history, and 2 courses in feminist though), pass first year exam (2 hour written), pass two language exams (translate a text within a set time), comps (4 hours written and 1 hour oral), write 2 syllabi with historiographical justifications, write and present a masters’ thesis (paper was 35 pages, but had to present it in a conference as well) and write and defend (2 hour oral) my dissertation proposal. Comps is therefore ONE useful aspect, but it’s certainly not enough on its own.

  13. Michael, congratulations, and a few thoughts. First from pedagogy: Lee Shulman has developed the notion of “signature pedagogies” in the professions, and these tend to be pedagogical practices that are held to be both transformative and anxiety-provoking (e.g., socratic method in law; clinical rounds in medicine, etc.: they are how one learns how to think like an X, meaning a professional. For this reason, focusing on the information one has learned, rather than the way one has learned how to learn, loses sight of this important function. Immersing yourself in the writings of historians helps you learn how to think like an historian. They also provide a communally sponsored ritual to enter into the disciplinary culture and its practices and its characteristic ways of thinking.

    From the perspective of career preparation, I think the comps provide important practice in the skills of synthetic and reflective reading you’ll need to be doing throughout your career as both teacher and researcher. I think that the danger of narrowing the reading too much, or rationalizing it too tightly around a very specific goal, means that you risk losing the reflective element, which is to some extent based in things like serendipity and the development of larger, longer term interests that might sustain you throughout your career. So I would say that there is a balance between the long-term and the short-term when we think about the functions of comps.

  14. I am currently reading for my comps exams that are scheduled for November 15th. I will reserve my judgments until that time.

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