I recently finished my comprehensive exam in the Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology (CABE) program at MUN. I had a fairly positive experience and I feel like I learned a lot of valuable information about some things I either already knew a little bit about as well as some things I knew nothing about. Shortly after finishing my exam, one of my mentors, Liam McGuire (a former post-doc in the lab where I did my MSc, who is now a professor at Texas Tech), got in touch to congratulate me on finishing. He also asked if I’d be willing to share some tips with some of his first PhD students who were scheduled to do their comprehensive exams in the next year or so. So, here they are!
**I want to note that Patrick Wells recently posted about comprehensive exams in the MUN blog series (link here). I’d like to highlight that Patrick’s post serves as a great precursor for mine, since he talks a lot about how to prepare for a comprehensive exam. I’m going to talk more about some of the things that worked for me while I was writing my exam as well as in the lead up to, and during, my defense.**
I’ve structured my thoughts as a hybrid between ideas and advice. Hopefully they are relatively easily applied to any type of comprehensive exam format that involves a written document (I had 8 weeks to write mine) and an oral presentation where I defended my written document (I had 2 weeks after submitting my document before I presented and defended). Of course, my thoughts are going to be most applicable to people in certain types of departments, but hopefully some of the broad messages are still applicable. My thoughts are broadly separated into bigger picture advice (macro) and smaller scale advice (micro).
- Once you are assigned a question, spend some time dissecting the question. What do the words or phrases mean? How might different people interpret different words? This was really important for me because I had a diverse range of committee members that had their own definitions for certain words within their own sub-fields. This presented a bit of a challenge for me, but I think what it is important to make sure everyone was more-or-less on the same page. In addition, especially if you’re question is complex, it can be difficult to understand the broad meaning of the question if you are unable to clearly delineate and understand sections of the question.
- Read, read, read. Try not to get upset about reading a paper that feels like it was outside the scope of your question. This happened to me a lot, especially early on. After getting back on track, I realized some of those papers that eventually ended up being somewhat tangential and helpful for me find other papers or gave me options of directions to go as I moved forward. I’d also suggest visiting your library and taking out all the books that are relevant to your question. It’s unlikely you will actually read all of those books, but at least you have them on hand if you need them. Books and book chapters are also often more detailed than papers. Another thing that I think is important is to show evidence that you have been citing and reading widely. If you study mammals, try and minimize the number of mammalian examples you give and expand to other taxonomic groups. This is also relevant to my point below about talking to committee members – they may give suggestions of key papers, and if they do, make sure you read those papers too.
- Can you do anything quantitative? If you have a longer time period to complete your exam or are an analytical person and up for a challenge, it might be nice to include something quantitative. Options include: summary analysis of the literature (this is not quite a meta-analysis, but requires a systematic literature search and extraction of relevant information from articles in your field, for example, the number of studies that do what you’re interested in doing, how they did it, what species, etc.), meta-analysis (these are good because the data exist, you just have to find it in the literature and extract it), phylogenetic comparative analysis (again, the data exist, you just need to find it and extract it), simulations (this one’s a bit trickier – it requires some pre-existing analytical skills, but can make an important contribution), or mathematical models (also requires a pre-existing mathematical and analytical skill set, but if math is your thing, maybe it’s not that crazy of an idea). There are certainly other ways to be quantitative, but these are the ones that immediately jump to mind.
- Talk to your peers. Whether these are people in your lab, department, or former labs, I found it really helpful to have conversations with my peers who had either already gone through the process or were going through the process at the same time. Talk to the students of your committee members. These students are the people who know your committee members (their supervisors) best. They may be able to anticipate questions or ideas that you won’t know about. I also found it very helpful to have my peers read over my written document and to act as examiners in a practice presentation. At minimum, they will find typos that you miss, and hopefully, they will also provide feedback that improves the written document. Grad school and academia are almost always about building collaborations, so the comprehensive exam process shouldn’t be any different. These experiences with my peers were invaluable to me feeling comfortable with the final product. Again, whether you can do this may depend on the culture of your lab, or department, but if this is the kind of environment you thrive in, it might not be a bad idea to try and change the culture.
- Type your question into google scholar. You never know what comes up and this could be a great place to start building a list of papers to read.
- Meet with your committee members before you defend. My exam was eight weeks and I met with all of my committee members when I was approximately 25% of the way through the exam. This may be dependent on the culture in your lab, or department, but ensuring your committee knows what is coming is important so they can give you guidance and so you ensure their expectations are balanced.
- Include at least one ‘box’, similar to what we might see in journals like Ecology Letters or Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Often, we are limited in how long the main text of our document can be, so tables, figures or boxes can be a ‘cheat’ to sneak in some extra information. Boxes can take two forms. First, no matter what your topic or format is you will undoubtedly be tempted to include methodological details ranging from a brief overview to extensive description. This is fine, but methods aren’t particularly interesting and your committee likely won’t want to read a 20 page document detailing the methods of your field (no offense). If you feel compelled to include some sort of methodological overview, including it in a box means you can let your committee know you are aware of the methods, but it wasn’t your primary focus. Second, a box can delve deeper into a really complicated idea or convergence of ideas. Sometimes we don’t have the space to dig into an idea in the main text of any type of manuscript, so including a box which outlines the nitty gritty details can be another way to make sure that information is included but keep the main text focused.
- Don’t slouch or lean against the wall when you’re answering questions. This may seem silly, but after standing up for several hours our natural extinct will almost always be to sit, slouch, or lean against something. I would recommend making arrangements ahead of time with your supervisor or the chair of your committee to sit down after your presentation and answer questions while sitting. It’s not natural to stand up AND be forced to answer hard questions for three hours.
- Include a glossary of key terms. A lot of people I’ve spoken to recently made the conscious decision not to include a glossary because they thought it would draw attention to certain words. I disagree with this idea because if your committee doesn’t know what you mean when you say a certain word then you will likely spend a lot of time trying to define words off the top of your head. If you’re like me, and you do include a glossary, you may have to field some clarification questions, but at least the student and the committee are all starting from the same set of written If you chose not to include a glossary, I think it is imperative to define jargon. Most of your committee won’t be experts in your field, so they need to know what you mean.
- Print your document and bring it to your defense. If somebody starts a question with: “on line 273 you say…” or “in Table 1 you include…” it is nice to have that information readily available to look at yourself.
- Take your time when you answer questions. Don’t rush into an answer just because a moment of silence is awkward. It’s also okay to say: “can I have a moment to think about that question?” Especially for long, multi-part questions, this can be really important. Another strategy is to take quick notes as your committee member is asking the question.
- Finally, have fun, learn a lot, and do your best. It’s not going to be easy, but as an old friend used to say when we were in the field: “If it was easy, then everyone would be doing it”.
By all means, this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully some of these ideas will be helpful to somebody! 🙂