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:
0) Write your proposal
1) Pick a good committee
|Not the ideal |
- 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
- Fulfill your department's requirements (my department requires three of the members to be full graduate faculty - see page 15)
- 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.|
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.|
"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!)
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?