Monday, April 2, 2012

81. Comprehensive exams.

American doctoral programs are divided into three major components: courses, comprehensive or general exams ("comps" or "generals"), and the dissertation. Some programs include an extra step, a battery of qualifying exams that precede comprehensive exams. (When master's degree programs were more rigorous than they are now, their structure mirrored that of doctoral programs: courses, comps, and the master's thesis. Only a few master's programs still require all three. See Reasons 5 and 55.) Of the three components, exams are often the least understood by prospective graduate students. It is difficult to make generalizations about comprehensive exams, because they are handled so differently from one department to the next, even within the same university. In one program, you might have to pass four five-hour written exams over a period of weeks, in another, three six-hour exams over a period of days. Written exams are typically followed by oral exams. In some programs, a high percentage of students fail these exams and consequently have to end their graduate studies involuntarily. In other programs, faculty members don't allow students to take exams until they are confident that they will pass. Regardless of their form or pass-rate, comprehensive exams are designed to be intimidating.

Theoretically, your courses familiarize you with the major works and issues in your discipline, and then exams test your broad knowledge of the field before you're allowed to embark on the dissertation (a focused study of a specific issue within your field). Your courses, however, are not intended to prepare you for your comprehensive exams. On top of your coursework, plus any work obligations that you have as a research or teaching assistant, you are assigned an absurd amount of reading by the members of your faculty committee (see Reason 39). You are expected to prepare for your exams by reading and “mastering” this academic literature. 

In many cases, preparing for exams proves worse than actually taking them. Months of anxious anticipation and intensive study are accompanied by the unease of not knowing what, exactly, is most important to glean from your reading. Passing your comprehensive exams means "advancing to candidacy" and acquiring the dubious distinction of being ABD ("all but dissertation"). Because the exam phase is so draining and bears so little resemblance to what comes next, the achievement of passing can quickly turn bittersweet. Making the transition into the dissertation phase requires a jarring pivot from frantically consuming academic writing to frantically producing it. For many, the nerve-wracking experience of surviving comprehensive exams leaves them without the energy necessary to complete a dissertation (see Reason 60). It is safe to say that most of those who drop out of doctoral programs do so after passing their comprehensive exams (see Reason 46). Their ABD status does them little good anywhere, even within the walls of academe.



100 comments:

  1. Comprehensive exams were actually the only part of graduate school that I thought sounded at all appealing.

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    1. They also sounded appealing to me; I thought I would finally have a handle on what my field does and how I could contribute to it. But in practice, that was definitely not the case.

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    2. Bummer. I'm out of school now (took the bachelor's and ran), but I still like reading academic books in the same field that interested me. I liked the idea of getting extensive lists of important books in a couple of interesting fields, so that I'd actually know what the big deals were saying on the subject. I guess if you're busy taking or TA'ing for classes you don't really have time.

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    3. I loved my comprehensive exams, in American Literature and Philosophy. It is now twenty years later, and I feel so happy I have this solid basis that I use today with my students, and has never left me. I enjoyed that year of reading more than any other year of my entire studies. I would have all the books in my living room, piled up, and would go through one by one, with great curiosity and excitement. I loved reading and learning: it was this reason that I actually went to graduate school in the first place. A chance to have a scholarship and read books for free! As for the exams themselves, they were incredibly pleasurable. One was a three hour examination of l00 books of American literature, with four examiners. A chance to bring up my ideas that had been stirring in me for an entire year. My interlocutors were very bright professors and they enjoyed the discussion. It was more of an intellectual conversation among equals than anything else. As for the written exam, I wrote for six hours on the concept of evil, based in fifty books of philosophy. Again, it brings enormous pleasure to me now to remember what I, at age 29, brought to fruition in those six hours. I had worked so hard to understand Kant, Aristotle, the Gospels, Holocaust theology, etc. To be able to sit down and put it all together, and have SOMEONE READ it and care: nothing can give more pleasure.

      If someone finds reading books and learning an anxious activity, there is no reason they should go to graduate school. Also, I now live in France, where exams are truly a humiliating affair, and the goal is to catch the student short. In the US, examiners treat students like peers, and it very lucky to get an American doctoral education. I am still thankful how well prepared I am. It set me up for a grounded career as a journalist, critic and professor, and I love this privilege of being educated.

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    4. 20 years ago there was a lot less to read. Comps require a knowledge of the past and present which means there are now 2 decades of extra material published not only from our own fields but all the literature from related fields that may impact your dissertation (because you know now we have to be able to claim one key skill on our cover letters, that skill being interdisciplinary). My comps list is 350 articles (as per my adviser's wishes) including books. It is not simply the reading and learning which gives us anxiety but the enormity of the task and pressure to retain details from such a large collection of equally worthy books and articles. That is not the building of a solid foundation of education but the construction of short term memory cues to retain large amounts of information to be used on one 8 hour exam.

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  2. This is why getting a PhD in the United States is pure madness. In European PhD programmes, one begins as a researcher straight away, which is why Europeans do their PhDs in a third of the time that Americans do.

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    1. My friend did a masters at LSE and had to take comps.

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    2. A lot of Masters programs have kept the comps and dropped the thesis requirement, so they're just like extra years of college with big tests at the end. When you go from that into Ph.D. comps, you've spent a long time in a test mindset. Then, when you finally get to the big diss, it's a monster the likes of which you've never seen. My theory is that dropping the Masters thesis requirement has actually slowed things down for Ph.D. students, because their research muscles don't get any serious exercise until way too late in the process.

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    3. AnonymousApril 2, 2012 9:15 AM: Therefore some masters programs offer a choice between thesis and comps; comps for people going straight into careers (less time and money), and thesis for people going into academia (practice for PhD thesis)

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    4. The drawback of doing a Ph.D. in Europe, however, is that a masters degree is required before even starting a Ph.D. In an American program, you can go straight from your bachelors to a Ph.D.

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  3. I left grad school after deferring my comps exam FOUR TIMES because I would sit down with my adviser and find the ground shifting beneath my feet and realize I still wasn't prepared, didn't know what to do, hadn't done the right things, etc. And our comps process was fairly transparent compared to that of other departments. That game just wasn't worth the candle, ultimately. So many people encouraged me to continue so I could say I am "ABD," which seemed like the most ridiculous logic to me. I'm glad I quit.

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    1. I appreciate your taking the time to post your comment. I, too, have postponed my comps-could have taken in the last semester, July 2013 and now this month, October 2013 Now I am scheduled for Spring, 2014. I met with one professor and actually had a meltdown talking to her. She gave me around 7 or 8 detailed subjects that could be covered on her part of the exam. I talked to my advisor next and he said that the professors are not suppose to tell you anything that they might ask. He said to study all midterms and finals and go over notes. After all of that, I still feel like there is a massive amount of material and there is no way that I can be prepared. I have decided to just buckle down and start putting in the hours that it is going to take to pass this test. I can also really understand your decision. One has to weigh whether they can afford to take the time and emotional energy that it will take to be successful in completing this exam. Our test will be an all day essay test. I feel like I am definitely facing a giant and request prayers from all. It will only be by the grace of God that I will make it through this one. God has certainly been sufficient to have helped me this far and I just can't " throw in the towel" now!

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    2. I failed my economics comprehensive exam. I am so lost and I cry all the time. I am out of the phd program now. Worst thing is professors seemed bias towards some students and apart from merit a lot of politics come to play

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    3. I totally understand your feelings. I, too, failed my comps in sociology and am now out of the program. I feel much the same as you do and it is a grieving process. Yes, I agree about the bias and it does exist. I wonder why the faculty does not give some of us the support we need while other students get needed support. Good luck in whatever you do. Try not to let this experience define who you are or will be.

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    4. I just took my comp exam: written and oral. Written portion was four days covering four questions and forty pages total, also an oral exam. I got a conditional pass and need to rewrite one of my written answers. (By the fourth day of straight writing I guess I wasn't functioning on all cylinders.) Getting the conditional pass left me very depressed. After all that effort, I'm still not done with the process, and I could still fail. I have been scared to do the rewrite because I am afraid of failing (I have a lot more time, rather than the one-day I was originally given). I have nightmares that I am graded with a "0" for the rewrite and dismissed. I will do the rewrite. However, the process, especially getting the conditional pass, has left me utterly spent. I am physically and emotionally wrecked. And I am disappointed in myself for not passing cleanly. I am freaking miserable and I'm still not done.

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    5. What makes it worse is that my family and friends don't understand the concept of a conditional pass, or the rewrite. Some are under the impression I passed, while my family is freaked out that I won't do the rewrite. I am tired of trying to explain it to them.

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  4. When I think about my comps in retrospect, they seem like a gargantuan waste of time. Everything that I stuffed into my head for those examinations drained out of my brain the instant I walked out of orals. Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted frayed nerves.

    When I hear people refer to "academic hazing," comps are what come to mind. I finally got to know the literature in my field when it started to apply to what I was doing. I can barely remember anything from my comps.

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    1. I agree. They are even more useless when you figure in the fact that most graduates don't end up in a TT job where the knowledge learned during comps might come in handy.

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    2. Some programs use comps only for master's graduates who are going into careers; they have people going into academia take the thesis, while people going from a master's to a career take comps

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  5. This is definitely a good reason not to go to grad school. For my comps, my coursework did not prepare me for them (even though my professors claimed that it did); there was absolutely no time to prepare for them; and in the end, my profs passed me even though I wasn't anywhere close to what they had requested. Seriously, I felt like the process was more to see how much I could handle before having a mental breakdown. One of the worst times of my life and other grad students at my university feel similarly.

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    1. How were you able to get them to pass you? I am in a situation where i was 2 points away from passing and they are having me petition the graduate school for my final attempt.

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  6. I left a PhD program right before taking my comprehensive exams. This was at a top-tier place that requires a separate examination stage (written and oral mini- "defense") before you can receive your nominal master's degree and advance to candidacy. It's designed to weed out people that the department simply doesn't want to keep around, or the (perceived) slackers that they somehow know in advance will not pass the real round of comps. It's not the nicest thing to do to someone (especially because your fate has been decided in advance), but in a way it's like an academic mercy killing if you fail.

    The folks I know who failed the master's comps are now, more or less, doing just fine in the outside world. The couple of people I know who failed the real comps are absolute wrecks. And for everyone I know who is ABD right now, even if they're actually in the last stages of the dissertation, they're either overseas and trying to draw out the experience for as long as they can, or they're naively trying to wait out the abysmal job market.

    So anyway, I quit after making it halfway through my reading list (with a full teaching load) and realizing a couple of things. First, that this was a lot of trouble after already going through the wringer once before. And secondly, I couldn't imagine having to explain what the hell "ABD status" means to someone in a non-academic job interview once I quit. Mentioning my MA in that context got me, at the very least, a polite nod. But "ABD"? Might as well tell your prospective employer that you're from another planet.

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  7. IMHO people who received fellowships should be exempt from the comps. In my program (computer science) there is a written qualifying exam before you do the preliminary exam (a presentation of your dissertation proposal). You have two chances to pass the written exam in the first three semesters in attendance, and you have to be registered for courses in order to be eligible to take the exam. The exam has four areas, and you have to pass three.

    So the first time around, my dad passed away a day earlier so I did not take the exam. Unfortunately that counts as the first attempt. The second time I pass two areas only. My advisor endorsed an appeal, since I am a fellowship recipient, but the appeal was rejected because they think I would not finish based on my family circumstances. I forced to forfeit my fellowship for the PhD.

    It was damn lucky a certain IT department in the same university was looking for new full time staff and I was recommended into the spot, so making a decent paycheck and not to be on unemployment.

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  8. This is so true, and appropriate for me, as I am about one month away from taking my exams - and about 97% certain that I will quit right after. It can certainly be described as academic "hazing"; it is also a way of socializing students into the mentality that they should be working all the time, every day. Reading for exams has enabled me to see very clearly that this is not the way I would like to live - one's physical and mental health suffers, not to mention one's relationships with others. Blah, but I should be reading instead of typing this comment!

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  9. In my fields comps seem to be usually a waste of time and pretty trivial. I was given a take home exam by my committee on the broad topics I was planning to do my research. I just cut and pasted a whole bunch of stuff I had already written in term papers and the like. This was in 1991 in human geography. In economics the norm is written timed exams in macro, micro, econometrics, and the field of choice (e.g. environment) but these mostly just repeat the exams done at the end of each course and so again are a waste of time. We didn't do comps when I did my masters at LSE in 1989. What we did do was a single set of end of year exams as used to be traditional in Britain. There were no formal end of term exams let alone mid-terms. In undergrad degrees in the UK it used to be the norm to do a single set of exams at the end of the 3rd year on which all or most of the final result hung. Then at LSE we wrote a 3 month thesis/dissertation after the exams in the summer.

    We don't have comprehensive exams here in Australia, though coursework is increasingly being added to PhD programs.

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  10. When I applied to my PhD program, I had very little understanding of what "comprehensive exams" meant or entailed. Even after beginning the program, I never got a straight answer about what the exams entailed. My MA exams, at a different institution, had been an absolutely horrible experience. They consisted of a 4-hour written exam plus one oral exam, all based on a set reading list, given to all graduate students in the program. It contained hundreds of titles and it was an overwhelming and incredibly stressful experience preparing for it and taking the exams, but I survived. When I found out that the PhD comprehensive exams consisted of three 6-hour written exams, I had now idea how I could tackle such a thing. The worst part was that with each professor or graduate student I talked to in attempt to find out exactly what kind of questions are on the comprehensive exams and how to prepare for them, I got a different answer. Unlike the MA exam, I had to create my own reading lists which my committee had to approve, which put a lot of stress upon me because I never got a straight answer about what exactly should be on the reading lists. When all was said and done, the actual exams were not too bad. It was the months of stress, the endless reading, preparing, anticipating, and worrying about the unknown that was the worst.

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    1. Keeping things "mysterious" for people who haven't yet taken their comps is part of the intimidation. For me, it was the same: nothing but vague generalizations about what I should expect.

      Students who had taken their comps were as unhelpful as the professors. I started to get cynical and think that they wanted those of us who hadn't gone through them yet to be as nervous as possible, because that would make their accomplishment seem more impressive.

      A lot of academia is about showing off your peacock feathers: "I did this; I wrote this; I went here; I went there; I am better than you." In the case of comps, it's: "I ran the gauntlet. Hope you can handle it!"

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    2. And when you challenge them about being vague, the worst of them will deride you in front of your peers about how you are an "adult" now, and that you needn't be hand held anymore.

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    3. Thank you for the much needed statements; I was on the verge of giving up until reading I wasn't alone. Absolutely exhausted from the ignorant comments, stares and constant comparisons, I have had enough. Thanks to your reassurance in my struggle, I will continue to fight and win this battle.

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  11. Also, there's not necessarily set criteria for what counts as "pass" or "fail." It could just depend on the mood of the examiner that particular day.

    My department had written exams, and it was a STEM field, so you would think that there'd be a clear line for pass/fail. But, the professors would often grade the exams based on external data, e.g. whether they thought it would be "good for you" to retake the exam the following year. (This is what happened to me, with that explanation given.) I knew several people who were doing fine with their coursework but had personality clashes with the professors and then "failed" their qualifying exams and consequently were asked to leave the program. Another guy technically failed his exams three years in a row, but because he was well-liked in the department, he was eventually given an "honorary pass" based on the fact that he completed all of his coursework. (It's grad school. Everyone completes their coursework.) I think whoever called it "academic hazing" is 100% accurate.

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    1. I think we attend the same school or this is a common method for "grading" the exams. I as well am in a stem field and the entrance exams are entirely arbitrary.

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  12. If your professors don't like you - run like hell. You don't stand a chance of passing comps if one or more professors just has it out for you. It happens a lot, too, because most of the professors are petty, maladjusted, mentally ill people who never learned to play nice with others and take it out on unsuspecting and powerless grad students who want so badly to please them.

    The day I knew I was done was the day when my advisor told me, and I quote: "When I say jump, you say 'how high' and don't you ever think about arguing with me again."

    Peace out, asshole. I make twice as much money as you now anyway.

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    1. Oh my! My old advisor/head of the English MA department (later asked to step down) said pretty much the same thing - he told me I would NEVER make it through the MA program - when I did, they then went on to tell me that I would never pass the Comp exam. I have struggled with this exam... it is hard to be confident in yourself when you have been set up for failure. Needless to say, I now have someone else advising me on the exam. They have informed me that there is no way to prepare a student for the exam, however, at least they are positive and encouraging! I wish everyone the BEST of luck when it comes time for you to take the exam!

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    2. u r right, professors r sick bastards, never getting punished and sucking the life and destroying careers of poor grad students, may they rot in hell

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  13. Coursework and exams are bogus. I did my MA at a college where we had no exams or thesis, but a boatload of papers, with a final paper in lieu of thesis. That was sane. That's the way all liberal arts MA programs should be.

    A Ph.D. should be a dissertation only. If you done the MA you've done all the coursework that will ever do you any good. You need more coursework for the Ph.D. like you need a hole in the head.

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  14. In my department, everybody takes different exams. Each exam is tailored for each student by a different member of her committee.

    There's no standardization, so for all anybody knows, some people take a cake walk while others are driven through fire. Somewhere, I think, the exams are kept on file, but I don't know who has access to those files.

    The way the system is set up, there is plenty of opportunity for arbitrary outcomes. Maybe worse than that, though, is the fact that there's no way to know what the value of passing exams really is.

    If the exams are different for every student in just one department, and the exams are different from department to department and from university to university, you can't have much confidence in what it means to be ABD for any given person.

    I think that's why departments have a real interest in perpetuating the idea that comps are extremely hard exams. One way to do that (the easiest way?) is to make them extremely hard. Another is to make sure that everybody fears them, which is maybe what you have to do when you don't have hard-and-fast standards.

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    1. I had to take comps for my master's. I passed with distinction. However, I never did see the point of them.

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  15. People used to be able to teach with ABD. My uncle taught history in a city college for 30 years until he retired. He said he was the last of his generation and that after his time, the job market for college profs no longer existed, much less for ABDs like him.

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  16. I've met a couple of Americans at conferences who figured out that going to Europe for their PhDs was a sweet deal. One of them studied in England. She explained that she went there because it was a three-year(!) PhD program. Another was a PhD student in continental Europe somewhere where she was getting a salary(!) for writing her dissertation. She was treated like a professional with a regular job.

    Is there anyone out there who knows more about how things work in Europe? Talking to those women made me feel like a fool for all the time I've spent on my PhD in the States.

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    1. You are a moron.

      How can you be in a PhD program and not know how this works... Aren't there Europeans in your program that have explained this to you?

      Thee three years that PhDs in Europe spend getting their degrees don't include the process of "relegitimization" (I believe that's what it's actually called in several countries) that you have to go through after graduation to actually be eligible for a job. This process includes writing books and, in some countries, defending your work in front of a committee of government officials. There's a reason that, if you go to a tier one school, most of your colleagues are from abroad... as bad as the US system is it's still so much better than the European one. Plus, your friends will have to stay abroad. They won't be able to work with those degrees in the US.

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    2. "How can you be in a PhD program and not know how this works..."

      Is he getting a doctorate in Comparative Doctoral Program Studies?

      "Aren't there Europeans in your program that have explained this to you?"

      Does every program have European students in it?

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    3. In my very large department in the USA, there are a number of grad students from Asia, but I can't remember ever meeting a European grad student in the department. We've had some "exchange students" from Europe here for short stints, but no one from Europe seems to be looking for a degree from the department.

      We DO have faculty members with European PhDs (at least one from Britain and one from Germany). Those two are pretty recent hires, too. I don't think having a European doctorate prevents you from getting work in the USA.

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    4. James,

      I visited 6 schools when selecting a Masters program and 4 schools when selecting a PhD program. I know of no well known Comp lit, foreign language/lit, English, or even History program where you won't find that a significant portion of the student body is from Europe. This is mainly, as it has been explained to me over and over again, because European students are fleeing a decrepit system, and find that financial support is much better in the US.

      Anonymous,

      Yes, some Faculty may be European PhDs, but I bet they probably ARE European. Having A PhD from a European university is obviously more excusable in that case. If a student from the US decided to get their PhD from a German university, however, that would look pretty weird. I mean, there's a reason that Germans come to the US to study German.

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    5. Thanks for the earnest replies to my sarcastic remark. My own department had very few Europeans in it - none at all (unless we count Israel as culturally similar to Europe) in the years around me. I did, however, know a German who came to the U.S. to study German (not in my department).

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    6. James,

      I no longer take it for granted that people are being sarcastic here.

      There just seems to be depths to the ignorance of graduate students about graduate school. How else does one account for the number of graduate students claiming to make under $25,000 a year, or living without health insurance, or doing all sorts of other stupid totally unnecessary things?

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    7. Hard to tell who's being sarcastic in this thread. In my field, the PhDs are lucky to make 25k a year as adjuncts. Grad students only make that much in their dreams.

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    8. I'm in a humanities program and my stipend is 26,000 a year, plus, most years, I get a travel grant of $500 - $1000.

      My science PhD friends make more than that.

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    9. That's a HUGE stipend. Isn't that kind of pathetic when you think about it, though?

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    10. Since I started this conversation, I will note that I never made anywhere near $25,000 in graduate school.

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  17. I actually got some pretty good advice from one of my fellow grad students about exams. She said, "Don't really try to read everything on your list." And, indeed, once the exams were over, it was clear that I could have done just fine if I'd only done one-tenth of the work that I actually did. Unfortunately, at the time I ignored her advice because I figured she was being competitive and trying to trip me up.

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  18. @ Anon 12.24: I'm doing my PhD in Australia, it's a 3 year program here too. I feel so sorry for a friend of mine in the states who is four years in and only just starting to write his thesis. Such a waste of the best years of your life - at least I'll be done soon.

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  19. There is a *fantastic* book called "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt about the related issue of the effect of graduate education on the individual. The part pertaining to effect of qual exams:

    Courses can succeed in their most obvious goal -- giving students a working knowledge of the dominant paradigms of a field -- yet leave incomplete their goal of producing people who will maintain the desired discipline on assigned work. Moreover, a course grade can sometimes be no more than what it claims to be --a measure of subject matter learned-- and is therefore not a reliable measure of properly disciplined work style. This massive test is not primarily concerned with measuring the basic subject matter learned in the courses -- the courses themselves have already measured that. It functions more as a measure of commitment to a particular work style...

    The prospect of failing the qualifying test frightens the student, even the student who is the best at answering the kind of questions used on the test. The student is frightened because his desired future as a professional in his field of interest is at stake. But he is also frightened because society does not guarantee his material securty...It seems possible for the individual, if suddenly of no value to employers, to go overnight from a job to walking the streets, from being somebody to being nobody, from living in the suburbs to living on skid row, left to suffer and struggle for survival among the desperate at the bottom of society. It doesn't matter that such individual downfall is very unlikely; by simply featuring the possibility, the system announces the fundamental insecurity of the individual. This insecurity unrelentingly haunts the student studying for the qualifying test. The student sees professional training as his chance for a secure future, with status and non-alienating work, his chance for a life free from the threat of a nightmarish trip to the bottom of the heap...

    The student who loves the subject and is not alienated from it is profoundly affected by the qualification process. The process of preparing for the qualifying test, because of the kind of questions on the test and the way they must be answered, tragically alienates this student from his or her own field of interest. The test emphasizes quick recall, memorized tricks, work on problem fragments, work under time pressure, endurance, quantitative results, comfort with confinement to details, ... and it de-emphasizes physical insight, qualitative discussion, exploration, curiosity, creativity, history, philosophy and so on...

    Students should not cavalierly label their alienated labor as merely temporary, as instrumental to get the degree but easily reversed afterwards. Performing intense alienated labor for an extended period of time changes the student. It dampens his creativity and curiosity, clouds his memory of his original interests and ideas and weakens his resolve to pursue them, while getting used to doing protracted, disciplined labor on assigned problems. It is empty rhetoric to tell the student who has gone through the qualification process that he is free now to pursue in his career his original goals, for he is now a different person ...

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    1. Great insight. From my own observation and experience, this is exactly what happens. New graduate students starting out are anxious, but also eager and earnest.

      Then something happens. The anxiety never goes away, but their enthusiasm turns into something workmanlike and joyless.

      It hadn't occurred to me before that the exams were responsible for this, but it makes sense.
      It's around the time of their exams that people reach the turning point.

      It's also when the confident ones bail out.

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    2. The change you're referring to occurs as the students in question begin to realize that it's not about merit, industry, results, and/or diplomacy. They personally run into some injustice or undeserved problem and discover just how shitty the people / department / college / university they work with really are.
      For me the turning point(s) came when I was falsely accused (loudly and publicly) of chronic absenteeism in a required course when I had been to all but one of twenty-odd lectures. The unprovoked outburst of hostility that accompanied the accusation was severe and surprising. I withdrew from the class entirely rather than interact with a person who was clearly out to get me, whose motives were unclear and who threatened me verbally over comprehensives on the spot. This cost me a full semester of courses.

      Subsequently I discovered that "success" in the same course was closely correlated with access to a folder of old exams, Xeroxed copies of which a clique of (largely) international students were bringing in to class tests without penalty and possibly even with the professor's connivance.

      Afterwards I observed similarly discouraging events. A required course, successful teaching of which was eventually carried out by a permanent adjunct, was taught by a succession of incapable tenured profs, one of whom could not communicate the course lecture schedule, let alone the subject matter, in comprehensible English. One TA gerrymandered a class assignment so that a somewhat complex programming question was not graded on the grounds that "only two people got this one" - invalidating many hours of work on the part of several students. However, extra weight was given an essay question requiring a verbatim copied response from a 'secret' website known only to the TA and a female student of the same nationality - and this was done with the oversight and consent of the instructor.

      These and several other incidents occurred before my comprehensives, which were delayed by over two years owing to retroactive changes in degree requirements that I would have thought were illegal.

      Because I am not a gambler by nature, it took me some time to appreciate one of the lessons imparted. One cannot beat a crooked house.

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  20. I've been mulling this over some more. Maybe what should be done is to grant a D.Litt. (a real degree, not an honorary one) to anyone who completes the comps and a Ph.D. to anyone who does the diss. That way everyone can choose his strong suit and the agony will be less for everyone. It can't be a cakewalk for the profs to read all those comps.

    On another note I have to admit that Plato cleaned things up a bit. It wasn't that the Athenians accused me of teaching false gods. I drank the hemlock to avoid writing the diss. It was less painful

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  21. "When master's degree programs were more rigorous than they are now, their structure mirrored that of doctoral programs: courses, comps, and the master's thesis"

    Where I did my master's, if you chose the thesis option you had to do all three. BUT, you could choose a comps only option - which was obviously much easier. Really, there was little advantage to the thesis option other than the "pride" in saying you wrote one - and the stronger writing sample to send off to PhD admissions. On the transcript it said "Master of Arts" either way.

    It's gotten to the point now where any program at an R1 simply rolls the MA into the PhD, which is ridiculous. It devalues both.

    Quite frankly, the notion that all college or university faculty need to have PhDs is patently absurd. All it has done is cause degree inflation. The PhD program teaches you how to research and write, not teach. In fact, the process of doing the dissertation, taking out that much time, may make you a poorer teacher upon completion. Very few undergraduate students are going to benefit from anything you learned in that process.

    This is where there's a huge disconnect between what students want from a university and what a university demands of its faculty. The public wants superior undergraduate teaching, yet that seems to be among the lowest priorities of university administrations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A profs job, though, isn't to teach. Especially at an R1. He or she is there to research; teaching is a trade-off made with the university in exchange for access to labs, data sets, etc.

      Delete
  22. Socrates, I believe Columbia University awards the MPhil upon completing comps and being admitted to candidacy. Not that it is useful for much of anything these days.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks Anon. That's something at least. Ironically I almost went to Columbia for the Ph.D. and then realized I had enough holes in my head.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ooops. Meant to add: "Aaron, you are absolutely right. There's no need to have Ph.D. teaching undergrads. Hell, they don't do it anyway--they leave that to the TAs."

    ReplyDelete
  25. Our graduate STEM program took care of the testing component by offering, one per month, a lovely Saturday morning experience. On the designated Saturday, all the younger graduate students would file into a room and be handed an exam. The exam consisted of five to six essay questions, largely based on recent scientific literature or rote coursework taken by graduate students during their first year. To "qualify", one needed to pass any six of these exams by the end of their second or third year of graduate school.

    I began to realize how bogus these exams were when a question was posed about a topic that had been the subject of a review article in a major publication in our field. The essay I wrote was a synopsis of what I had read in the review article. Should have been a slam dunk. The professor who graded the exam wrote "total B.S." across my essay and I didn't pass that particular exam.

    If a tenured professor asking a question about a review article in a peer-reviewed major academic journal can fail a graduate student for accurately summarizing the content of that article, then it not only speaks to the idiocy of the testing system in place, but it calls into question the whole system.

    I'm glad I got my little Ph.D. credential and eventually escaped, relatively unscathed, into the private sector.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Higher Education: prepares you for a lifetime of higher education!

    ReplyDelete
  27. IT DOES? I don't know what is worse: that is does prepare you, or that it doesn't.

    Unless "preparing" means like making a turkey ready for the oven. It that case it's perfect.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Higher Education: Prepares you to be able to show the right credential so that you might possibly one day be accepted into the elite club.

    The "turkey/oven" scenario is more likely, however.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I got stopped entering a bar. They demanded proof of sex. I showed them. They said it wasn't enough!"--Rodney Dangerfield.

      I guess a doctorate is becoming the only credential any more.

      Delete
  29. In some fields, it's a ponzi scheme.

    ReplyDelete
  30. For the most part, you can't get a teaching position in higher education without a doctorate. If you go out and get a doctorate, then you're still likely to spend a long time looking for a teaching position, because the market is flooded with doctorates. Along the way, you realize that teaching positions aren't so great, but they're the only jobs that your hard-earned credentials will be any good for.

    So you work like crazy for years and years to get a job that you might not even like, probably in a location that you wouldn't choose if you had a choice, and just to get that you have to be lucky. It's like pigs fighting at the trough.

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  31. I was part of a PhD program in a medical science field. Our qualifying exam had written and oral components. The written exam provided a choice of essay topics for which you would write until you were satisfied. This generally was 2-3 pages each, so the final product was 10-15 pages written out over the course of the day. Most completed it in 8 hours; some took as long as 12.

    The oral exam was a 3 hour "interview" with a panel of 5 professors each representing a specific field covered by the degree. You spend 30 minutes or so of the exam period being grilled by each one. If any one of them decides they don't like your answers, they can mark you as "failed." For a field that is failed, you have a 2 hour follow-up where you are grilled by a new panel of professors on that topic in particular.

    When I was in my program, I did just fine on the written exam. But for the oral exam . . . I choked. The pressure got to me and I froze up in the exam. I managed to recover half-way through, but the damage was done and everyone on the panel decided to fail me.

    This left me facing 10 hours of follow-up examination. Thankfully I was given the option of walking away with a master's degree as a consolation prize, but I still feel cheated by the whole experience.

    ReplyDelete
  32. This is a good reason to avoid graduate school. The utter relativism of the standards for the comps makes the tests pretty much worthless.

    If you take the CPA, you know what general areas will be on the exam. There are firm standards.

    If you take quals, and they don't even bother telling you what's on the exam, anything goes.

    ReplyDelete
  33. My comps were an overblown exercise meant to weed out weak students, haze the survivors, and inflate the egos of professors. I had to read 200 books in a humanities field, one major and two minor, followed by a 3 hour exam for each field then a 3 hour oral. There was no method to the entire process - just go away and read a book a day. It didnt take long to realize that this was a charade - who can read a 400 page academic text in a day? What "reading" a book actually meant was skimming the intro and conclusion, maybe a chapter or two, and jotting down a few notes. A good book review also could be substituted for reading a book.

    Each advisor also approached the process differently, although they all seemed to relish keeping me in the dark about what was, and what to be, expected. Only one took the process seriously and had meetings with me every week to go over 3-4 books in detail. Another advisor couldn't even bother to meet with me on an individual basis and insisted that meetings be with several students at once to review books by committee. The third, my advisor, met with me all of twice to discuss maybe 5 percent of the 100 titles I read. I now believe this was because he had not read most of the books himself and did not want to expose this fact. He also made me write synoposes of the books, which I'm sure came in handy for him. What a joke.

    The exam: questions were so open-ended that it was impossible to fail if you could remember the titles, the subject, and maybe a sentence from each each book. And the oral was the same. One of my reading fields consisted mostly of books from the 1970s - likely the same books he had to read for his comps at the time. I didnt get the sense that he had read them since.

    In hindsight, the comps were an futile exercise with no credible method, purpose, or function. The knowledge one gains is completely useless if you are not going into an academic career path, and even then, the effort is not worth the results if you are. For me, it made me realize just how crappy and homogenized most academic research in my field is.

    I swear professors make you go through comps because they had to do it before you and it guarantees that someone will have to read their books. Lord knows no one else does.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I actually liked my math "prelims", as they were called. But then, passing them was very straightforward: after you took the class in question (I think it was understood that the class was an "intro" to a given subject, rather than a "preparation" for it), you would go to the Office and get copies of all the past prelims, and then study your brains out--memorise theorems and their proofs, and solve problem after problem, until you could feel the mathematics radiating from your head.

    There was still ambiguity: when I started grad school, I had no clue of what it was going to take to graduate, until after the first semester. (No one ever "oriented" me to these things; I don't know if it were due to a lack of orientation, or if I missed orientation provided.) Additionally, the Real Analysis Test had a reputation of being the easiest--but also, if you got a weird professor preparing the test, it was the test most likely to use odd terminology and notation that you wouldn't be familiar with. Algebra had a reputation of being the hardest, but also the most homogeneous from test to test.

    While I enjoyed these tests, I couldn't help but notice that they still had a magical ability to weed out people who were good at teaching, but not necessarily "research" material. It's a pity that you pretty much need a PhD to teach, at a college level, at least!

    For that matter, if you would like to tutor and do research, but not teach, there's pretty much no room for you in the academic world, even if you get your PhD. (That is, there's no room for me...) Silly doctor, tutoring is for Senior Undergrads and First year Graduate Students!

    This system is really screwed up, even in the STEM world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I couldn't help but notice that they still had a magical ability to weed out people who were good at teaching, but not necessarily "research" material. It's a pity that you pretty much need a PhD to teach, at a college level, at least!"

      Indeed. How many of us had professors that were the most terrible teachers ever!?

      Important elements of a good teacher are communication and people skills - being able to read people and respond to them, connect with them. The people with those skills won't necessarily thrive, and will very likely be put off by the kind of isolation required by a PhD program.

      Delete
  35. I had 18 units toward the Ph.D. when I quit. I'm thinking of going back and finishing it off and then opening my own private school. Maybe it won't work, but if it does I won't have to be a part of this scam.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't yet worked out how I would do it, but I'm interested in creating a small "tutor" based school, where I would be involved in tutoring a handful of students up to a PhD level of education; sort-of a graduate level "home school".

      One reason why I'd have a difficult time pulling it off is that I want it to be oriented around providing a service for money--and I don't know what kind of part-time work I can do, that would support myself, a couple of other tutors, our students, and our families.

      Another thing is figuring out what to do, when a student completes the work, and then tries to figure out how to get work, when he doesn't have a piece of paper from an accredited university as "proof" that he's learned something.

      I'm sure there are answers to these issues; I just haven't figured them out yet.

      In either case, I consider my PhD to be irrelevant to this, since I'm not seeking accreditation, and could actually care less for such things. I would encourage you to look into what you can do first, without a PhD, before worrying about finishing it. It could very well be that a PhD would be irrelevant for what you want to do, as well.

      As a society, we've become too enamoured with accreditations. Sometimes, we have to sit back and ask ourselves, "Can the person I'm interested in hiring do the work?" Sometimes, the answer is "yes", even without a Certificate of Learning (whatever that may be); sometimes, the answer turns out to be "no", even with accolades and certificates up the wazoo!

      Delete
    2. "Sometimes, the answer is "yes", even without a Certificate of Learning (whatever that may be); sometimes, the answer turns out to be "no", even with accolades and certificates up the wazoo!"

      What's even more annoying is that some people that have the Certificate of Whatever *cannot* do the work, even though they have the credential.

      Delete
    3. This is one thing that has pissed me off the most with the state of education today -- this credential fetish. Most employers will throw your resume into the recycle bin if you don't have the requisite, all-important degree. But really now, what use is spending years and money for a degree JUST TO GET A JOB? And how sh*t-faced would you feel if you spent that time and money for that all-important degree, only to learn that you don't like the job, or the job doesn't like you, or the field you trained all those years for doesn't need any more workers -- or, most likely the case, all the stuff you need to know for the job is plain common sense that you knew or could have figured out WITHOUT that all-important degree?

      This hits really close to home here, as I see jobs out there that entice and intrigue me, yet I am not qualified to do them because I only have the ubiquitous and hence worthless college degree, and I am afraid to specialize for fear of any of the above.

      Delete
    4. Anon 7:52, degrees have replaced on-the-job training. Your employers don't have to pay you to learn the job anymore, they have you become indebted for most of your life to learn the job. Then you're pigeonholed into your degree field unless you get another degree.

      Delete
  36. Have my comps a week monday..in management/entrepreneurship/biz strategy/god knows what else...:)..

    Fun fun fun!!:)

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  37. i was told i did not pass after two attempts
    i was given msc
    i'm a gre student again b'cos i'm going bk to sch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From those three lines I can see why you did not pass.

      Delete
    2. Harsh, but so true.

      Delete
  38. Thanks for these pointers! I'm a MS program that needs a thesis or a comp exam as a graduation requirement. As cliche as this may sound, both are a pain! I would love to do the thesis and I am currently working with a professor on the background research but he seems like a pain! I basically have to choose between two different stressors(bummer!). MY program ic comp. science and my plan is to go to the industry after I graduate.
    Your thoughts?

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  39. I just finished my second attempt at comps. With a masters and another 3 years of doctoral work and a 3.85 GPA, I failed my first attempt at comps. It felt like a big kick in the stomach after over 100 hours of invested work. I had to take 2 more weeks off work and invest another 100 hours for a second attempt. At my university, it's 2 strikes and you are out. Out of 3 years of coursework and nearly $75,000. It really feels like academic hazing and completely violates every principle the university is trying to instill. It does seem like a reason to weed out people and stress the hell out of the rest of us. I'm so stressed that I'm taking the next year off regardless of the results of my second attempt. Hope I pass.

    ReplyDelete
  40. I would like to point out that German Universities are difficult to get into. I know this for a fact. I lived in Germany for years! Germans, by and large, are much better educated than Americans are. The college bound students, study 7-9 years of one laguage (usually English), 5 years of another, and 3 years studying a third language. It was difficult for me to even practice my German at times, as the other person would usually tell me that they spoke better English than I did German. And after all those years of study, they were right. That doesn't mean that everyone was that educated. Everyone, who wishes to enter a German University, must take and pass an exam. Starting in grade 6, the Germans divide the students up into three groups: one group will have a basic education and be laborers or store clerks, etc, the second will be trained for a technical job, and the last group will be college bound. However, if one were a store clerk, say, one could always take night classes and study for the college exam. My guess is that one or two of the people that are part of the above comments were schooled at a lower level, and never took the exam. Many years ago, I met a woman, at University, who was from Germany, and they had only trained her to cut hair. The German and French sytems are somewhat the same.

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  41. Part of the point of my above comment, is that Europeans usually weed out people before they even attend college. The education is free, and I imagine that they don't want to waste resources by sending everyone to university. I see the American system of education as a waste of both talent and resources. It is also a huge waste of time. Who benefits by tying up some of the smartest people in this country, in a quest for something they will never obtain?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Americans value their freedom. As you see from the above German example, countries with more efficient education systems basically tell people how smart they are at certain ages and direct them into certain paths based on the results.

      In other words, it's very inefficient and expensive to tell people "you can be whatever you want to be!" and then put that into practice.

      Much more efficient to test aptitude and not even let the people without aptitude attempt more difficult levels of education.

      Delete
    2. One problem with this approach, however, is that Americans aren't interested in aptitude tests. They want to be able to base their decisions on other factors (race, gender, age, personal choice, etc.). This has been implemented in most areas of "our" society.

      If interest in aptitude testing eventually emerged, then be certain that those implementing the aptitude tests would collude with those with other (society-shaping/altering) goals to provide an "aptitude test" that rewarded characteristics other than aptitude. This is happening even as we speak, with ETS adding digital photos and personality exams to the GRE, neither of which is aptitude related. American higher education institutions and employers are also complicit in reduction of aptitude considerations, *not only in admissions/hiring but also in ongoing treatment.*

      I'd like to get back to aptitude testing but I am not naive enough to believe that there aren't powerful forces in the world that think they profit by rigging the results.

      Delete
  42. Having taken the comps exam two times. I have to say that it is crazy how you have to pass five area of exam, and if you fail on area you have to take all five part all over again. The comps is only there to make everyone free like you have no control. I finished all my classes, and the only thing keeping me for getting my Master is this test. I think is so unfair that your education is more focused on five different area that all the hard work you have done for the part three years. If I knew that it was going to be so hard to pass this test I would of drop out a long time. I have to say that if you are require to take a comps exam be sure that it will be hard and the amount of reading require is too much. You will never feel completely ready for this kind of exam.

    ReplyDelete
  43. Wow. I wish I read this blog prior to applying to graduate school. My committee said I did not pass my oral defense of my comps. I'm not sure of the final outcome yet, but I'm guessing they are going to ask me to Un-enroll. The world of academia does not appeal to me anymore, especially after this process. However, I am left with 54 credits beyond my master's degree (most of these credits I earned in my PhD program). So, does anyone have any advice? If I were to transfer, most colleges/universities would accept only 6 credits (2 classes).

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  44. After much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that a UK PhD is the best option out there. This is for the following reasons:

    1. PhD in the UK takes less time (3 years).
    2. It is purely research-based (no coursework, qualifying, or comprehensive exams), which is the whole point of a PhD. Also, this makes the possibility of getting kicked out halfway unlikely.
    3. Admission is easier and much less competitive (no GRE required).
    4. The UK is much more advanced in terms of research activity and output than the US.

    However, I still think that a US degree is more respected than one from anywhere else in the world, or at least this is how things are where I come from. People need to realize that a more rigorous path does not guarantee an end product with better quality.

    The reason the PhD in the UK requires no coursework is because of their undergraduate education system. For a Bachelor degree, the most of the classes are major-specific so that by the time you finish your undergrad degree, you will have been exposed to every subspecialty of your field, and will have gone through it all. On the other hand, in the US, a great proportion of undergrad courses for a given BS program deal with stuff that have nothing to do with the student's major (a science major will do a lot of history and arts), and by the time they graduate, there will be deficiencies here and there, and that is where PhD coursework comes into play.

    ReplyDelete
  45. Hello everyone, may I ask for your advice on the following situation ??

    I'm currently in a "two roads" situation. I plan to enroll for a Teaching Credential in mathematics (the deadline is by August), but I also think about continuing on a PhD in Geometry (deadline is January of next year). I didn't take the GRE yet, because I find myself hard to decide at this stage.

    I also get scared after reading the exam requirements, that by the end of my 2nd year, I have to pass 2 exams (qualifying, core assessment, or comprehensive) with MS and then PhD level. Are the tests really hard?

    So would you think it's better off (in time & financially) to choose a teaching credential? or a PhD instead?

    Thank you very much ^^

    ReplyDelete
  46. Yeah I am a first year Phd student and they are wasting our time in course work and comprehensive exams.One year of Phd is just wasting time and Its very hard to get in and now if we fail then we could be kicked out halfway which is totally unacceptable ....these Profs are morons and since they have taken these stupid qulaifiers so they think we should also make our students go through hell

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  47. I have just been failed a second time - I have published more papers, presented at national meetings and make more money than the faculty. They are a mean, vindictive group. And although I am sad, I will find a way to accomplish what I want.

    ReplyDelete
  48. I have just failed a second time. It has been torture. I know the information better than some students who passed. A major component to these exams is just luck.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Hi,

    Who can I speak to regarding advertising today?

    Thanks,

    Gary

    gary@socialreality.com

    ReplyDelete
  50. Can we get a post on how much is sucks to persuade people to be on your committee, come to meetings, reply to emails, and set up and schedule comps?

    ReplyDelete
  51. I just finished my second year in a PHD program and found out the 90% of the students in my program are failing their comps. It is very stressful thinking about all the work I've done so far to end up failing.

    ReplyDelete
  52. I know I'm late in the game here, but adding to this blog seems to be ongoing. This page is keeping me going lately, strangely enough. I've reconciled my feelings about grad school with what I perceive to be the "truth" in academia, and I continue to press forward despite this (at least, as of right now). Sometimes it helps to understand the nature of the beast.

    At any rate, I took my quals exam this past summer and thankfully passed on my first try. However, it wasn't without a lot of work and PLENTY of tears and aggravation. I signed up for an independent study for exam prep hoping that the prof (a potential advisor) would help me with gathering materials and situating some of the theory. Interestingly, this person gave me only several book recommendations and made it clear that I was on my own. Frankly, I was lucky that I could rely on my own knowledge without ANY actual support (personally or professionally), which is becoming a common thread woven throughout my experience in grad school thus far. I may not make it due to the sheer lack of support that seems to exist in my dept. Thus, I am unsure how far this whole "self-preservation" thing is going to take me...

    It sounds like a lot of other people took their exams towards the end of their coursework. In my PhD program, students are given the exam in the summer, directly after their first year. The exam is viewed as a "weeding out" process, presumably so the dept. doesn't have to "waste" time/resources on particular students. If a student fails at this institution, they are looked down upon and talked about. It becomes public through supposedly "private" channels. I watched a student slink away in shame this past year without ever mentioning that they had failed the exam and "had" to leave. And that is their right. However, I felt bad that they couldn't even honestly address their side of the story because of the stigma surrounding the whole situation. Beyond that, it is already becoming clear who else will "fail" due to various reasons, some of them personal, some of them political. God bless, I say, they may be better off with that MA they receive as a "consolation"........

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  53. Do you know any PhD in geography that does not require a comprehensive exam? Please let me know.

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  54. "Months of anxious anticipation and intensive study are accompanied by the unease of not knowing what, exactly, is most important to glean from your reading." I hate this so much. When I'm taking exams, it feels like I'm studying not for the sake of getting knowledge but just to pass my mba comprehensive exam. It's indeed exhausting and doesn't really makes me happy.

    ReplyDelete