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A comprehensive examination (or comprehensive exam or exams), often abbreviated as "comps," is a specific type of examination that must be completed by graduate students in some disciplines and courses of study. At some institutions it is known as a preliminary examination and abbreviated as "prelims", general examinations and abbreviated as "generals", or as a major field examination.
The form and general requirements for the comprehensive exam varies according to the faculty or department, degree sought, university, and country, but typically tests knowledge of the student's subject area and two or more related areas, and may be used to determine a candidate's eligibility to continue his or her course of study. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to ensure the student is familiar enough with her area of research to make original contributions. Typically, comprehensive exams consist of three written exams and an oral examination, however some programs require only written or oral examinations. In others, a written exam is taken, and depending on the grade, the student may or may not have to continue with an oral exam.
In some university departments, graduate students seeking a PhD must take a series of written cumulative examinations on the subject of their study in the first year or two of the PhD program. These cumulative exams are often given on a pass/fail basis and a graduate student who seeks to continue in the PhD program must pass a minimum number of these cumulative exams. After this minimum number of cumulative exams is passed, this degree requirement is considered to be met, and the PhD student no longer takes these exams but continues work on other PhD requirements.
Comprehensive examinations are typically based on a reading list agreed upon by the student and his or her committee, which is staffed by the primary supervisor and several advisors, normally professors at the university, but not necessarily in the same faculty. This reading list may comprise dozens or hundreds of books and other works.
There is no standard definition for what such exams entail, with some universities having almost no exam, whilst at other universities the process is quite rigorous. The exams thus take a number of forms, including an informal meeting of just a few hours, a critical review of one's academic portfolio, the submission of an academic paper which may take several hours or months to write, or a series of proctored exams taking anywhere from a few to as many as thirty-six hours.
PhD students at some Canadian universities must complete their comprehensive exams by the end of their second year; those who fail to pass with a sufficiently high mark may retake the examination usually only once. Failure to pass a second time will normally result in expulsion from the program. Students who pass are distinguished with the title "PhD candidate."
Some colleges or universities in the United States require undergraduate students to pass comprehensive examinations in order to receive their degree. These include Wabash College, Kenyon College, Bethany College, The Catholic University of America, The University of Iowa, Maryville College, Occidental College, The Criswell College, Reed College, The University of the South, Eckerd College, Millsaps College, Hanover College, Wabash College, Rosemont College, St. Anselm College and University of Dallas.
Many degree programs require students to pass comprehensive examinations within colleges or universities that don't otherwise require them. The same is true for many schools and colleges within larger universities. These include Texas A&M-Commerce Honors College, The University of Virginia's Politics Honors Program, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Mass Communications program.
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In some U.S. graduate programs, particularly in the natural sciences, the majority of students do not have master's degrees when they begin graduate work, and the successful students will earn doctorates without getting master's degrees on the way. In these programs, a student who does not pass "comps" or "prelims" on the second attempt will generally be allowed to earn a terminal master's degree but is not permitted to become a candidate for a doctoral degree. At many institutions, students who pass the exam and are formally accepted as PhD candidates are technically entitled to a Master of Arts or Master of Sciences degree, but submitting an application is required, so no master's degree will be awarded unless the student specifically requests it.
In the second and third years of study, doctoral programs often require students to pass more examinations. Programs often require one of the following:
If these examinations are held orally, they may be known colloquially as "orals". For some social science and many humanities disciplines, graduate students might not have studied the discipline at the undergraduate level. These examinations will be the first set, and be based either on graduate coursework or on specific preparatory reading (sometimes up to a year's work in reading).
Preparing for comprehensive exams is normally both stressful and time consuming. Passing them allows the student to stay, begin doctoral research, and rise to the status of a doctoral candidate. Failing usually results in the student leaving the program or re-taking the test after some time has passed, usually a semester or a year. A second failure normally guarantees dismissal from the graduate program, though progress on previous attempts may convince the student's program to grant a third, final attempt. Some schools have an intermediate category, passing at the master's level, which allows the student to leave with a master's without having completed a master's thesis.