Succeeding in Political Science Ph.D. Comps

Few parts of Ph.D. education in political science and international relations are as stress-inducing as the comprehensive examinations.

Generally, doctoral students value doing well in school, and generally that means they value doing well on tests. For students that fall into that category, the idea that there’s a test which, if you fail, means you might have to leave graduate school is bad enough. More to the point, this is a special kind of test, one that students will likely have to take only once or twice and with a format that can be maddeningly vague. Yet well-meaning people also often advise that you shouldn’t try to do too well on the exam, because you have other things to do.

High-stakes and ambiguous? That’s a formula for extreme tension.

That’s the spirit!

Ideally, students arrive at the comprehensive examination after a well-integrated curriculum provided by a supportive faculty who have made their expectations clear. Not everyone can expect this: some departments are dysfunctional, sometimes faculty are busy, and sometimes a pandemic strikes. If you’re floundering, or even just worried, I hope this post will provide you with the mentorship and advice you need.

What I Want From Your Comp

Let me begin by laying out what I, a faculty member, want from graduate students’ comps experience. I don’t want you to fail! Neither do most faculty members. Failure is costly for students and for the faculty. It sets back graduation timelines, adds to workload, and suggests that we as a faculty made a mistake somewhere–whether in admitting a student, engaging and supporting students, teaching students well, or somewhere else. I want students to succeed well enough that I can sign the paper attesting that they displayed enough knowledge about the field to pass.

But I don’t want to pass someone who does not display that competence. If a student is struggling with the comprehensive exam, then by definition they are not meeting one of the requirements for graduation. At a minimum, that should require students and faculty to re-assess the student’s present course. It may be that their trajectory can be saved; it may also be that doctoral education is not a good fit. Comps can force conversations that can be unpleasant but which can result in something kinder than deferring difficult talks about whether graduate school is the right fit. Saving someone years of their life and lifelong bitterness is a kindness, not a cruelty, no matter how it may subjectively appear at the time.

What Does Success Mean?

The first task is to explore what the meaning of success in a comprehensive examination is.

The easiest answer is that success means passing. So what does it take to pass? When I assess comprehensive examinations, I am looking for students to hit two major points.

Demonstrating Command of the Literature

At a minimum, I am looking for good, clear answers to the questions that demonstrate a command of the relevant literature. That normally involves some sense of the historical development of the field, the major theoretical arguments, the relationship between real-world events and academic theory development, and the strengths and limitations of major methodological developments and how they have contributed to the development of the field. This should draw upon but go beyond the coverage of these topics in seminar courses. (It’s important to note that what people are capable of will depend on the specifics of your department and comps format.)

Thus, a question about realism might begin with Morgenthau, progress to Waltz, give an overview of Mearsheimer, and then engage seriously with one or two of the more recent and useful debates. You could also engage questions like whether theories must be testable and why that proposition is or isn’t useful, or whether realism is a degenerative research project, etc. And you could address how theory relates to real-world tests like the end of the Cold War, the long-term decline in conventional warfare, critiques from feminist and other scholars, and so on. (Note, by the way, that an appropriate answer could also be constructed using none of these elements; I’m just giving a flavor for what I would like to see.)

By the same token, a question about what methodology IR scholars should employ would address the similarities and disagreements among major methodological approaches, as well as survey some approaches that have been discarded and some that are on the rise. This would involve understanding not only what methodologists prescribe but also how applied researchers have employed those tools and the relationship (close or loose fit) between theory and tests. These days, for instance, I’d expect to read something much more than a refried qual vs quant debate. I’d want to hear about different varieties of qualitative methods and distinctions between observational statistical methods, text-as-data approaches, network methods, experiments, and so on.

Throughout, the goal is not just to regurgitate classical citations, but to relate those enduring debates to the paths that have been taken, the paths taken but abandoned, and the paths that we could take.

Making an Argument

The second part is whether a student can actually devise and present an argument rather than a summary. This is a, perhaps the, key distinction between undergraduate and graduate work.

I take it practically for granted that students should be able to competently and correctly summarize and synthesize earlier work. Failure to do so is pretty much an automatic failure (and a pretty good sign that the student is not fit for this business). This isn’t Political Science Jeopardy where we test whether you can match the author to the argument. You should be able to do that, of course, but you should also be working toward a clear goal and target in your writing. This isn’t just a literature exam, it’s a true literature review in which you draw on evidence from what you’ve read to make a real argument.

What I would like to see is that evidence marshaled in favor of a thesis that answers the question fully and directly. A great answer would also lay out ways that the student could build upon it in her own work (whether that be teaching or research). So that answer to the hypothetical question about realism could build to an argument about why one or another strand of realism should be discarded or enthroned, about why materialist arguments should be discarded altogether, about why the debate about the paradigms is not worthwhile, etc, and then lead to the conclusion about what I should do next. (These can become the basis for literature reviews and undergraduate lectures later on.)

Demonstrating a command of the literature without putting that command toward the construction of a compelling, or at least competent, thesis is useless. As one commenter on a draft put it, “a good comp answer identifies what the big divides in a literature are, and attempts to adjudicate which side is right (or at least less wrong).” Beyond that, originality and a point of view can be valuable. What I’d really like to see is an argument that makes me think about these questions differently. (Indeed, when I write questions for comps, sometimes I write questions that I’m of two or more minds about!). The model should be the review essays in World PoliticsThe Annual Review of Political Science, and International Studies Review.

Modulating Expectations

Again, though, the point is to pass. It is much easier to pass than to impress me or change my mind. And passing doesn’t require you to do that! Despite the name “comprehensive”, your goal is not to have a thorough knowledge of everything in the discipline: your goal is to be competent enough to pass.

To be sure, in chess, I was taught that it’s bad to play for a draw. Doing so is likely to put you in a position to lose. If you want to maximize your chances for a draw, you probably still want to be looking for ways to win. In the same way, it’s hard to say what it takes to pass instead of to pass with honors (or whatever your local equivalent is). Nevertheless, focusing on these two major points does, I think, clarify where marginal effort should be put: past a certain point of preparation, you are probably better off working to find ways to make arguments that answer likely categories of questions (and using those outlines to guide your prep) than trying to read another book.

To tie this together: you can’t expect to gut this out without studying, and you probably can’t bullshit your way to a pass. But if you put in the effort and approach studying for the exam in an organized way, it’s unlikely that you will fail. (And if you do, that points to a larger problem with the department or other agents beyond the scope of this essay.) The question, then, is how you should organize yourself to succeed.

How to Prepare for Comps: In General

This two-step definition of success should be reflected in preparation for the comp.

It is a good beginning, but only a beginning, to read and understand the comps reading list (if one is provided for you). I will note that the reading list tends to be itself a beginning, by the way. I certainly expect to see at least a few citations from major journals and books that aren’t on the reading list, especially from journals like International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and International Security (although not limited to this list). (My preference is for more recent stuff rather than canonical works, although this is not universal and you should check.)

The goal of reading all of this is, again, not to memorize a disjointed list of abstracts and keywords. Rather, the point of this reading is to acquaint students with major debates and give them the raw materials they need to develop a sense within the student of what in the field is working and what is not. Indeed, my interest is not really that the student passes comps; at this level, passing comps is the expectation. Rather, my interest in how the student can use comps to orient herself toward something that seems promising and away from arguments that seem played out. Ideally, this leads to a better dissertation (and career).

The more one is contact with work recently published in major journals, the easier this is; similarly, work from the fringes of the discipline can also be useful because it is work outside the paradigm that will, eventually, supply the basis for overturning the incumbent paradigm. (Just because something is published in IO doesn’t make it right, and just because something is published in a lower-ranked journal doesn’t make it wrong.)

Okay, but how can you read all of this? By now, I hope it’s no surprise that you’re not expected to read every word on every page of every book (or article). You need to read with a purpose and you need to read like a graduate student. For standard academic books, that means reading the introduction, theory chapter, conclusion, and one or two empirical chapters. For articles, it means reading the abstract, introduction, and then the sections you’re most responsible for. (Yes, you shouldn’t even be reading all of every article.)

In fact, you shouldn’t be reading the entire list at all. You should be prepping with a group of at least one other and as many as three or four other grad students. Divide the readings among yourselves and share your notes. Similarly, parcel out the likely questions among yourselves and share your outlines. You shouldn’t outsource everything (and you certainly shouldn’t all turn in identical answers!) but you should be thinking about how you can focus on your strengths while letting others help you through your weak spots (and vice versa). In other words, the logic should be that everyone does some foundational work but after that it’s comparative advantage that should guide you. Prepping for comps should not be a solo endeavor–it’s a group project.

(As one reviewer notes, like all group projects, there is a risk of free-riding. My advice here is to practice both ex ante and ex post screening: be a little selfish about whom you choose to work with, and be willing to be firm about having people live up to commitments. Having just one partner who’s great can be better than having three mid partners.)

As you read, you should be continually iterating through answers to likely questions. This should be one of the things you talk about with your group and with the faculty members you’re close to. As a professor, I’m much more interested in having conversations with students about critiques and arguments than about summaries of books. Developing arguments involves making drafts, testing them against counterarguments, and revising in response–and that revision, in turn, should guide your engagement with the recent scholarship that’s not on the reading list just as it guides your review of the works on that list.

In other words, you should not arrive at comps eager to find out what argument you’re going to make. You should arrive at comps with a suite of tested, revised argumentation lines that you’ve debated with your peers and (for at least some) with one or two faculty members. Since the precise questions will be a surprise, there’s going to be a lot of work to adapt these, but many of the subsidiary lines should be relatively pat.

Incidentally, this should suggest that your preparation for comps begins with your choice of coursework and with your note-taking and paper-writing for courses. You should be familiar with a solid core of the literature from your seminars. Go back to the syllabi and your notes to re-acquaint yourself with those arguments (and now might be a good time to look at some of the optional readings). That, in turn, should guide your approach to comps. (I really hope this isn’t a surprise but I’ve had some experiences that suggest that it may be to at least some readers.)

Note: this isn’t middle school. If your takeaway from coursework was that some major approach is deeply flawed or that there’s a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk should the field only adopt this or that approach, then develop that! You’re not really supposed to be in the business of repeating what other people have said before. Know, however, that this is a riskier approach (after all, your insight might turn out to be, uh, dumb). It may be a better idea for you to try to make a softer version of the critique in comps as you attempt to pass and develop your idea as a review essay or original article later. After all, pubs > comps.

How to Prepare for Comps: Specific Tactics

There are some specific tactics you can employ to prepare.

  • Extended summaries. Prepare extended summaries of books and articles so that you can systematically record their main argument, methodology, evidence, major interlocutors, and caveats. Use a spreadsheet or Google Forms to capture this; leave a text box for your own thoughts and questions and for rebuttals and connections to other readings as you come across them. This is a great way to organize your group’s work, by the way.
  • Flash cards. Yes, I’ve said before that recall isn’t the point of comps, but it is part of the formula. Using flash cards or flash card apps to associate your notes with the citation can work wonders. This is one reason I encourage you to take your notes in some sort of spreadsheet-esque format: you can simplify the process of merging your notes into study guides and flash cards.
  • Book reviews. When you read books–especially major books–grab two or three capsule book reviews from major journals, especially reviews by major authors in the field. It’s okay to use others’ critiques! Just make sure you cite them.
  • Zotero. It’s time for you to use structured bibliographic and note-taking software. Your first (and I hope last) stop will be Zotero. You should be building the core of the bibliography you’ll be using for your dissertation and publications as you go through comps.
  • Get the old questions. This should be one of your very first tasks. Make sure you have as many old questions as you can from previous years’ comps in your department. Analyze them. Are there certain categories of questions that get asked on a given cycle? Are there ways you can predict what you’ll be asked about?
  • Get old answers. It’s time to talk to the people who are one to three years ahead of you. Ask students who have passed for their answers. Privately review them and critique them. You should use this to build up your sense of what “passing” means in your department.
  • Use databases intelligently. At a minimum, talk to a librarian about how to use database tools to find articles that cite each other. You should ideally be able to use Web of Science, Google Scholar, and similar tools to find connections among
  • Read literature reviews as well as the literature. There are a number of resources that you can and should be using to help organize your thinking. These may not show up on your department’s reading list, but they probably ought to. In particular, you should be reading the Oxford Handbooks for relevant topics, Annual Review of Political Science, International Studies Review, and similar review articles. These are not neutral summaries of the literature: they are interventions in debates. As such, they both model what you should be doing and also give you a good sense of what the major arguments are right now. Moreover, they also point to the new research and emerging trends that your coursework may have only hinted at.
  • Most important, practice writing your answers. As one commenter on this piece noted, “Comps are evaluated on what you write. [It’s] easy to keep focusing on reading more, rather than practicing writing.” Comps shouldn’t be seen as a reading comprehension exam–that’s the first stage of Bloom’s taxonomy. We’re at the top of that ladder, and synthesis and creation are way more important here. Reading is an ingredient, but practicing turning your reading into arguments is more important. Being able to match authors to arguments is necessary but far from sufficient. Actually stringing together sentences will give you a lot of feedback about where your preparation needs tork and what type of prep you still need. Eventually, that needs to go beyond writing outlines into actually writing timed practice exams. Ideally, that would happen with faculty feedback–that may not always be possible, but you can ask. I will say that a combination of courtesy and faculty willingness to schedule things well in advance they may not otherwise agree to means you should ask for this a couple of months ahead of time.

Why Comps?

I’m not writing this essay to defend or critique comps. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably at a department where that question has been answered for you. I do, however, want to leave you with a few thoughts about why this test–the last test you may ever take!–could be justified as a part of doctoral education. That is to say, there’s a reason, or many reasons, why many departments for decades have had students take a giant pass/fail exam.

  • Practicing academic skills. You’ll be writing a lot of literature reviews in the future. You should be able to do this. Comps acquaints you with the literature and the general approaches to doing this.
  • Socialization into the discipline. Learning more about what the discipline has done and what it’s decided not to do is important. This is socialization! You should be able to develop a sense about how the literature has and will evolve that will extend your horizons beyond your carrel and your department. (One reviewer notes that they called core courses “Rituali socialization through collective mortification”, and there’s something to that for comps as well.) That said…
  • Socialization into the department. Comps is also a time for you to learn more about the faculty nearer to you. It’s time for you to really learn what your faculty members do. You should make a special attempt to acquaint yourself with at least a couple of pieces by everyone on the faculty of your department. Cite at least some of them in the answers (and have a plan to cite them, uh, positively). But this also means learning about their approaches. Will Professor Jones veto anything that doesn’t acknowledge realism? Will Professor Chekov object to anything that hints ethnography will be useful? Well, if Jones or Chekov is going to be reading your answers (and, yes, you can ask), then you should know and plan accordingly. Since it’s unlikely you’ll have taken courses with everyone who’s going to be eligible to grade your answers, it’s time to stretch your wing.
  • Socialization into your cohort (and prior cohorts). Much as methods courses provide bonding experiences through trauma, so too will comps help generate the glue that holds your cohort together. This should also extend beyond your cohort: you should make a point to talk to the older students in the department about the process and their experiences and advice.
  • Discovering a topic. One of my professors told me that comps was great for developing a dissertation topic because you’re likely to find something that makes you angry. Well, anger might not be the only valid emotion that can lead you to a topic (there’s also fascination and annoyance), but the point remains. You should be reading not just to pass comps but to feed your dissertation work, whether that means refining your literature review for the prospectus or finally figuring out what you want to do.
  • Using comps to build your personal literature reviews. Courses are important, but they barely do more than scratching the surface of what’s important. Comps represent the last time you’ll have an incentive to read broadly outside of your niche. Quite a lot of what you know about the field will come from this experience. Wherever possible, err on reading things you’ll need for your research rather than breadth of the field. Again, you’re not in graduate school to excel in comps: you’re aiming to write the best scholarship you can. So make sure you know enough of the canon and the field to pass, but you should still be favoring the topics, subtopics, and sub-subtopics that you need.

Some institutions may approach comps as a hazing ritual. I disagree with that, as do many others; I think that comps need to align with your interests. They do, however, also serve a role in making sure that you’re not wholly captive to your (and your adviser’s) interests. If you’re in a hazing department, well, my apologies–this is not something you’re likely to be able to fix. You can, however, pay forward the kindness you wish you’d received to future graduate students, both those junior to you in your department and those that you’ll mentor in the future by making their experiences more helpful.

Thanks to Jason Reifler, Robert Marchini, and Jenna Sindle for feedback on an earlier version. All errors and omissions are my own.