Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Comprehensive Exams: What's At Stake?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Comprehensive Exams: What's At Stake?

          A recent column by David Brooks on The Chronicle’s website stood out to me because of its title, “As Smart As I’ll Ever Be.” Immediately, I thought to myself, “That must be about comps.”
          Yes, it was. As I read the column, in which the author recounts his exam year experience of reading, studying, and preparing, I remembered my comprehensive exams, which happened to be around the same year as the author’s. I resonated with Mr. Brooks’ nostalgic and reflective tone. Like Mr. Brooks, I often remember my exam prep as a time full of motivation and revelation.
          Lots of images and ideas in the column sounded familiar to me. Brooks describes his study scene, and his realization that this studying would not only help him get his degree, but also form the foundation of his career: “As I organized titles into ever-growing piles in my basement, I saw potential courses emerge. I started jotting down ideas for new syllabi. The process of going through the books helped me imagine teaching from them. For one of my four fields, the written exam became a survey-course syllabus with an annotated bibliography, including a justification for each reference.”
          Like Brooks, I, too, studied in a basement. For me, I found that I required some kind of physical space that could match the mental spaces I was carving out in my mind for this information and these ideas. And I remember thinking the same things – finding threads around which entire courses could be designed. It was exciting. Brooks writes, “Suddenly I was reading with the intent of organizing my impressions into a big, and hopefully clear, picture of those fields, rather than for the immediate, frantic task of cranking out another seminar assignment.” It was true – comps studying changed my view of my field entirely. It was a chance to zoom out, to take what I had found under the microscope and see how it fit into the whole literary organism.
          I always tell my friends, both within and outside my program, that I have never felt smarter than I did when I was waist-deep in studying for comps. Brooks alludes to this same feeling, and also notes that others he talked to felt the same way.  He writes about his talks with his colleagues about their experiences: “I sensed a degree of nostalgia that I have never heard anyone associate with, say, writing a dissertation.” As someone who is writing her dissertation now, I think that rings true, although I of course don’t know for sure since I am currently writing the diss rather than looking back on it. But what rings true to me is the difference between my feeling during comps studying and my experience writing the diss. Unlike during my exam year, I don’t feel smart writing my dissertation. I often feel overwhelmed and like nothing is good enough.  But during exam prep, I felt sharpened, and productive. I felt like I was making discoveries. I'm not exactly sure why the two periods in my academic career feel so different. Maybe it purely the veil of nostalgia. But who wouldn’t be nostalgic for a time of intense and revelatory intellectual and personal discoveries – a time when you felt smart and purposeful and motivated? On the timeline of someone’s life, those kind of moments or periods of time may be precious and rare.
          Towards the end of my exam prep, at dinner with my parents one night, I remember a comment that my dad made that shaped the way I understood my experience of studying for exams. This always sticks out in my mind, so thought sharing the anecdote on this blog may help me sort out why this seemingly off-hand comment has stayed with me.
          Let me set the scene: I had emerged from the basement of my childhood home, where I had set up a temporary “exam study room” with a bed, desk, and all my study materials. I was starving, ready to break for a meal before my night-time review session. I had come to look forward to my night time session  -- in the last month before my oral exam date, before bed each night I played a game with myself. For this game, I made index cards each day with important names, themes, titles, authors, characters, critics, and contextual threads written on the front. On the back of the card, during the day, I would write everything I knew. Then, that night, before I’d go to bed, I’d spread these cards out on my bed, so that they covered my entire bed spread. I wasn’t allowed to go to bed until I’d talked through each card.  I found this game to be a great way to review the studying I’d done during the day, or week, and also to practice speaking orally about the topics, which I knew was a different skill then just knowing the information. Anyway, that evening, I had just set up my cards for the night, and my plan was to eat dinner, hang with my parents for a bit, and then head downstairs for my game of literary solitaire. 
          I was lucky that I was able to move back in with my parents for exams, for financial reasons as well as time-saving reasons such as being able to share dinners with them sometimes instead of cooking for myself.  My parents were so generous with their time that semester, and so supportive and understanding. I realize that not everyone has the comforts of their mom and dad’s support during exam time! So I was feeling grateful that I could take a break and have a nice dinner with them.
          Anyway, during the meal, the three of us began discussing something that had nothing to do with academia or literature. I actually think we were discussing a new Bruce Springsteen song. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember my dad looking at me after I spoke and saying, “Maybe you are getting too smart to talk to us.” My first reaction was embarrassment. I apologized and blamed it on being immersed in comps studying. But the comment startled me – I hadn’t realized the kind of “mode” that comps studying had put me in. I finished dinner and went back downstairs, to play my game. But I ended up thinking long and hard about my dad’s comment.
          In the end, I was grateful for the comment in two respects. One, it made me aware that my studying was restructuring, hopefully permanently, the way I saw connections between my field and the world at large. Studying was indeed, a comprehensive act, and it was helping me draw together small threads of analysis that I had been accumulating and weave them into larger bolts of thought-fabric. I was seeing a bigger picture, thinking in ways that allowed me to make connections and draw important conclusions.
          The second reason I was glad my dad made the comment was that I didn’t want to walk around sounding like a jerk.
          “As Smart As I’ll Ever Be” made me think back and reflect on my exam experience. And my dad’s comment always makes me remember that graduate school, if nothing else, is helping my thoughts, views, and thinking skills to constantly evolve and grow.  I’m not the same person I was before graduate school, before comps, and before beginning my dissertation. And being aware of this evolution helps me see both the pros and cons of the graduate experience. Ultimately, it helped me realize what kinds of forces were shaping my views of the world -- and being aware of what shapes your thoughts is so important if you ever want to offer the world some original, truly creative new ideas.  
          All of this also makes me realize that grad life is real life – it’s part of the journey of who you are, who you become, and who will be. So, now that you’ve heard one of mine, what were your exam stories? Or, if you have yet to take them, what questions, fears, anticipations and expectations do you have? Comment and discuss!!
          In the meantime, I’ll be working dutifully on the dissertation, trying to reclaim some of little piece of the intellectual self-esteem I had once staked out for myself, during comps.  Oh, nostalgia…. 

Until next time,


  1. First of all, I just want to say that that game is SUCH a great idea! If only there were some way you could market it so that you could share it with all the other students suffering through comps. studying (Master's of PhD's) in every field! I feel like it would be useful no matter what your area of expertise.

    But, on a more serious note, I think that what you're pointing to here is also the reason that graduate school is useful even if you don't go into academia. It's a shame when people say that people with PhD's are suited for nothing else but being a professor. I just don't think that's true. I think that you're right and the experience of graduate school, no matter how far you go, helps you grow emotionally and intellectually, as well as to see connections others just wouldn't see. And it's so important to realize that!


    1. Thanks Alex! If nothing else, the game prevented me from collapsing on my bed and falling asleep prematurely! Haha!

      I agree totally about the need, from all angles, to begin viewing a graduate education in a different light -- employers should see new possibilities in Masters and PHD holders, and departments should try to find ways to support alternative paths, as well!