Today, I have completed three years of having a blog. I took to blogging as a way to document my PhD experiences (and for learning to write :D). Though, it was very satisfying to see tens of thousands of visitors finding posts of their interest here.
As a coincidence I also passed my PhD comprehensive exam today and wanted to write-up a post to help future students understand these milestones. As a PhD student you take so many courses and exams, but you also need to pass a few extra special ones. Different departments and schools have their own requirements but the motivation behind having each of the milestones is similar.
ISP has three main exams on a way to PhD. You first finish all your coursework and take a preliminary exam, or prelims, with a 3-member committee of your choice. The goal here is to prove your ability to do original research by presenting the work you’ve done till then. At this point, you already have or are on your way toward your first publication in the program. After taking this exam and completing the coursework, you are eligible to receive your masters (or second masters) degree.
Next is the comprehensive exam (comps). The committee structure is similar to the prelims, but here you pick three topics related to your research and decide a member responsible for each. By working with your committee members, you prepare a reading list of recent publications, important papers and book chapters.
Each of the committee members will select a list of questions for you to answer. You get 9 days to answer these questions. It may be challenging to keep up with all the papers in the list if it has a lot of items. Usually it is a good idea to include those papers that you have referred to in your prior research work.
I immensely enjoyed this process and was reminded of the Illustrated guide to a PhD by Matt Might. Specially the one about “Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge”. If you haven’t seen those posts and intend to pursue a PhD, I would definitely recommend them.
Most of the questions in my exam were subjective, open-ended problems. Except the first one which made me wonder if I was interpreting it correctly. I guess, it was only there as a loosener  .
After you send in your written answers, you do an oral presentation in front of all three committee members. I was also asked a few follow-up questions based on my responses. Overall, it went smoothly and every one left pleased with my presentation.