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How to Prepare for the Comprehensive Exam in Science Disciplines?

Saikat Kumar Basu
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB Canada T1K 3M4; email

Guyana Journal, December 2009

1. According to the free-online dictionary1 comprehension means “The act or fact of grasping the meaning, nature, or importance of understanding.” Hence you can well understand what the comprehensive exam expects from you. It expects a comprehensive, or in other words, a well rounded knowledge and understanding of things happening around you. Even simpler to understand is that it tries to assess your ability to understand and explain things rationally in the light of the latest available knowledge, theories, hypotheses and information available in peer-reviewed primary literature sources. This is an exam to text your ability to apply, analyze, synthesize, elaborate, illustrate, evaluate, organize, translate, express, summarize, relate, paraphrase, expand and generate linkages among separate and even unconnected strings of knowledge and information. It challenges and tests your skills in perceiving information and using it rationally and logically in explaining a scientific phenomenon, sociological theories, a new hypothesis or abstract idea in logical and meaningful terms and words. This is one of the toughest and most challenging examinations in the life of the graduate student. So I suggest looking at it first with a positive attitude rather than a negative attitude. Believe me that will make a lot of difference in your preparation for taking this examination! Your 'positive attitude' to my understanding is the most important and helpful tool or resource you have to face this examination. Look at it as a preparation for life after grad school; think of it like a “commando” level training that makes you well prepared to the unprotected world outside. Prepare yourself mentally to take this HUGE CHALLENGE and only positive thoughts will keep you focused to reach your goal. Negative thoughts, feelings and occasional frustrations and sometimes depression, anxiety and fear can only pull you down the mountain slope. Hence the first tip is to have a positive attitude and a respect for the objective of this exam.

2. Comprehensive exam is not a memory or “cram it and vomit it” kind of exam. This is not an exam to test the limit of your knowledge but rather to test the boundaries of your knowledge and to check how you can link together different piece of information that you have accumulated over the years starting from lower or middle school to the door steep of graduate school and apply them effectively in problem solving. This is to demonstrate that you have good command of your basic research area, some knowledge of overall science, that you are aware of the latest developments in science and also to show that you are just not narrowly focused in your thesis work and you have broader understanding of science fields overlapping with your chosen field of research work. Truly, it is the test of comprehension and hence the name.

3. Do not be worried about not being able to answer every single question. Trust me: no one can do that unless you are a PRODIGY or a GEEK. It is not how much you can answer but how you answer the questions under a pressure situation.

Indeed and no doubt that this is extremely challenging. But at the same time it is achievable. Think about your supervisors and professors or fellow grads, colleagues and friends, post-doctoral fellows in your lab…they have all taken it and have been successful and so should be you. So get out of the initial cocoon of fear and anxiety and get started for preparing well for this exam. Do NOT PROCASTINATE, the longer you will take to motivate and drag yourself to the study table, the more DIFFICULT will it be to clear the exam.

4. No one can take this exam by studying hard the night before or through the exam week or even just the month of the exam. In fact your preparation should start well ahead of time to AVOID DISAPPOINTMENTS later.

5. Where to START? This is a very good question. I suggest start with the person you are most accustomed with and undoubtedly this is your supervisor/academic adviser(s). Discuss about the exam process with your supervisor(s), check with them about their own past experiences, ask questions, enquire about their expectations, discuss about the type of questions to expect and how should you answer them. It is very important during the comprehensive exam to understand the question you are asked very clearly so that you can answer it appropriately. Often you will come across very hypothetical questions or open ended questions that really have no “one” correct answer. Hence it is important to appropriately word your response so that you can satisfy the examiner and at the same time boost your confidence levels for the next question.

6. Comprehensive is conducted in different formats across different universities and even different departments on the same campus. It is very important for you to get an outline idea of the exam format so that you can prepare accordingly. You may be asked to make presentations and then respond to questions raised by the exam committee members; or you may have separate or related written and oral component or oral exam only, or it could be a mix of these forms. Whatever the format of the exam of your institute, you should prepare and organize your time for preparing and appearing in different components. The oral exam is usually towards the end and one of the most intimidating and challenging one to face.

7. I also suggest check with everyone available on campus that you can reach at the initial stages of your preparation: supervisor/academic advisers(s), thesis committee members and examination committee members, professors who have chaired comprehensive exams, PhD candidates, post-doctoral fellows, fellow grads and friends who have taken the exam recently or are preparing for that. Some universities organize workshop for graduate students who are going to take the comprehensive exam. This is a great opportunity and you should attend these workshops. Trust me these will help you to get an idea of the exam pattern of your institute and also make you feel better to know that you are not in complete darkness.

8. Once you get an idea of the areas and topics that you need to prepare, spend time in selecting reviews, research articles and text books in those areas. I also suggest looking at an undergraduate level text book for some basic concepts. Some of the questions asked in this exam are very basic and often from under grad level. You will be better prepared in tackling those if you spend some time in turning the pages of under grad text books. Be in touch with supervisor and committee members for clarifying any doubt that you may have while you are going through the materials.

9. Do not stress yourself too much towards the closing date of your exam. Balance your research work with study and make it a regular habit of covering some portion of the exam material regularly. Studying too hard for a couple days and relaxing for few days do not help. You should have a regular schedule of uninterrupted study everyday. Pick that time according to your convenience. Some like doing serious study at the end of the day's work, while others prefer early morning hours for solid preparation; still others like preparing late at night. Pick the time according to your body physiology and study habits. Make sure you have a quite place to prepare, that could be your study desk at home or university library or a secluded and forgotten corner of your lab. You will be amazed to note that how well you perceive your study materials once you develop a regular study habit, place and time.

10. I find it helpful in marking essential points with a highlighter or a pencil and also marking the important key flowcharts and diagrams during my first round of reading. So that when I revisit this same topic later, I will concentrate only on the key points and features and not the full article/review/chapter. This according to my experience saves time and also provides you extra time for peeping through additional materials and information.

11. It is a good idea to look into the research areas of your supervisor and other committee members while you are preparing for your exam. This will give you a good idea of their backgrounds and help you to choose reading materials that may help you in answering few questions form their corresponding disciplines. I would suggest you to check with your supervisor and then read most of the papers (including research articles/reviews/abstracts/commentaries/successful grant applications/lab presentations/posters) published from the lab in your area and overlapping and allied fields to have a good grip on these topics. Also note some institutes do not allow thesis supervisor/academic advisor(s) to be part of the comprehensive exam committee and, based on your institutional policy, you may or may not need to have an in depth coverage of research areas that your lab and supervisor/academic adviser(s) specializes and publishes. If your institute picks up one or two external examiners then you need to spend time and effort in going through their publications and prepare accordingly. As mentioned before this is institution specific and you need to be aware of the system and policy of your institute in particular; what applies to others may not be quite appropriate in your case.

12. Do not stress yourself to the point of complete exhaustion. This is the worst thing that can happen to you. If you start your preparation early enough then you need not panic at the end. Make sure to sleep well, eat properly and exercise regularly. If your health breaks down at the end then you are not being able to take the exam in time and that will only add to your agony anyway. It is also important to browse the internet to look for necessary materials and make sure to visit the library adequately for additional resources. Read or at least eye ball latest articles in high impact factor and prestigious journals in your research areas and allied fields. I know that it is impossible to read and remember everything - just make sure that you are aware of it. I suggest peeping through latest related articles in Science, Nature, PNAS, Scientific American, New Scientist, Discovery journals and magazines. Maintain different folders for different topics you need to cover for the exam for easy management of documents and study materials. This will help you to save time and use it judiciously in solid preparation rather then looking for a paper amidst heaps of articles. This also helps keeping your stress level down. Make a habit to revisit the areas covered so that you RETAIN a portion what you are reading in your brain. The more page marks and highlights mark your study materials, the more focused you are getting over the course of your preparation.

13. It is always good to consult text books on the topics you are preparing. Some times the research articles explain and discuss their research in the light of advances or progress already made in the field. If you are a new reader in that field you may or may not be able to grasp the concepts of important points raised in the article and significant contributions made. Text books are great help in this regard to prepare you for future advanced level information. You will be better equipped in understanding papers in cutting edge-technology in your area if you are well aware of the basics in that field. Another great help are review articles. This will provide you with the summaries of progresses made in a particular research domain in a comprehensive manner and made aware of deficiencies in the field, bottlenecks, short comings, significant discoveries, etc. I personally find the Annual Reviews, Trends and Current Opinion series extremely helpful in this regard and suggest the same for you. They will provide you with comprehensive details in a particular topic. If not specified regarding the time range by any exam committee member, I suggest looking through articles and reviews in the immediate vicinity of the past five years.

14. Participation in mock exams organized by individual departments, faculties and libraries or grad student associations or with fellow grad student lab members can boost your confidence significantly. This is an excellent exercise to prepare for the exam although unfortunately not easily available when you need them the most. Try to organize such a self-help group way ahead of time. It is also a great idea to prepare together with another grad student preparing for the same exam. You will be amazed to note how much we can learn from one another.

15. Do not leave things for the last moment. This is only going to add stress and unnecessary anxiety and pressure. Do everything possible in time so that there is no last minute rush.

16. Concentrate on broader understanding rather than memorizing different core topic areas; try to pick up the important concepts and remember few examples to illustrate your points. Do not read all the time; instead take your time to think what you read and try to develop questions from the read materials. This will relax your eyes and brain and help you to think critically. Have a note book with you always and jot down key points or questions popping up in your mind. You will be amazed to see that some will indeed pop up in the written or oral exam to your great joy and satisfaction.

17. Last but not the least; make sure to have a good night sleep the night before the exam. If you are too tired and exhausted on the day of exam, it is not going to help you. Make sure to drink water, juice or pop so that you do not stress yourself to killing levels.

18. Be positive - that's the most important mantra! Be calm and do not let anxiety and tension take over you close to the scheduled date of your exam. Often walk in the sun and enjoy the afternoon sunset. Look through your window at the birds chirping on the edge of the twig. Listen to radio or music or watch television to cut down monotony of hard preparation. Talk to your friends and family members. Take a brisk walk with your pet in the evening. On the exam day reach the exam room well ahead of time and RELAX. Take occasional deep breaths to relax your nerves and muscles and all the time think POSITIVE. Remember others have taken this course too and survived and YOU WILL TOO. If you feel strong enough, greet the exam committee member as they move into the room and take their respective seats. Your exam committee members are not there to fail and humiliate you. They are there to appreciate the volume and depths of preparation you have made over this long time. Be COURAGEOUS to reflect that during the exam process in front of the exam chair, committee members, grad school dean or his/her representative. Show the world how hard you have prepared yourself to take this CHALLENGE!

19. Listen to the question attentively. If you do not understand the question request the exam committee member to rephrase his/her question; that helps often times. Do not get anxious or angry at any question and do not beat around the bush. If you are not sure of a particular answer, feel free to say “NO”. No one expects you to answer all the questions. Do not cook up FALSE answers. That's dangerous! It is like digging your own grave. Be polite to the individual examiner and sip water in between if your throat dries up. Remember to make eye contacts with the person asking the question. Also to explain something if you need to go to the board, feel free to do that after asking the permission of the chair. It will make you look confident and maybe that will explain your answer/response even better. Take a deep breathe if you are stressing yourself at some point. If you remember, then thank the exam committee members when the chair asks you to leave the exam room for voting. When the chair confirms your PASSING, thank the members and the chair for guiding you though. They have been instrumental and invaluable aid to shape your future, which you may not realize at this moment or point of time in your career, and deserve your sincere regards and gratitude for that. At least I sincerely believe this. This is a life altering experience and you have successfully crossed the hardest and narrowest bridge that you would ever need to cross again in your academic life. It is like your re-birth from the ashes. You are at that point where you realize your greatest strengths and weakness. You are a PhD candidate now ready to take the next step for your thesis defense. ENJOY IT! If you do not make it in the first go, just accept it and prepare better for the nest time. Most institutes provide a second chance to the candidate. Just remember to maintain a positive attitude while you prepare yourself once again.


1. Free-online dictionary. Available online at (Accessed April 13, 2009)