If the doctoral dissertation is Mount Doom, then the comprehensive examination (or “comps”), a rite of passage for all PhD aspirants, could be likened to the trek to Mordor.
Ostensibly, the purpose of a PhD program is to equip emerging scholars to competently perform their own, and supervise others in performing, original research that contributes meaningfully to the body of human knowledge. Although there are two main tests for doctoral students that evaluate this ability, most people have only heard about one, the dissertation.
Dissertations comprise three major parts: successful oral defense of the proposed thesis topic and research methodology, completion of a written document describing the research done from start to finish, and, finally, a public oral defense of the entire project. For many students, the thesis proposal can be the most onerous part because it is all new content and likely represents the first time in a person’s life that they have produced a work of this magnitude. The final dissertation, typically, draws heavily upon the thesis proposal. Getting the research methodology to yield valid and reliable results and then analyzing and articulating the meaning of the outcomes, in a way that satisfies all members of the individual’s committee, is a major part of the work associated with the last part of the dissertation process.
In order to meet the requirement of contributing new information to the body of human knowledge and complete their degree in anything considered to be a reasonable period of time, PhDs-to-be must select very narrow topics for their dissertations. Sometimes the specificity of the research reaches comical heights. In fact, there are whole websites devoted to the subject of people’s dissertation topics and the hilarity that ensues when trying to find a yet-unanswered problem that must be solved in order to further additional work in a field.
Conceptually, the dissertation demonstrates expertise in an area that is an inch wide, but a mile deep. The scholar has indisputably mastered a specific topic by the end of the dissertation. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are prepared to advise, guide, and supervise the work of others in the same field. To demonstrate breadth of knowledge, doctoral students take comps. Successful completion of comps demonstrates knowledge that is a mile wide, but an inch deep. In other words, comprehensive competence in a subject. Most often, comps are done after all coursework has been completed, but before undertaking the dissertation.
Earlier this month, I took the three-part comprehensive exam required by my program. It consisted of a series of timed closed-book essays, an individual case study paper with oral defense, and an observed group case study with oral defense. It was a slog. I was lucky in that a friendly classmate invited me to join her study group, which helped to make the preparation less worse, but it was far from fun. Since concluding the group project on February 7, I’ve been waiting for the results <cue the Final Jeopardy music>.
The email arrived yesterday afternoon. I am now a doctoral candidate, meaning that there’s “only” my dissertation standing between me and the degree. More than anything, I feel relief. In my head, I had this idea that I’d burst into happy tears upon hearing the news or at least be elated enough to want to go out for ice cream. Honestly, I’m a bit disappointed that I’m not more excited, but I’m learning to meet myself where I am. I can’t force myself to feel any particular way and, I keep reminding myself, I don’t need to. I’m content with feeling relieved and having the anxiety and weight of the exam hanging over me removed.
Now, about that dissertation…