Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Comprehensive Exam Reflections


I have been wanting to write about my comprehensive exam for a few months now, pretty much since I wrapped them up last term. Throughout the first year of my PhD, I had heard whispers that “comps” were one of the most demanding parts of the degree and my exams were, of course, further complicated by the ongoing pandemic. A lot of the infrastructures I had grown to rely on for this type of research work — libraries, research labs, and even cafés — were either restricted or entirely unavailable. In the early phases of the exam, for example, it was difficult for me to even get access to the books I needed! Thus, many of the challenges inherent to the exam were magnified by the worldwide bad times.

Although COVID-19 was certainly the elephant in the room during most of my comps, I’ll be mainly using this blog post to reflect on the exam and provide some generalized advice for those who are set to take it. Similar to my post about applying for FRQSC grants, I will be providing some PDFs to help provide some context. These documents are deliberately taken from the earlier phases of the exam, as I feel that the final documents (i.e. the actual answering of the exam questions) are less useful due to their length and esoteric nature. That is to say: exam questions and bibliographies are relatively stable in their structure between students, but the format, length, and tone of comprehensive exam answers will vary wildly depending on topic areas, committee members, and student interests. Providing my answers may actually make things more confusing for a prospective exam-taker, as the format and style of such documents really only apply to my own research (although feel free to email me if you’d still like to take a look).

I can’t speak to how comprehensive exams work across schools and departments but, generally speaking, in the humanities the process involves: a) making a reading list; b) reading the books/articles on said list; and c) answering exam questions that engage with the list, usually under a strict timeline. Concordia University’s communication department presents the process roughly as follows, which I’ve appended with my own timeline as an example:

STAGE ZERO Finalize committee membership Friday 1 May 2020
STAGE ONE Submit opening statement. Monday 4 May 2020
STAGE TWO Student and examining committee agree on the final reading list for the exam. Friday 29 May 2020
STAGE THREE The examiners must send their exam questions to the student, then the written part of the exam officially begins.  Monday 22 June 2020
Students have exactly 10 weeks to complete the written exam.
STAGE FOUR Students submit their written answers to the exam questions. Friday 4 September 2020
STAGE FIVE The PhD committee arranges for the oral defense, held within 4 weeks after the written submission. Friday 25 September 2020

The exam requires students to form a committee, submit an opening statement, create a reading list, then read/write for ten weeks after receiving the examination questions. I’ll be further fleshing out this process below, but the general idea is that the student is reading and analysing the works most important to their intended research and then synthesizing and unpacking those materials in relation to their dissertation.

Forming a Committee

Strictly speaking, forming a committee is not part of the doctoral exam, but rather something that must be completed in order for the exam to take place. For my exam, my committee consisted of three members:

  1. My supervisor, who served as the primary examiner.
  2. A secondary examiner.
  3. A committee chair, whose role in the exam was primarily administrative.

I was very lucky to find myself in a stable supervisory situation at the beginning of the exam and to have a pre-existing relationship with a second committee member whose research interests were aligned with my own. This is often not the case for students! Many struggle with finding the right committee, especially students who are new to a university and have not yet gained institutional knowledge or connections. This was also evident in the selection of my third committee member, who was a professor that I had built a good relationship with during my master’s degree at Concordia and was already somewhat familiar with my research.

The most common advice I have received for forming my committee — which, at Concordia, is intended to remain somewhat stable throughout your PhD — was that your supervisor should be knowledgeable and (not to be understated) reliable, and your second and third members should work-in research areas that are important to your work. If I had to break down my committee’s expertise in the broadest of strokes, it would be game studies (supervisor/examiner), media history/archaeology (second examiner), and media policy (exam chair). Considering that my own dissertation focuses on the afterlife of videogames and consoles, I ended up with a pretty ideal committee composition.

The Opening Statement

The opening statement for the exam is almost like an abstract that you would submit to an academic conference: short, summative, and somewhat imaginary. The student is essentially asked to describe two topic areas that they wish to study during their comprehensive exam, provide their rationale for picking these areas of study, and submit a few readings that they would like included in the exam. In my department, this all has to be completed in less than 1500 words and 8-10 bibliographic references, so the writing parameters can feel rather tight!

My opening statement was focused on two areas of study: Videogame Afterlife and Communities of Expertise. The former topic was inspired by Raiford Guins’ notion of videogame afterlife, presented in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, and the book served as somewhat of a backbone for that area of my exam. The latter topic was primarily rooted in Carolyn Marvin’s notion of textual communities as described in When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. I found it extremely helpful to base my areas of study around texts that I knew I wanted to be included in the exam, as it allowed me to provide my committee with theoretical touchstones that could lead to additional readings.

Comprehensive Exam – Opening Statement

In the document linked above, you can see how I attempted to describe and rationalize these areas of studies. However, I would like to emphasize how much of this process is speculative and performative. Generally speaking, most of the documents on an exam reading list are things you haven’t read yet — which makes arguing for their inclusion incredibly strange and difficult. I ended up skimming the front matter of books, reading summaries, and asking students and faculty for advice in picking the list, but there was still a great deal of uncertainty involved.

Finalizing the Reading List

Negotiating the reading list can be done synchronously (in a meeting with your committee) or asynchronously (through emails). Due to the Zoom fatigue associated with the pandemic, my committee and I decided that email would be the best method of finalizing the list, and we managed to complete it within a couple of weeks. My final reading list is linked below, and consists of 30 items including books, journal articles, and chapter excerpts.

Comprehensive Exam – Bibliography

Much like the opening statement, this process is steeped with uncertainty. As professors will make recommendations for additions and subtractions from your list, you have to construct arguments for and against the inclusion of certain items based on very limited information. At times, you will have to trust your committee. At other times, you have to push back, especially when you are asked to remove readings that you feel are integral to your research. While this process can certainly be a bit stressful, it is important to remember that not everything on your reading list will end up being useful, no matter what you do. It’s quite common to omit readings during your exam answers (with proper justifications) and, conversely, to work in additional readings based on gaps you notice during the exam.

For my exam, this negotiation process resulted in a slight revision of my research areas. Videogame Afterlife was expanded to Media Lifecycles/Trajectories, as the initial topic was deemed too narrow and I was eager to read more canonical media studies works (something I missed out on due to my fine arts undergrad). My second topic area was simplified from Communities of Expertise to Expertise, and ended up including many readings about subculture and technology, with a healthy sprinkling of Foucauldian discourse. I probably ended up with a broader focus than I originally intended, but balancing the line between breadth and depth is a pretty common challenge in comprehensive exams.

Two very practical consideration when forming a list: First, my committee was quite adamant that I should not read entire books unless I felt it was absolutely necessary. Oftentimes, it is much more useful to do targeted readings — you’ll see that I often read the introduction and a couple chapter selections from books rather than the entire thing (which turned out to be a huge lifesaver during crunch time). Second, it is okay to include a few items that you have already read. I found it invaluable to re-read parts of Boluk and Lemieux’s Metagaming, for example, which I had read before but is incredibly dense with ideas and theories.

The Exam Questions

After the reading list is finalized, the committee privately formulates two exam questions (one from each examiner). The aim of these questions, as per the exam guidelines, is to “provide students with opportunities for critical reflection, interpretation and synthesis of the exam bibliography as a whole.” They are designed as a vehicle for working through the readings — allowing the student to gain a better understanding of them while forming a rough literature review, of sorts, for their dissertation. My two exam questions were as follows:

#1) Media Lifecycles/Trajectories
Critics warn that one of the pitfalls of contemporary media history is that it can become a kind of “curiosity cabinet”, where scholars are drawn into writing about past technological anomalies for their own sake. With reference to the various approaches on your list that deal with media life cycles, explain how you plan to avoid falling into such a trap in your own work.

#2) Expertise
We both love and hate ‘the experts’ that we know. Saying you are an expert in something is a way to make a claim, although the status of experts across multiple areas is increasingly disputed. 

      • How has the concept of ‘the expert’ or ‘expertise’ developed theoretically, particularly in relation to media, technology, and/or community?
      • Has our understanding of the expert shifted over time, and if so, in what key ways? 
      • Finally, how is the concept deployed to build or maintain communities – in positive as well as negative ways?

As you can see, these questions are rather open-ended and multifaceted, offering forth many different avenues for formulating answers. This is both a curse and a blessing — I felt simultaneously liberated and paralyzed while writing my answers, something that was compounded with the paranoia/isolation that naturally arises during the exam period.

The exam questions are sent to the student on the first day of their ten week exam period, as a sort of kick-off to the formal examination. However, the number one piece of advice that was given to me at the start of exams was that you really should begin reading as soon as your list is finalized. Maybe even before (if you have the time and bandwidth), especially if you already know a few texts that will be central to your work. You never feel like you have enough time to get through the exam so any extra work you can squeeze in ahead of time is well worth it.

The Reading/Writing Period

The reading/writing period of the comprehensive exam is a harrowing ten-week process and is usually the part of the exam that people cheerlessly discuss in hushed tones. As I’m not sharing the content of my exam answers, I thought I would instead offer forth some reflections and advice in regard to the reading and writing process. Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips, as each school and department has different methods for administering the exam.

  • The best piece of advice that I received ahead of the exam was to do a bit of writing every time I finished reading something. Even a short summary of the work you just read is invaluable, as your bibliography will start to bleed together as the exam wears on. It’s often useful to also consider if a text is (or is not) important to your work, as you’ll eventually have to gauge how much you want to reference it in your exam answers.
  • One of the traps that people warned me of is getting lost in the readings and starting the writing until too late. I ended up giving myself a hard cut-off date to get the readings done by, to allow myself enough time to get the writing done.
  • As an extension on the above point: know your writing pace and limits. For example, I have learned that I can write between 750-1500 words a day before my brain starts to decompose, so I attempted to shape my schedule around hitting that goal. 
  • Set up Zotero or a similar citation/reference system if you can. This will really speed up the writing (especially finalizing your references and bibliography) and you can enter in all your readings ahead of the formal exam period.
  • Don’t be afraid to look for summaries, videos, and analyses of your readings. It feels a bit like cheating, but I found it really useful for some of the denser scholarly works (cough, cough, Foucault). I also found scholar/author talks to be a valuable source of information when dealing with full books.
  • Most of my other writing strategies (find a good place to write, talk through ideas with friends, etc.) were unfortunately not tenable during my exam. I will say that the exam can feel quite isolating, so make an effort to reach out to folks as you write to stay connected and level-headed. To be completely honest, this type of exam is not my preferred pedagogical approach, so it did feel like I was grinding things out at times. 

As a more general note, I often pictured my writing as a first step toward a dissertation proposal. You’re really trying to synthesize and organize readings that could be a big part of your literature review and theoretical framework, so you should always have your dissertation project in the back of your mind as you write. As exam questions tend to be quite broad, there is a lot of room to massage them into something that will be useful to you in the future, so try to take advantage of that the best you can. I’ve already taken portions of the exam and used them in conference presentations and abstracts.

Aftermath: The Oral Defense

I’m not going to spend too much time discussing the oral defense, as I imagine it is something that varies quite a bit depending on your committee composition. I will say that, generally speaking, if you’ve made it to the defense you’ve more than likely already won. It’s really less of a formal defense and more of a productive discussion of your exam answers and a look toward future avenues of inquiry. That being said, it is completely normal to get worked up and anxious about the defense. By the time it rolls around you’ve been working in isolation for so long that its easy to be paranoid about what you’ve written. Just remember that your short introductory presentation is less about summary (everyone has presumably read your work) and more about justifying excluded readings, pointing out sticking points and loose threads, and identifying future problematics.

My comprehensive exam was probably the most physically and mentally exhausting process I’ve been through in academia, and I ended up crashing pretty hard for a few days once it was over. It actually reminded me a lot of when I was working 10 hour shifts in my radio days, grinding out projects and feeling totally burned by the time I got home. There is a strange oscillation to the exam. On one hand, I found almost all the material I was reading to be super interesting and energizing. On the other hand, it was quite disheartening to work through readings in assembly line fashion – spending just enough time with each text to comprehend it before immediately moving to the next. Although I can say I learned quite a bit during the exam, I sometimes wonder how effective this sort of intense approach to learning really is.

Anyways, I hope this blog post has been helpful for folks who are approaching (dreading?) their comprehensive exams. Feel free to ping me if you have any specific questions about the process, as I’m happy to share further advice or materials on a one-on-one basis.

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By Michael
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer