How To Get A PhD in English: The Comprehensive Field Exam


**This is part II of a II part segment on the academic process. The first part is here. If it doesn’t appeal to you, that’s cool. This is meant to inform those who are interested in the culture and process of Universities. I don’t expect anyone to read the whole thing but hopefully it’s both informative and easy to read. Please write any questions you have in the comments section and I will be happy to elaborate on any of these points there.**

As I mentioned in the previous segment, the PhD program is a four-year process that often bleeds into a sixth or seventh unfunded year. Sure, at the end of the process you have a sterling gold credential to teach anywhere in the English speaking world — and you have a book length monograph of which parts you can lop off and publish, present, or sell — the real value of the PhD process is becoming an expert in your field. That is, reading every piece of valuable literature, in every genre, in your declared area of expertise. This, to me, is why we are here: to become experts.

There are some philosophical problems with the “comprehensive field exam.” Many universities have done away with the conventional form of a ridiculous long reading list and a two-part in-class written exam. Instead, some universities offer a “syllabus building” assignment where you are given six months to put together and present the outline for a University class to a departmental committee; other institutions have done away with the process entirely, opening up the second year of the program for research and writing — these institutions have the lowest PhD program completion times; and still others are reforming their comprehensive field exam process to hit the perfect target of breadth (i.e. range of literature in years) and depth (i.e. amount of texts).

I personally believe the comprehensive field exam as it stands now at Queen’s to be a relic of the old-guard. In theory, it makes sense; but in a practical way it is time consuming, inefficient, and horribly anachronistic. I know this because early investigations into my list revealed a couple things very quickly:

1) The list is too big — I cannot read 350+ titles in less than 6 months and expect to retain that knowledge. People who study the capacities of the brain tell us this to be the case. And, from those upper year PhD students I have interviewed about this process, they say one never reads all of his or her list anyway. Thus, this brings the value of such a process into question. Why does the comprehensive field exam exist if we a) won’t retain the knowledge b) read everything we are supposed to and c) even attempt to do such an absurd amount of work in a short period of time by our employers, colleagues, and supervisors? Seems like a terrible professionalization scheme to me.

2) This process is an obstacle to completing your PhD on time — I was interviewed by an external review board of the Queen’s English PhD program as a year one representative. We spoke about the obstacles facing English graduate students in completing their degrees on time. The four biggest things were: 1) Ineffective Student-Supervisor relationships 2) Department infrastructure in stewarding students through the program in an efficient manner 3) Mental Illness 4) Comprehensive field exam.  Plopping down a massive reading list into the early portions of a program, setting a far-off exam date to sparkle in the distance, and asking your students to go off on their own for self-directed study is not the most efficient way to manage your department’s time or money. Obviously, most students go wandering off somewhere to travel or work and never really get around to their list until the middle of the summer. Then they try to cram as many titles into their brain as possible in a small amount of time. Then they crash after the exam. And then they take a month to recover only to be met with the Christmas holiday and a month off. Then sometime in February they get working on their Special Topic Presentation. It really isn’t the best thing to ask of somebody trying to get a program done before they aren’t getting paid to do it anymore.

So, yeah. It’s tough business but we all have to do it. So the best way to do it is to put together a healthy and dedicated routine for reading day-in and day-out for six months, keeping detailed notes of everything you read and staying focused.

I think BBK can help me with that.

For the next four months — I write my exam the last week of October — I will be preparing for my Comprehensive Field Exam in Contemporary North American Literature. And, for the next four months, I will be writing about and discussing my list on this blog. Book by book. Blow by blow. The point is to make BBK a repository of knowledge for my comps. exam and to entertain people with book reviews and other delicious tidbits.

I also anticipate this process to be therapeutic and highly revealing of my dedication to this program. Obviously, I will try to mix in some sports writing and  creative writing as much as possible.

I hope you enjoy the ride! And thanks for keeping me honest!



3 thoughts on “How To Get A PhD in English: The Comprehensive Field Exam

  1. Good article. My comps in history consisted of a 20-hour written test (over 3 days), no notes or anything, over 200 books. I ended up writing about 75 pages. The process isn’t about learning, though. It’s a hazing ritual more than anything. I think some kind of “comps” period is good, but it needs major, major change.

    • And how much of that exam copy would you consider “good”? I mean, when I write in-class stuff it is terrible, terrible stuff. I would never submit that kind of work normally, and you are aware of this while you write it.

      But you are right. The comps process needs to be reformed.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • I’m sure it wasn’t very good. We’re not allowed to read our responses ever. When you’re give two HUGE questions with an eight hour limit, there isn’t time to proofread. One of the only criticism I got was that I didn’t proofread. They said you would always proofread an article or seminar paper. It’s like arggg. lol. If I had proofread, I would have written less and would have been criticized for that. When I have time to write, I can write just fine.

        Thanks for replying. :) Check out my blog too if you get a chance. :)

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