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This expert advice comes from Frederic A. Spangler, Ph.D.

Doctoral comprehensive and qualifier exams (Comps) are most often administered by the candidate's department or by the selected doctoral program committee. They are almost always written in nature but some components may be oral. The primary purpose of Comps is to measure whether the candidate has understood and retained the bulk of his or her preparatory lab and coursework to the point that the student is deemed qualified to advance to the research and thesis/dissertation phases of the program.

Tips on how to study and prepare for comps:

  • Seek personal advice: Confer with colleagues who have recently sat for their Comps. Also, seek out the advice of your academic advisor and the members of your committee.
  • Review in depth: Your textbooks, lecture notes, lab reports, other relevant materials (handouts, CDs, recordings, very select Web sites with trusted expertise, etc.). Most especially, study those areas you feel weakest in.
  • Time allotment: Do not procrastinate; the scope and depth of the subject matter requires near-continuous review from the end of coursework until the day of the Comps.
  • Study with someone else: This is not advisable in most cases unless there is another candidate with an almost identical program as yours and provided your learning style fits this method.
  • Teaching: There is no better way to solidify command of your subject area than by teaching it (Assistantship, Fellowship, Lecturer at a local college) if you can arrange it.


About the author: Dr. Spangler has over 17 years of editorial experience and is a former college professor, cancer researcher. He has taught pre-professional undergraduate and graduate students, and he served as Director of the USGS/ ProQuest partnership, and Manager of Special Projects at ProQuest.