Qualifying/Comprehensive Exams: You can do this!

Are your qualifying exams coming up? If so, I’m sure you are under quite a bit of stress and pressure. This is normal and apart of the process. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what qualifying exams are, know they are also referred to sometimes as comprehensive exams (or comps). They are exams that demonstrate your core competency in your field as a doctoral student. Failure to pass these exams, result in the dismissal/termination of your doctoral studies. So with that being said, you can see how stressful this is on a doctoral student. To dive a little bit deeper into why this is important, I’d like to break down the structure of the PhD program:

  1. In a doctoral program you will normally complete coursework first.
  2. Upon or during completing your coursework you will take your qualifying exams.
  3. After successful completion of the qualifying exams, you become a PhD Candidate and may move into the doctoral portion of your program.
  4. Next you will do a proposal of your dissertation research (also referred to as a preliminary exam).
  5. Last step is to do your final defense!

Depending upon your program there may be additional items that need to be completed. For instance in my program you must also complete a research examination after passing the qualifying exams before proceeding to Step 4 listed above. You also have another requirement to teach as well.

One thing to note is that you have two chances to pass these qualifying exams so do not fret but do take them very seriously. Here are a few tips that I found to aid in my preparation of the exams:

  • Talk to students who have already taken them and passed
  • If possible, see if you can get any sample exams to look at
  • Any questions you have, make sure to speak with the professor who taught the course
  • Review the slides from the course
  • Review the book from the course
  • Find practice questions to practice with (Use your old exams from the class as well as google or your search engine of choice.)
  • Form a study group with your cohorts
  • Study individually as well
  • Pace yourself (Don’t wait until the last-minute to study!)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions
  • Don’t compare yourself to others
  • DO NOT PUT THEM OFF (This causes additional unnecessary stress! Take them and get it over with! *Remember you can’t move forward in your program if you don’t.)

The real work relies on you. Know that you can do this! If you do your part in preparing, you are sure to pass them. If for some reason you do not pass them all remember, it is not the end of the world! You have a second chance. You now know what they are looking for and know what you need to do. Keep pushing and share any tips you might have once you successfully complete them. Leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscibe!


3 thoughts on “Qualifying/Comprehensive Exams: You can do this!

  1. Very informative post! Great work!

    I would like to add that some programs may present different requirements for their qualifying/comprehensive exams. For instance, my former program has two preliminary exams. Your written exam involves producing a research paper to demonstrate your ability to conduct scholarly research; the oral exam is the actual dissertation proposal. Upon completion of both exams will you become a Ph.D. candidate.

    At my new institution, we don’t have a “test” to take but rather a portfolio of our body of work which includes your coursework, a writing sample, your plan of study, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Earl the written exam you speak of at your former program is equivalent to the research exam in my program. So for us we have two additional steps in comparison to yours before we can do our preliminary exam (or your former program’s oral exam). Your new program sounds awesome! I’m excited for you!

      Liked by 1 person

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