Tuesday, December 21, 2010


One of the landmarks on the road towards the conferral of a doctoral degree is a set of oral and written comprehensive exams. Different programs structure and schedule them differently. Mine took place in December and consisted of:

a) a 2-hour written exam in my field of specialization (Modern and Contemporary Spanish literature);
b) a 2-hour written exam in all other fields in my discipline (Medieval, Colonial, Golden Age, Contemporary Latin American);
c) a 2-hour oral exam in my secondary specialization (English literature of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries). In reality, this exam was supposed to last 30 minutes, but my brilliant professor of English lit was not a person to be detained by such rules. She interrogated me for 2 hours, to the point where I almost crawled home afterwards;
d) a 4-hour oral exam in all fields of my discipline.

To prepare for the exams, we received "The List", a brochure enumerating 468 major works of Hispanic literature. We were supposed to read all of the works in our area and most of the books from other areas. We were also expected to be familiar with the main critical trends related to these works of literature.

During the written exams you get questions that, for example, provide a few lines of a poem. You have to identify the author, the title, the date of publication (at least approximately), and analyze the poem. Another question might be: "What are the main critical disputes surrounding this novel?" In the oral exam, you are asked questions like: "What are the opening lines of novel X? And it's closing lines? There is a poem that appears in Chapter 16 of novel Y. Can you recite it? What did critic A say about play B? And critic C? And critic D? What was the color of the protagonist's clothes in the penultimate scene of the work?" In the meanwhile, there is always a professor who keeps interrupting your response by quoting unrelated poetry at you, and you are supposed to identify the poem's author and title and then continue your answer to the previous question. There was also a professor who kept scoffing at my every response and interrupting me with new questions whenever he saw that I was answering correctly. This was the area where I was prepared the best (aside from my area of specialization), so he never managed to intimidate me. On the other hand, another professor only asked me questions related to my work in the courses I had taken with her, enunciating each question as if I were hard of hearing.

Out of 468 works of literature listed in my brochure, I read 465. I wasn't required to do that, but I had felt so underchallenged in my graduate program that I wanted finally to do some serious work. The three novels from the list that I didn't manage to read still bother me. One of these novels that I started to read several times but couldn't manage to finish because it just isn't my kind of literature (and its male chauvinism made me want to vomit on every single page) was Julio Cortazar's Rayuela. Of course, I was asked about it during the oral exam. I could have tried to answer the question because I had read a lot of criticism on the novel and knew what it was supposed to be about. Still, I always prefer to be honest.

"I haven't read it," I said. "This novel is really boring. I prefer Cortazar's short stories."

"Thank you for saying it!" the famous professor who was questioning me responded. "I always felt the novel was vastly inferior to the short stories but was afraid to say so."

After I passed these four exams within 2 weeks, I felt completely exhausted. I went to Cuba for a week on a trip that I couldn't afford. Still, my need to be far away from anybody I know and anybody who might talk to me was overwhelming. During that entire trip I acted like a shell-shocked person. Once, I woke up in the morning to discover a huge flying cockroach sitting on the pillow right next to me. I'm entomophobic and normally my reaction would be to fly out of the room, screaming and crying for help. This time, however, I was so exhausted that even my entomophobia abandoned me.

All in all, the exhaustion of the comprehensives was definitely worth it for me. As painful as the process was, that was pretty much the only time in my doctoral program where I felt I was doing something worthwhile, something to promote my professional development.

For those who are preparing to pass their comprehensives this winter, I have the following piece of advice to offer: prepare for the weeks after the exams. In my experience, even people who hated the entire process of preparing for the comprehensives hated the weeks after the exams even more. "I thought I'd love the freedom of not having to think about the comprehensives," a close friend said. "But now I feel that I don't have anything to structure my existence. It's almost like there is nothing to live for." My friend and I did better in our exams than anybody else in the previous 15 years of our department's existence. Still, the depression set in as soon as we discovered that "The List" wasn't there any more.

Ten days after passing my exams I downloaded Harvard's reading list for the comprehensives and started going through it.


Pagan Topologist said...

Was Harvard's list a lot different from Yale's?

Pagan Topologist said...

I think I learned a bit while studying for my prelim exams in 1967, but it was not nearly as overwhelming as you describe. It was all written; three hours a day for three days (MWF) as I recall. The only oral we had was our dissertation defense, which had not time limit. Some people's lasted for two or three hours, but mine was just under an hour. I was the father of a month-old daughter which distracted me from the stress that several of the other students felt, I think.

Clarissa said...

Yes, the lists are pretty different. Especially in Medieval and Modern and Contemporary periods. Everybody constructs their own canon. If you and I were to come up with the major works of the XXth century, we'll have two very different lists, for sure. :-)

Shedding Khawatir said...

My program doesn't actually have comprehensive exams. Instead we write two papers comprising original research that are submitted to two faculty readers, who give a pass, revise, or fail. Typically students get the revise and have to submit the revised draft in a specific time frame. I've always preferred this system as it means you (hopefully) graduate with at least two published papers and it is preparation for research and publishing, which seems more useful than preparation for exam taking. Not to mention much less stressful!

Downloading other programs' reading lists though, now that is an idea . . .

Richard said...

These true life stories from the ‘groves of the academy’ are one of the reasons that your blog is so fascinating to those of us that are not part of that world. Your account of taking the ‘comprehensives’ provides real insights into what is really expected of a PhD candidate. Incidentally the comments on this topic relating somewhat different experiences were equally interesting.

Clarissa said...

I'm glad you liked this post. There are many more stories where this one came from. :-) And new ones keep occurring every day.

Anonymous said...

I've just finished my honours year in art history and am deciding whether or not to continue with a masters degree. I read this post and actually felt a little jealous of how intense your study is - as well as a tad sympathetic :) - so it's helped me realise that further study is probably what a want.

Great blog by the way!

Snarky Writer said...

My program's just a bit different than yours was. We have two rounds of exams for the PhD level: qualifying exams (which are the exact same thing as the MA comps) and preliminary exams. Quals have two parts: a general section covering just about any work ever written in Western literature and a few in Russian and African, and a "short list" covering 5 of those works in much more detail.

Prelims sounds like what you did. We have two tests, one on our major area of focus and one on our secondary area of focus. We get 4 hours for each test, then we have oral defense/exam of it.

My only issue with this setup is that at my MA school, we had to both write a thesis and take comps. Here, it's either-or, yet they still make the PhD students essentially retake comps regardless of what their previous institution did. I feel like my entire career here is geared toward studying for these tests, yet I don't have time to study except during breaks (and because I'm required to take two classes during summer, not really even then).

Whine, whine. I just keep telling myself that many others have managed it before me and I'm not dumb, so I should be fine.

Angie Harms. said...

Hi Clarissa (et al...). I know that there are people, like you, who find graduate school (even at a prestigious institution like Yale) to be a walk in the park and are completely undaunted by a reading list of nearly 500 books. I am not one of those people - yet it is a dream of mine to pursue a Ph.D in Comparative Literature. I LOVE to read, but I have always found that I read much more slowly than most (all, actually) of my other geeky friends. I can devour a modern novel in 3 or 4 days, if it grabs me. But any sort of philosophy, theory, other non-fiction, or even a particularly dense novel, takes me AGES, comparatively. I enjoy that kind of reading just as much (my undergraduate degree was in philosophy), but I feel like it takes me so much time to absorb it. I just simply can't whiz through it if I hope to come away with any sort of understanding or ability to apply the book's argument. This is a huge hindrance to my intellectual self-confidence, especially since I often feel, even after slow, careful reading, that I still can't confidently relate the book's argument once I'm finished.

Perhaps some of this comes with having studied philosophy, where the works are often so dense that a large part of the field is reduced to arguing for/against different interpretations of any given text. Maybe I have just been trained to be skeptical of my own interpretation. But in any case, I am digressing a bit.

I guess my question, in a nutshell, is this: is there any hope for someone like me in graduate school? I feel like I am simply going to drown in all the reading. Do you believe it is possible to train oneself to read (and absorb) material more quickly, or is this just simply a limitation to my intelligence that I will have to make do with?

I really appreciate any and all input.

P.S. I feel like I am writing to an advice columnist! But since Clarissa seems to enjoy giving advice...

Clarissa said...

Hey, nice dig about me liking to give advice. :-) Just based on that alone, I'd say you are totally ready for grad school. :-)

Speaking seriously, I don't think you have anything to worry about. I do read very fast, but most people don't read at the same speed and they are perfectly fine. We all have our own style of learning. I, for example, have no capacity for remembering names. I read a book, close it, and cannot tell you what the protagonists' names were to save my life. So when I walked into my oral comps, I just announced outright that I don't remember any charcaters' names. And nobody had a problem.

For the comps, I exploited my strength of reading very fast and covering the entire list. You can exploit your strength, which is giving a deeper insight into the readings. Having read a smaller number of actual books isn't something you should worry about, in my opinion. It isn't a limitation at all. It's a way of learning that has a lot of advantages.

One thing to consider, though, is that CompLit has reaaly gone out of fashion. It is very hard for CompLit people to find jobs. I have no idea why there is such stigma placed on them, but I keep encountering it all the time. Just something to think about, Maybe ask around, look at the existing job offerings.

Angie Harms. said...

Thanks Clarissa. That's encouraging. :-) And yes, I have heard that about CompLit as well, and it is the other thing that has made me put off going grad school. I am hoping CompLit will make a comeback. :-) I'm a total linguaphile and have a really hard time seeing myself specializing so narrowly. You would THINK a CompLit degree would make a person EXTRA hire-able, as a professor capable of teaching in multiple language departments. But apparently my beloved discipline might be one of the first casualties of the horrifying decline of the humanities. :-(

Clarissa said...

I agree with your completely: it should make more rather than less sense to hire a Comp Lit person. I think that this prejudice against Comp Lit people is based on how bad the early products of such programs came out. It makes sense that when programs in Comp Lit first appeared the results were not good. I know a couple of people who graduated from such programs in the 90ies, and, indeed, they were disastrous.

THis doesn't mean, of course, that today Comp Lit programs can't produce perfectly wonderful scholars.

Besides, it always makes sense to pursue your passions. And then everything will work out if you really love what you do. I'm convinced of this.