Monday, February 11, 2013

For Those About to Comp (We Salute You)

In December, I took (and passed - phew!) my oral comprehensive exams. 

I thought it might be useful to other students to write down some tips for things that were helpful while studying for my comps and picking my committee. As an acoustical aide for the rest of this post, please play the following video while reading:

Alexis' Advice for Comps*

0) Write your proposal

1) Pick a good committee
Not the ideal
committee member

  • If someone says that a possible committee member (PCM) was horrible on their committee, don't ask them to be on yours. 
  • If your advisor doesn't like a PCM, they probably aren't going to be a good fit. 
  • If you don't get along with someone, they probably won't make a good committee member.

Your goals when picking a committee are to 

  1. Fulfill your department's requirements (my department requires three of the members to be full graduate faculty - see page 15)
  2. Pick a group of people who will help make your science and your dissertation the best that it can be and keep you on track to graduating in a reasonable amount of time. 

In addition to your four regular committee members, you should have one "outside" member, whose primary function is "to ensure that standards and procedures are fairly applied." This person is basically supposed to be your advocate, making sure that the rest of your committee members don't try and make you jump through unrealistic hoops. Not all of your committee members have to be in your field of research (especially the outside member). It can be helpful if their specialty is something that complements your research in some way, because then you can go to them for advice. For example, I have people who specialize in line-transect surveys, underwater sound recording, and underwater localization on my committee, all of which are a part of my dissertation. It has been very helpful to be able to ask these people for help and feedback. The specialties don't always have to be this specific - an ecologist or statistician is always helpful!

2) Talk to all your committee members about what they want you to know

Do your committee members expect you to know everything about science since the dawn of time, or do they expect you to know things relevant your field? I asked my committee members to give me a list of papers/book chapters that they would like me to read. Narrowing down your subject area doesn't mean that you won't have much to study- far from it! It just means that you have some idea of what you should be covering, allows you to make a study schedule, and keeps you a little more sane.

My pile of comps reading material, with tequila and lemon for scale.
Also, it is OK to talk to your committee members about your level of knowledge and what is reasonable for them to expect you to know. For example, two of my committee members have degrees in Engineering, but the last class I took in math was Calculus (in 2001). Thus, it wasn't really realistic of them to expect me to know advanced engineering, but I did study linear algebra, matrices, and reviewed my calculus before the exam.

3) Set a date for your comprehensives (several months ahead of time).

Setting the date for your comps is great, because it gives you a date and time by which you HAVE to get stuff done. Setting it several months ahead of time (I suggest at least 3) is also great because it gives you a chance to break up your studying into small, manageable chunks. Which leads me to my next point:

4) Break up your work into daily chunks

Ration your reading.
I have a quote taped to my computer monitor at home, which reads:
"We often underestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do in the long term, if we do a little each day."
For example, let's take one of my comps reading books, Principles of Marine Bioacoustics. This book has 657 pages, none of which are light reading. But, my committee chair (and advisor) had told me to read the whole book. Instead of trying to read the entire thing at once, and frying my brains in the process, I broke the book up into 10-page chunks and started reading about 3 months before my comprehensives. At a little more than 10 pages per day, the book took ~60 days to read, and didn't totally burn me out. Even though it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere at first, I read the entire thing with a couple weeks to spare for reviewing. At the same time, I also broke up my other review materials into manageable chunks. Overall, I probably studied 3-6 hours a day, which was much less exhausting than trying to cram it all into my head in the two weeks leading up to comps.

5) Study the hard stuff first

One of my labmates gave me this good advice. If you need more time on the hard stuff (in my case, all the technical acoustics and math), it is better to know EARLY than to realize you need more time when there isn't more time to be had. Also, if you study the hard stuff first, you have the opportunity to go in and ask your committee members about it, which leads me to...

6) Talk to your committee members AGAIN! (And again!)
Exactly wrong.

When you are able to talk to your committee members about questions, they can help you out, and make your life easier! You may even realize you need to possibly modify your reading list. This happened to me when a committee member and I realized that I wasn't as advanced in math as she assumed (not surprising, considering I was a biology major). As a result, we switched up some of my reading and I got to learn some linear algebra into the bargain. Yay! Throughout the 3 months leading up to my comprehensives, I periodically checked in with my committee members to make sure that I was on the right track. In fact, the hardest, scariest questions I got at my comps were from the committee members I talked to the least.

7) Don't forget to glance over the "easy stuff."

When you've been sweating the scary hard stuff, don't forget to glance over the things you take for granted. The question I did the worst on on my comps was on a basic equation that I totally know.  I know it so well that I hadn't even looked at it before the exam, and so when it came up I FROZE. Try and glance over the stuff you are sure you know, as a refresher. 

*All this advice is highly idiosyncratic and specific to me, my committee, department and university. However, I really felt like it helped me to have a relatively pain-free comprehensive experience. In comparison with some of my friend's comps experiences (one of whom described coming home and sitting in the running shower and crying after passing comps!), it was pretty good. I was nervous and uncomfortable and felt like a total idiot, but I think that's fairly benign. These strategies helped me feel at least a little bit in control of the situation. And now I have this totally awesome (but not especially useful) certificate.

This means I almost have a PhD
... but not really.

How did you manage to survive comps?


  1. There's a seed of a problem with point 1c, that you shouldn't pick a committee member who doesn't get along with your advisor. If your committee members are too chummy, you risk them being a group of "yes men" for your major advisor. In that case, you won't have a committee at all. Some internal conflict among your committee can be a good thing - it allows space to air different viewpoints, and can be a big help when you and your advisor don't see eye-to-eye.

  2. Hey Drew,

    I think that's a good point - it would also be bad if your committee was too cliquey and there weren't multiple viewpoints. But it can also be a huge problem if their personal problems with each other leads to strife because they can't stand to be around each other. I do know people who have had bickering among their committee members hold up their progress. Fortunately, I don't think I had either problem - everyone got along, but it certainly wasn't a group of "yes-people" (if you knew my committee, you'd think that suggestion is very funny). I personally think it would be much more likely to end up with a bunch of people who can't get along than a group that gets along too well, but your experience may have been different than mine.

  3. Great post, thanks for your insights. I just scheduled my comps for June 2014 and I'm a little freaked out about what is coming. It sounds like I need to stay on my own case about constantly checking in with my committee as my comps date approaches (six months out currently). I tend to just hide away and work like crazy, but you make a good argument for talking to them frequently. Thanks!


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