A comprehensive examination
(or comprehensive exam or exams), often abbreviated as "comps," is a specific type of examination
that must be completed by graduate students in some disciplines and courses of study. At some institutions it is known as a preliminary examination
and abbreviated as "prelims
The use of the term Prelim varies and is synonymous with qualifying exam, but it generally refers to an examination that qualifies a student to continue studies at a higher level...
", general examinations
and abbreviated as "generals", or as a major field examination
The form and general requirements for the comprehensive exam varies according to the faculty or department, degree
An academic degree is a position and title within a college or university that is usually awarded in recognition of the recipient having either satisfactorily completed a prescribed course of study or having conducted a scholarly endeavour deemed worthy of his or her admission to the degree...
A university is an institution of higher education and research, which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. A university is an organisation that provides both undergraduate education and postgraduate education...
, and country
A country is a region legally identified as a distinct entity in political geography. A country may be an independent sovereign state or one that is occupied by another state, as a non-sovereign or formerly sovereign political division, or a geographic region associated with a previously...
, but typically tests knowledge of the student's subject area and two or more related areas, and may be used to determine a candidate's eligibility to continue his or her course of study. Typically, comprehensive exams consist of three written exams and an oral examination, however some programs require only written or oral examinations.
In some university departments, graduate students seeking a PhD
Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated as Ph.D., PhD, D.Phil., or DPhil , in English-speaking countries, is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities...
must take a series of written cumulative examinations on the subject of their study in the first year or two of the PhD program. These cumulative exams are often given on a pass/fail basis and a graduate student who seeks to continue in the PhD program must pass a minimum number of these cumulative exams. After this minimum number of cumulative exams is passed, this degree requirement is considered to be met, and the PhD student no longer takes these exams but continues work on other PhD requirements.
Comprehensive examinations are typically based on a reading list agreed upon by the student and his or her committee, which is staffed by the primary supervisor and several advisors, normally professors at the university, but not necessarily in the same faculty. This reading list may comprise dozens or hundreds of books and other works.
There is no standard definition for what such exams entail, with some universities having almost no exam, whilst at other universities the process is quite rigorous. The exams thus take a number of forms, including an informal meeting of just a few hours, a critical review of one's academic portfolio, the submission of an academic paper which may take several hours or months to write, or a series of proctored exams taking anywhere from a few to as many as thirty-six hours.
PhD students at some Canadian universities must complete their comprehensive exams by the end of their second year; those who fail to pass with a sufficiently high mark may retake the examination usually only once. Failure to pass a second time will normally result in expulsion from the program. Students who pass are distinguished with the title "PhD candidate."
Few colleges or universities in the United States require undergraduate students to pass Comprehensive Examinations in order to receive their degree. These include Kenyon College
Kenyon College is a private liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio, founded in 1824 by Bishop Philander Chase of The Episcopal Church, in parallel with the Bexley Hall seminary. It is the oldest private college in Ohio...
, Bethany College
Bethany College is a private liberal arts college located in Bethany, West Virginia, United States. Founded in 1840, Bethany is the oldest institution of Higher Education in West Virginia.-Location:...
, The Catholic University of America
The Catholic University of America is a private university located in Washington, D.C. in the United States. It is a pontifical university of the Catholic Church in the United States and the only institution of higher education founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops...
, Maryville College
Maryville College is a private four-year liberal arts college in Maryville, Tennessee, near Knoxville. It was founded in 1819 by Presbyterian minister Isaac L. Anderson for the purpose of furthering education and enlightenment into the West. The College is one of the fifty oldest colleges in the...
, The Criswell College
Criswell College is a Dispensationalist Christian college and divinity school in Dallas, Texas. It is known for training students to teach and preach the Bible with emphasis on evangelism, the original languages, and Biblical inerrancy.-History:...
, Reed College
Reed College is a private, independent, liberal arts college located in southeast Portland, Oregon. Founded in 1908, Reed is a residential college with a campus located in Portland's Eastmoreland neighborhood, featuring architecture based on the Tudor-Gothic style, and a forested canyon wilderness...
, The University of the South, Eckerd College
Eckerd College is a private 4-year coeducational liberal arts college at the southernmost tip of St. Petersburg, Florida, in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. The college is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.- Campus :...
, Millsaps College
Millsaps College is a private liberal arts college located in Jackson, Mississippi. Founded in 1890, the college is recognized as one of the country's best private colleges dedicated to undergraduate teaching and educating the whole individual. Affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Millsaps...
, Hanover College
Hanover College is a private liberal arts college, located in Hanover, Indiana, near the banks of the Ohio River. The college is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church . The college was founded in 1827 by the Rev. John Finley Crowe, making it the oldest private college in Indiana. The Hanover...
, Wabash College
Wabash College is a small, private, liberal arts college for men, located in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Along with Hampden-Sydney College and Morehouse College, Wabash is one of only three remaining traditional all-men's liberal arts colleges in the United States.-History:Wabash College was founded...
, Rosemont College
Rosemont College is a coeducational college located in Rosemont in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. It was originally founded as a women's college. A Catholic college, it is operated by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus...
, Texas A&M-Commerce Honors College, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham
The University of Alabama at Birmingham is a public university in Birmingham in the U.S. state of Alabama. Developing from an extension center established in 1936, the institution became an autonomous institution in 1969 and is today one of three institutions in the University of Alabama System...
's Mass Communications program.
St. Anselm College
In some U.S. graduate programs, particularly in the natural sciences, the majority of students do not have master's degrees when they begin graduate work, and the successful students will earn doctorates without getting master's degrees on the way. In these programs, a student who does not pass "comps" or "prelims" on the second attempt will generally be allowed to earn a terminal master's degree but is not permitted to become a candidate for a doctoral degree. At many institutions, students who pass the exam and are formally accepted as PhD candidates are technically entitled to a Master of Arts or Master of Sciences degree, but submitting the application is not required, so no master's degree will be awarded unless the student specifically requests it. Comprehensive examinations of this kind are more common in the sciences and some social sciences, and relatively unknown in most humanities disciplines.
In the second and third years of study, doctoral programs often require students to pass more examinations. Programs often require one of the following:
- Qualifying Examination ("Quals")
- General Examination ("Generals")
- Comprehensive Examinations (again, "Comps"), testing students' grasp of a broad sample of their discipline, and/or
- one or several Special Field Examinations ("Specials"), testing students in their selected specialty within the discipline.
If these examinations are held orally, they may be known colloquially as "orals". For some social science and many humanities disciplines, graduate students might not have studied the discipline at the undergraduate level. These examinations will be the first set, and be based either on graduate coursework or on specific preparatory reading (sometimes up to a year's work in reading).
Preparing for comprehensive exams is normally both stressful and time consuming. Passing them allows the student to stay, begin doctoral research, and rise to the status of a doctoral candidate. Failing usually results in the student leaving the program or re-taking the test after some time has passed, usually a semester or a year. A second failure normally guarantees dismissal from the graduate program, though progress on previous attempts may convince the student's program to grant a third, final attempt. Some schools have an intermediate category, passing at the master's level, which allows the student to leave with a master's without having completed a master's thesis.