There are few things that inspire as much fear in graduate students as the dreaded comprehensive exam. Clouded in mystery, the exams are a hazing ritual that unites all graduate students, regardless of discipline. This past May [2014], after putting off my exams for a year (not something I recommend), I was finally forced to face my fears, and I survived. Well, survived may be the wrong word, especially since I feel as though I am in need of social reintegration program after spending months chained to my desk. Nonetheless, I thought I would write this post as a way to have some closure on the experience, as well as share some of my hard learned lessons. While my experience is primarily aimed at History graduate students, I hope others will find my ‘wisdom’ useful.

Before I begin sharing my experience, I need to vent a bit. Feel free to skip ahead here but if you are feeling particularly annoyed, confused, or angry about the exams then know you are not alone and read on.

Though, the comprehensive exams were something I feared, a greater part of my reluctance to sit the exams was because I thought and still do think that comprehensive exams in their current iteration are a pretty big waste of time.

I don’t think the exams are a waste of time because they force graduate students to work hard. In fact, I found that part of the exam satisfying, along with the structured-ness of studying for the exams over the vagaries of coursework or research. Furthermore, I now have a large database of secondary source material, which hopefully will be helpful in the future. In my department, we have three fields (one major and two minors), and have to write four essays in seven days, and then sit a two hour oral exam. The entire experience is a little surreal since you only sit the exams once, and there is no way to really prepare for trying to summarize 100 plus books in ten pages. I found the experience exhausting and nerve-racking, and the writing portion particularly bizarre since historians are rarely under time pressured constraints. Nonetheless, none of these issues are why I think the exams are a large time sink with few pay offs.

My critique of the exams arises from the disconnect between the exams’ stated purpose and the reality of the experience. The rationales I have heard for the exams include: to prepare your knowledge of the secondary sources for your dissertation; to certify you to teach in your exam fields; and lastly, and most troubling, as a rite of passage. The first reasoning I know is true for some graduate students, but in my case unfortunately my exams fields and dissertation research had little overlap. However, even for those students where there is a great deal of overlap, I feel the type of secondary source research required for dissertation prep and exam prep is quite different, and that this exam prep is only useful if you are still looking for a topic. The second reasoning I feel is a bit of stretch, unless the exams are intended to prepare for teaching graduate level courses in those fields. The exams are intended as a meta-level analysis of your fields, and would be largely useless in most undergraduate classes. I also feel that the degree of variability between exams within a department, let alone the discipline, seems to undermine any weight of the exams as a teaching certification mechanism. How can a hiring committee know if I’m truly qualified to teach Modern Middle Eastern history based on an exam they’ll never read or listen to?

The final reasoning is the one I find the most problematic. While academia is usually stereotyped as antiquated, the rationale of the exams as a hazing ritual seems particular outdated and pernicious. Can you imagine many other jobs where the entire rationale is based on the logic that this is how we’ve done things since the 19th century, so you have to as well? One of the hardest aspects of the exams for me to swallow was how varied the degree to hazing was due to the make-up of a student’s committee. Thus, depending on your fields and advisors in my department, you could end up with 25 books or over 100. This final point brings me to my biggest beef with the exams - the lack of transparency.

For some reason these exams are treated more like an induction into a secret cult, then an actual certification process. Instead of being able to show the amount of work and time that went into preparing for these exams, I have to take it on faith that hiring committees will infer the weeks of 14 hour days that went into my preparation. This assumption is even more distressing when trying to imagine how to communicate the amount of work this activity required to employers outside of the academe. While I realize given the unique nature of each graduate student, standardizing the exams would be difficult and likely undesirable. However, I can’t help but wish I had more to show for my efforts. Perhaps a portfolio of material or some type of actual certification that regardless of where I work after my dissertation I would be able to point to and show that I’m a hard worker and you should hire me.

I now realize this rant is my entire post so I’ll have to make the next post about actually surviving these exams but I would be happy to hear others thoughts on their experiences with the exams, and whether there is a way to make the entire process more transparent and perhaps fair. For those about to take your exams, remember that you are not alone, and that you’re likely already much more prepared and equipped for your exams after years of coursework then you even realize.