Comprehensive Examination Advice


“I would start at the beginning, third semester review. Here, as you know, people define their areas of focus, which leads to the creation of a bibliography, which leads to comps questions.So, at and before the third semester review I think that it is incredibly important to define targeted and specific areas of focus. These areas do not need to cover everything a person is interested in. They only need to cover the major themes that one is going to study. So, my advice is to keep them small. I went too broad and wound up with some of my areas being too amorphous to manage. The real problem with broad areas becomes apparent in the creation of your reading list and when you realize that your committee will likely choose to pull from what they find interesting on your list, not necessarily what you think is the most important. So, in summary my advice is to keep comps areas tight and reading lists on point. Remember, that as you are reading for comps you will find more and more useful readings, and that you are not restricted to reading from your list, but you are responsible for knowing everything that is on your list.

Set your dates early! It was not easy to wrangle my committee for orals. Also, you have to factor in the grad school’s timelines as well as room and laptop availability. Plus, a strict deadline helped me study. I was able to figure out how many sources I needed to read each week in order to leave myself three weeks (I would recommend no less than 3 if you can help it, more is better) for studying my note cards.

Everyone needs to study in their own way, but when it came time to sit down and read, I chose to make large note cards that bordered on being data sheets for each reading. [Side A = Author/ date] [Side B = (As Applicable) Title, Location of Study, A Summary of the Study, and Bullet Points of Vital Information]. Then I tried to study all (roughly 400) of the cards (broken down by comps area) for a few weeks before the actual exam. As I went through rounds of studying, I highlighted the most important information until each reading/card was basically a

sentence or two that I needed to remember. I focused a lot of my energy on memorizing author/year. I wish I could say that this was a waste of time, but I did use a lot of these citations on the written portion of the exams.

Another tool that I found useful was serious contemplation of arguments. What do people say are the strengths and short comings of a method, theory, or idea? Something I learned after the fact was that my committee expected me to be able to outline these arguments and add my own opinion as to who was right or wrong or what I would do differently. This was my biggest criticism in my exams. They wanted me to be more critical. They wanted to see that I was not just reciting the literature, but rather that I had thought about it and developed well informed opinions, which I had, but was reluctant to write for fear that this was inappropriate for comps. I went in viewing it like I would a big in-class essay-based final exam with right and wrong answers. This was a mistake. Comps is a place to showcase your knowledge of the literature, but it is also a place to showcase your ability to make and support arguments. So, think about arguments, and do not be afraid to state your opinion, but be ready to back it in your written answers and to defend it at orals.

Back to citations, I missed opportunities to say insightful things because I was afraid to speak without a citation. While it is true that you should cite as much as you can, I think I would have been better off expressing myself a bit more even if I lacked a citation or had to ballpark a few more citations. I did some citations such as (Author 198X) when I could not remember the exact year, but I avoided broader citations such as (Author 20XX). I think that I would weight how important the citation is and then decide what to do. Remember that more exact is always better, but, in many cases, no one cares if you are a few years off on some (but not all) citations (note: I miss cited the year on a paper written by my advisor and only heard joking criticism).

Also, when studying, go to Margie! She has copies of all of our exams and she is happy to share them. Get the questions from Margie for people who have your advisor and your committee members. Also, ask her for exams from people who have your areas of interest. I was able to find people who had a similar region, theory, and methods sections (no single person had any two of these areas). Your questions will not be the same, but you can get an idea of what caliber of question is asked.

When taking comps, read the questions! I missed the mark on at least one part of one question. Try to take a minute and really think about what they are asking. Many of these questions may have been synthesized from input from multiple committee members so think about how they are worded and what information they are actually looking for.

After writtens, don’t panic! The hard part is over. You know exactly what mistakes you made. Take a few days to let your mind reset, then reread your questions and answers (Margie has these). Figure out what you did wrong or could have done better on and read up on it. Orals are your chance to defend yourself and own up to your mistakes. I prepped pretty hard to recover from one question in particular. But, they never asked me about it at orals. Go figure, but at least I went in with confidence and planned to own up to a knowledge gap that was identified during my writtens and that I had since closed.

Finally, know that they do not want you to fail. They want you to prove that you have a passion for your areas and that you have committed yourself to the program and to overcoming hurdles like comps. It really is a rite of passage and we are all better for it, but while studying, it is hard to see the light at the other end of the tunnel. Just know that it is there and power through.”


Biological Anthropology:

“1. Read first thing in the morning. It should be the top priority for the day, other wise it won’t happen (At least it didn’t for me) – This also doesn’t mean wake up at 5 AM to read 5 articles — that’s crazy. Just do as much as you can as early as possible! I would advise reading quickly for the overall content, not word-for-word. You need to know something about the article and what it says — your not going to remember everything about it!

2. Plan to complete each area over a 1 month period per area.  I wish I had done this!

3. I used an excel spreadsheet with the citation (Temple 2012) and the annotation in two columns that were visible to record my annotations, which I found helpful for recording what I needed to read and what was complete. I also made flash cards which were helpful as well.

4. Laurie will suggest outlines for each topic, which is something I did as well. These were very helpful — think of questions and make outlines for the answers to those questions.

5. In some cases, you will need to read more thoroughly, (but not all cases!). I got tripped up on the Iron deficiency anemia hypothesis, which I couldn’t remember the specific evidence for. If you have topics like this in your bibliography that you are less familiar with, I would make sure you know the evidence for those topics.

6. Remember Betsy’s advice (which will calm your nerves): “You have to be completely incompetent to fail” — You are definitely NOT completely incompetent, so you’ll do fine!

7. When you are in the room writing, just remember: It cannot be perfect. That’s not what they expect! They want you to know something, not everything. Just relax and write as much as you can. ”

– April Smith

Cultural Anthropology:

“My sub-field is cultural; more specifically, I’m a political ecologist of food and agriculture working in postsocialist Europe and interested in conservation, sensuous ethnography, and anthropology of policy. However, I hope that this advice will resonate with students across fields. I am one of those who found comps to be both grueling and “fun”: psychologically grueling to study for, but exhilarating and rewarding to write and defend. This was my approach:
I found it very useful to abandon the alphabet in studying comps bibliographies; last names are arbitrary, anyway, but I found that publication dates can do a lot to help you organize information and trace threads in your three areas chronologically. To do this, I sub-divided each of my three sections into 4-6 smaller, related sections with the advice of my major professor and committee members. For example, the overwhelming area “political ecology of food and agriculture” was broken into bespoke sections relative to my topic, such as foundations, anthropology of policy, politics of food labeling, etc. Then I put each of these subsections in chronological order by original publication date and entered them into three excel spreadsheets (one for each major area).

Each spreadsheet was organized by subsection, each of which were in chronological order. I made a column for item type (article, book, etc.) and approximate page length (if book). This helped me to pace myself and schedule reading time appropriately. I also created a column with a SUCCINCT (5-10 words!) take-home point from each reading. I think it can also be useful to browse others’ commentary (blog entries, book reviews) when summarizing more foundational pieces, especially if you read them in year one but need to refresh quickly. Reviews also reference other relevant pieces, so they can help you in refining your bibliographies early-on.

I then memorized author/date for each subsection by heart–there really is no way around this! I made flash cards for every piece with author/year on one side and that 5-word summary (or list of keywords) on the other. I then drug other friends into my practice sessions, because misery loves company.
When the first morning of written comps arrived, I woke up early and ate a solid meal. I packed a snack and a mug of coffee because I had scheduled my exams for 9am-1pm. I put my anthropologist hat on and accepted the trial by tribulation that is our departmental “right of passage”. Everyone does it. Don’t freak out. Call another friendly student if you need a pep talk!
I followed someone else’s advice (from the Emily Horton compilation of 2016) and entered the room with my scratch paper and immediately reproduced my lists in their subsections, chronologically, just like I had practiced. I jotted down a few keywords next to each. It took about 25-30 minutes, but this prep time was immensely helpful when I started to write, because I had my references displayed in front of me in an already organized way. And sure enough, the questions I received were in-line with many of the subsections I had used.
I ran out of time during the final question of my first morning. Don’t let this happen to you! By my third day, I allowed a max of 45 minutes for each of 4 questions to give me time for the prep at the beginning (scratch paper notes) and some revision at the end.
I went home each afternoon lamenting all of the things I didn’t have time to write down in my answers. Take notes of those things and bring them to your oral defense! You aren’t expected to completely exhaust the topic in 4 hours (impossible!), so get over that feeling and bring those other thoughts/ideas/connections to your orals. It will make it more interesting, anyway.
Finally, through the whole process, make sure you are communicating with your major professor and committee members. They won’t set you up for failure. I could see each of my committee members’ professional personalities in their questions, and was glad I had taken the time to meet with each of them and have discussions about what they found interesting/important/perplexing in my research areas so that none of these questions came as a complete surprise.”
     -June Brawner