In Cultural Studies, we have “qualifying exams” instead of “comprehensive exams.” As far as I know, the different nomenclature has to do with the nature of my program, which bills itself as distinct from other approaches to the study of culture in that it:
- recognizes that no single disciplinary approach can get at the complexity of cultural forms and
- emphasizes social justice, social change, and critically studying power.
“Comprehensive” seems to imply that you can actually know everything about a given topic, so my program requires me instead to demonstrate that I’m qualified with enough information and tools for thinking about a topic that I’m a safe bet to complete a thesis-length work on that topic. And now I’m coming up to the time when I need to start thinking about demonstrating my qualifications, so to speak. But I’m still working out exactly how fleshed out a research idea I need to already have in order to start.
Often it’s confusing for us new PhD students to figure out the difference between what we need to have prepared for our quals/comps and what we need to have prepared for our thesis proposal. One of my friends wrote about 8 drafts of a lengthy thesis proposal before realizing that their supervisor was only asking for a 1000 word proposal for the qualifying exam. Once they understood that, suddenly it wasn’t so scary that they didn’t have it all figured out yet. Sometimes it seems to go from “No pressure, take your time, let your interests guide you!” to “Please explain exactly what you’re going to research, and how, and then we’ll let you research it.”
But really, it goes something like this: you write the quals/comps proposal, and then your committee considers what you’ve written and comes up with a few questions about this material. Answering these questions (usually you have about two weeks to answer each question in essay format), forces you to expand and deepen your understanding of the ideas you’ve brought to your committee. Your responses, which your committee will assess on a pass/fail basis, are meant to clarify your line of inquiry. Herein lies the secret of the quals/comps, at least in my realm of study: it’s not a venue for you to lay out your already-perfect-and-whole theory of everything, it’s a place for you to say “here are some ideas I have” and work through those in order to arrive at your specific research question(s). (I’ve started to think of this as a great kindness).
After the quals/comps, then you typically write a longer proposal that sets you up to begin writing your thesis. This one would outline your object of study, its research method, its theoretical framework, and would usually include an annotated bibliography of works relevant to your chosen area(s) of study. It’s a lot more specific, and you’ll be well prepared by your quals/comps to be that much more specific.
So far, I’ve got some ideas swirling about the nature of interior life, Bataille’s “inner experience,” the formation of moral will about political issues, Derrida’s notion of how certain precepts acquire the “force of law,” how secular ideas acquire the force of a sacred conviction, and how art – concrete academic poetry and graphite drawings are what I’m thinking of – can enliven introspection and contemplation about these processes. I’ll let you know when I do about how much more solid this mass of ideas has to become before it qualifies.
Just to be clear, I’m speaking to these degree progress issues from my experience with my program, so always remember to check with your own program for how things are done there. Happy researching