The Importance of Comprehensive Exams in Graduate Programs

The Importance of Comprehensive Exams in Graduate Programs

As academia tends more and more toward specialization and broad general knowledge is less esteemed, some people have argued that comprehensive exams should not be required. However, without comprehensive exams, advanced degrees lose their value.
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The Comprehensive Exam

In many fields, graduate students studying for Master’s, PhDs, and other advanced degrees are required to take comprehensive exams, commonly called "comps." Comps differ widely from field to field, and could involve written components, oral components, or other demonstrations of proficiency. Comps are often a major milestone in the graduate student’s course of study because they challenge the student to learn a very great deal about the field he or she is studying. Graduate programs can be viewed as requiring students to demonstrate both a breadth of knowledge in the field as a whole and a depth of knowledge about a specific area of interest. Whereas the dissertation is the demonstration of depth, the comprehensive exam is how a student shows breadth. Read more on achieving success in exams.

Comps or No Comps?

It seems logical to require comps exams for future PhDs and others studying for terminal degrees in the field of study. After all, a terminal degree ought to indicate that the individual is an expert in the field and has learned, if not all there is to know, at least a sufficient amount that further schooling would be impractical. A student who receives a PhD in history is, and ought to be, expected to know a very great deal about history. However, in the United States some academics hold the opinion that, in certain fields, comps exams should not be required.


Increasingly, the academic world is characterized by intense specialization. Those who receive terminal degrees are often experts in a very, very small area of their field, rather than in the field as a whole. There are several complex reasons for this, and often the reasons differ from field to field. In some fields, especially in the sciences, specialization is necessary because it’s at the level of extreme specificity that the most important advances are made. In other fields, specialization is necessary to stand out from others who are competing for a very small number of job openings. Whatever the reason, some people think that specialization is important enough that graduate students should devote most of their time to it.

Do Comps Get in the Way?

Valuing specialization over a breadth of more general knowledge had led some people, especially academics, to conclude that comprehensive exams are unnecessary and even detrimental to students’ futures. For example, in the field of philosophy, there are far more new PhDs given each year than there are open academic positions. This means that getting a job at a university in a philosophy department is extremely competitive. In order to stand out from the crown, young philosophers need to publish articles in their areas of interest, attend conferences, and distinguish themselves in any other way that they possibly can. According to some, the intensive study and preparation required to take the comprehensive exams in philosophy prevent PhD students from devoting enough time to distinguishing themselves in the field.

The Value of Expertise

Although the arguments against comps are understandable, getting rid of comprehensive exams would be detrimental to the academic world. If graduate students are not required to learn as much as they can about their fields, they will be less prepared to teach others or to enter demanding jobs after they receive their degrees. Although they may excel as specialists, they will lack the flexibility, historical perspective, and big-picture view that higher education ought to impart. It might be argued that, if specializing works, then it must be a good thing. However, the value of advanced degrees can only go down if those who obtain them can no longer be considered experts. Institutions that grant terminal degrees to students who have not demonstrated, through comprehensive exams, that they are among the most knowledgeable individuals in the field, will lose their reputations as prestigious centers of learning.