I will be taking comps* in about a month and so these days my full attention is on making sure I’m as prepared as I can be. Now you, hypothetical reader, can benefit from my reflection on the process. Here’s what I think a person starting to think about preparing for comps will need to know and do:
- Ask your peers. Before I started the process, it all seemed really opaque to me, so I informally interviewed some friends (ok, with a notebook) and realized that it was confusing because in fact it was not exactly an entirely uniform process. Along the way, I was also able to identify what elements ARE actually uniform here (but which vary from department to department, so I won’t bother mentioning here).
- Design your committee. Some people may not have as many choices about who to have, but I had the privilege of having a bunch of brilliant people to choose from. Things I considered included:
- how much time/attention each professor would provide to guide me (based off of their personality type, workload, and reviews from students – it is probably not a coincidence that most of my committee is younger faculty)
- the interpersonal dynamics of the group (things go more smoothly if everyone likes talking to each other)
- what topical overlap we have and, more importantly, whether our theoretical orientation to the topic overlapped (while stretching myself intellectually is a good thing, I don’t want to find myself in the profoundly frustrating position of writing against my own theoretical inclinations because of a fundamental difference in approach with my comps questioner)
- Talk to your committee. That was a challenge for me. I think it would have helped if I had scheduled out how many conversations I wanted to have and how often. Planning a schedule of when I wanted to ask specific questions (e.g., “how do you design a comps question?” or “how many drafts of a comps statement do you usually ask for?” or “here’s where I am in the reading preparation, how does this sound to you?”) would have helped.
- Organize the crap out of your preparation. Figure out the last possible date for you to take comps and work backwards filling in the dates (I needed my adviser to make this calendar). Figure out how much you are going to have to read for each professor and create a syllabus for yourself – ideally you can do this as an independent study. Create internal deadlines, and include preparatory assignments. My adviser asks me to synthesize groups of books rather than simply creating an annotated bibliography and I have found this incredibly useful. I expect to take full chunks from that writing later.
- Read like the wind. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to read everything you want to in the detail you had hoped. But this is advice for the preparation stage, so I think it’s still valid.
- Take notes on everything you read. I use a notetaking rubric that helps me stay on track that I already wrote about.**
If you are reading this and you are post-comps, please leave me your advice!
* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** edited to add this because Mr. Masson was totally right, it does make it a million times easier later, but it is really tempting to skip.