Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he discusses experience with comprehensive exams often required for doctoral study, and the ways such exams mirror hazing patterns in other institutions and groups.  

As many graduate students know, comprehensive exams (sometimes also called preliminary exams, qualifying exams, prelims, comps, etc.) are often part of the grad school process. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard horror stories about such tests from senior graduate students and faculty alike from the earliest days of grad school. The stories from graduate students went something like this:

 

“Oh my GOD. The semester you take the test is the worst semester of your life.”

“Get ready to hate everything when you take them.”

“I mean, people have failed before. It’s been documented.”

“Jeez, I don’t even remember half the stuff from the test, but make sure you know the stuff for the exam.”

“They’re so hard. The worst. Ugh I hate them.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

From faculty:

 

“You will seriously need to study. Plan on doing nothing else the semester you take them.”

“Your exams are what first demonstrate that you are going to be a scholar in (area X) of (discipline Y). So you need to take them seriously.”

“You need to remember everything from the readings. Yes everything.”

“People have failed them before.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

Now, in my particular situation the students were assigned or selected a certain number of texts to read in order to reflect their expertise in a specific area of the discipline. Then over the course of many hours (sometimes in one day, sometimes in two) they sat in a specified room and typed our responses. Faculty then assessed our responses and assigned a score.  Then, we learned our score, but never saw the test again.

For me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, hearing all of this before taking my exams was extremely disconcerting. As I listened to my colleagues and faculty gush about the horror of the tests I started to wonder why we even do them anymore. Over and over again I heard graduate students and faculty alike reinforcing the notion that the tests need to be taken seriously, that they’re intimidating, horrifying, traumatizing even.

In the midst of all this advice, multiple graduate students repeatedly told me that no one ever asked them about the test in the months/years after completing them, so “just get through it and move on”. Each person I talked to portrayed their method of studying as the way to study for these tests. People shared their “survival strategies” with me in what seemed like an effort to soften the blow of this supposedly horrendous process.

When it came time for me to start studying, I kept all these things in mind: the terror of the test, the embarrassment that would come if I didn’t pass, the stress of being a slow reader trying to get through thousands of pages of texts. I woke up in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety more than once. It seemed my colleagues were right: comprehensive exams are terrible.

“But why?” I wondered to myself. “Why do they have to be terrible if this thing is just a valorized essay test that no one will ever ask me about ever again in my life once it’s over?” it was during this reflection that I realized that all comprehensive exams really are is a glorified hazing process for graduate students.

And I get it, if you think about it as a hazing process it all makes sense:

The tests are framed as the thing that will make you an expert in a field. This framing reinforces the notion that they are not only important, but that if we all really want to be experts then we need to do really well on them. In reality, a completed dissertation or set of publications is more likely to reflect your expertise in a given area, but pointing this out might undermine the ritual of comprehensive exams.

The tests are vaguely framed as scary and something we need to take seriously, even though most people pass, most programs allow you to take them more than once, and no one will ever ask you about them ever again. This fits the guidelines of a hazing ritual perfectly. If we aren’t repetitively told that the tests are scary then maybe we would see them for what they really are: timed essays shrouded in hype. Also, if students are scared into (over) studying for the test, then faculty can say “you must not have studied hard enough” in the face of someone who does fail. In this framework, failing the test becomes a personal failure, instead of a problem with the structure of the examination, and the structure of academia more broadly. Namely how the structure itself is specifically disadvantageous to neuro-atypical, racial/class/gender/sexual minority students who have been told over and over that we aren’t good enough, will never be good enough, and can’t succeed.

“Surviving” makes you one of the team, and then you get to tell future generations how awful the process is. This makes me think of a friend of mine who was involved in Greek life during his time in undergrad. A few years before he pledged his fraternity, their chapter got in trouble for hazing. As a result, they were under serious surveillance from the national office of their fraternity. The brothers who were seniors during his freshman year were the last pledge class to get hazed and were extremely bitter that the incoming class didn’t have to navigate the same emotionally stressful, degrading, “bonding” activities that they did. To these older brothers the initiation of my friend’s pledge class cheapened the meaning of brotherhood.

Comprehensive exams, as they exist now in many programs, operate in effectively the same way: Faculty and senior graduate students who made it through this format get to maintain boundaries between “them” and “us”, those who are “in” on the knowledge and those who are “out.” They do this by engaging in the same, ritualistic scare tactics that they experienced before they made it through the process, and in so doing justify and reinforce the meaning of their own experiences with the hazing process. Otherwise something that they spent a significant portion of their time in graduate school worrying about might be rendered meaningless.

Once you pass them, they don’t really matter. I took my comprehensive exams. I passed. And I’ve never been asked about them since (with the exception of other nervous graduate students who will take them in the future).

Now, to be fair, I learned a lot while studying for the tests, and it was not a total loss. I also understand the argument that we need to have something in place to make sure that people who are getting PhDs are truly experts in a field. I agree, I’m just not convinced that this format of evaluation is it. I also know that not all programs use this format, in fact some of them have (what I think) are much more useful evaluation methods.

For example, in an academic context where publishing is becoming increasingly more important, why not have students review a specific body of theoretical literature, craft a paper that makes a new theoretical contribution, and then submit it for publication? This format allows students to get the experience of reading broadly and deeply across a field, and the written result of all that work isn’t thrown into a vault where their ideas just waste away. Students could also do an archival research project of all the literature in one or two journals that relate directly to their dissertation topic and give an oral or written (but not timed) defense of that literature. Doing this could help students expedite their dissertation proposals and would give them a wide and deep understanding of their disciplinary sub-field/ fields.

I don’t expect changes to the current format overnight. So while what I mention above are just two potential alternatives to this format, I would like to share some thoughts for students who may be getting ready to take comprehensive exams that look like the ones I took:

Do take them seriously, but remember that they are not the end of the world. Yes, these tests do determine when/if you get to move on in the program, but they are not the be all and end all of your worth as a scholar or a human being.

If your program allows you to take comprehensive exams more than once, think about the first time you take them as a practice round. This is easier said than done, especially when the implicit knowledge around one’s department might be that failing is shameful. However, if you can do this it helps put them in perspective – just think, if you have to take them again at least you will know what you’re getting into. Also, you can spend the semester(s) between the first and second time taking them as a chance to work on your dissertation proposal, and then defend your proposal immediately after you (in all likelihood) pass them the next time.

Hey, senior graduate students and faculty, stop treating failing like its shameful. If you passed, good for you, but just because someone doesn’t pass their first time (or ever) doesn’t lessen their value. Help shrink this as a departmental (and academy-wide) norm. Yes, there might be people who fail because they didn’t study, but it can often be significantly more complicated that that. Again, minority scholars specifically are told their whole lives how likely we are to fail at any time. Instead of reinforcing this logic, work to create an environment where students can do better the next time.

Develop your own studying method(s). In the months leading up to comprehensive exams you will likely be inundated with advice on the best study methods. Really, the best method is whatever works for you. Maybe you audio record conversations you have with yourself about the readings, maybe you make flashcards. You could be someone that needs to structure every hour of their day, or a person to whom that degree of structure feels suffocating. Perhaps you discuss the readings with a study buddy over drinks or coffee, or conversely, you might like to study more solitarily. These and dozens of other methods exist – trust yourself to figure out the one that works best for you and run with it.

Don’t lose yourself. Take some evenings off and hang out with friends (or not), allow yourself to watch Netflix between a reading or two, take a long walk and listen to music – whatever feels like a relaxing activity to you, don’t be afraid to do it. In all likelihood that one evening, or one episode of Breaking Bad won’t make or break your experience with comprehensive exams.

All in all, we could seriously use a critical examination of the pedagogical reason these tests exist in this fashion. For now, though, hopefully this framing will help bring the process back down to earth for folks who will be managing this ritual in the future.

2 thoughts on “Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

  1. What I have never understood is how they can really tell anything besides whether you take tests well. Since different disciplines even within the same university have different ways of doing these exams. Some allow you to take them home over a period of a week or 2 and use references etc., some use oral exams, some written, some use the dissertation proposal as the oral exam, while some lock you in a room for 8 hours with just your memory and a computer which is not allowed to connect to the internet or any form of references. Some departments allow you to retake up to 4 times, and some only one chance to retake it and you are out of the program. Yet once the test is passed it is the same outcome. I don’t see how that is fair that some have it way easier than others. There should at least be a set of equal standards institution wide.

  2. While I am VERY sympathetic to your argument, I think that you give some dangerous advice! Particularly when you suggest “thinking about the first time you take them as a practice round.” While I can see that you are trying to lower the stress threshold concerning the exam, and want this to be read in conjunction with your (good!) advice to “take them seriously,” I still worry that this approach can be fairly dangerous. In my program, we were given one re-take of the comps but if you failed the second time you were expelled from the program (after 4 years) with nothing (except your debt). Look into the research concerning Moral Hazards… I think what you might see is that someone who thinks about the ‘first time’ as a ‘practice round’ will, statistically, have lower exam results… which, in turn, make the second try EVEN HARDER and with much higher stakes. Just something to consider. Clearly, these sort of exams must go and the crux of your argument is that they are damaging, exclusionary, harmful, connected to shame and stratification, and threaten promising careers… which shows the unfair double-bind of the exams; one MUST take them seriously (or face serious consequences and the prospect of premature career death), BUT the very act of taking them seriously is part of the moral/social/psychological harm of this hazing ritual. The argument works by verifying both sides of this bind. So to encourage people to try and “practice” on the first round, and therein reduce the harm, might then actually amplify the threat in the first condition.

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