Comp failure


in Daily updates, Writing

I just learned that I failed my comprehensive exam in Canadian politics. I will be getting detailed written feedback on what went wrong, as well as meeting with the graduate director about it. I will also be able to speak with the three people who set and graded the exam. I have the option of re-writing the exam in December. If I fail it then I am out of the PhD program.

The first question all this prompts, not inappropriately, is whether a PhD program is the right place for me to be. The odds are strongly against any particular PhD student ending up with a job in academia, and I am not even entirely sure that is what I would want for myself. That being said, I am sure I wouldn’t be questioning the decision to be in a PhD program if I had learned today that I passed. Failing the exam was essentially a tactical failure: not devoting enough time to preparation, not preparing in the most effective way possible, and not using the right approach to writing the exam itself. Drawing a strategic answer from that – about whether carrying on with a PhD is the right choice – may be a mistake.

The question of whether this is the right place to be is fairly jarring, because I had settled psychologically into the assumption that I would be spending 5-6 years in a PhD program. I have no desire to return to government under the prevailing conditions, and all my pre-PhD efforts at finding an interesting job in the private or NGO sectors were dismal failures.

One preliminary comment was that my three essays were insufficiently strong, in terms of the quality of their argument. My understanding before the exam was that the most important thing was to cite many sources, so I treated the essays mostly as vehicles for doing that. This will still be necessary for the re-write, but I will need to make sure to have a sophisticated and convincing argument as well.

Proceeding on the assumption that it makes sense to persist with the PhD, I should refocus my efforts for the next 3-4 months. It would probably make sense not to run again for the presidency of when we have our termly general meeting on the 24th. Similarly, I should probably make course selections that are consistent with the need to devote considerable time to comp preparation in the months ahead. This term, I won’t get to audit any interesting courses outside my field.

Right now, I am on the hook to finish the divestment brief before the start of term on the 9th. There is still a moderate amount of substantive work to do, along with a lot of proofreading.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

alena September 4, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I admire your courage to admit so promptly and openly to your failure in the Comp exam. That takes strength of character and integrity. Even though the unfavorable result is disappointing, it is no reflection on what you can achieve and have achieved so far. It means that you will have to prepare more or differently and that the victory that is hard won will be that much sweeter.
Start a new page and face the challenge. I have no doubt that you can do it.
I would be honored to proof read your divestment brief. I find it inspiring, timely and provocative. Thank you for having a passion for our environment.

zort September 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Don’t doubt or question yourself. The road to happiness and success is fraught with potholes. Just notice the hole and carry on. You have a tremendous future ahead of you and the world needs you.

Milan September 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Master Fraser helpfully reminded me that we learn nothing from our successes, though we may derive a measure of self-esteem from them. We’re taught by our failures.

Milan September 6, 2013 at 4:16 pm

I met this afternoon with the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Political Science. I was given an official letter notifying me of the result of my comprehensive examination in Canadian politics.

The three examiners for my comp agreed on giving me a B, while an A- or better is necessary to pass the exam.

I am going to meet with the three examiners to get their input on what went wrong, as well as how to spend the next three months preparing for the re-write, which will happen sometime in early December.

Matt September 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

A- Minus pass? Yikes. Academia is bizarre.

Milan September 6, 2013 at 6:21 pm

It’s also an exam where you can get a B even though you “for the most part failed to engage adequately with the questions posed” and “did not go into nearly enough detail in discussing important questions in the literature”.

Matt September 6, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Fair enough, I guess it’s all relative. The scale is just one with which I’m unfamiliar.

Regardless, I wish you luck on your re-take. Hopefully the personalized nature of the feedback will be helpful in giving them what they’re looking for.

Alison September 8, 2013 at 4:00 am

Keep your head up, and keep moving forward.

Milan September 10, 2013 at 2:47 pm

From the department, I got a copy of the August 2013 comp questions, as well as my own attempts at answering them.

oleh September 13, 2013 at 10:15 pm

I echo Alena’s comments about your courage and openness in discussing the results so promptly and publicly. This courage was also demonstrated earlier in leaving the government. Thank you for sharing your insight in the importance of preparation, something that is a weakness for me.

All the best in the re-write in December which I am very confident you will pass.

Anon January 3, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Good luck next Friday!

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