Surviving Comprehensive Examinations

By Rachael Kroot, June 2014

how to survive comprehensive exams in graduate school
First were the written comps. I had to give myself a few days off after that. My hand and brain were both just too tired. Now that I've recovered, here's how it went down...

Our written comps consisted of two days’ worth of exams. By "our," I mean all of the non-thesis broadcast meteorology graduate students. There are 6 of us in total. We crammed into the department’s conference room on a Tuesday afternoon. Keep in mind this is the Tuesday after I was at that conference on the beach. Let me tell you, I was wishing I was still there!

Written Comps Day 1

On the first day, everyone got the same exam from the same professor except for me. I had a different committee (by choice) and therefore a different exam. The exam was six questions from my Research Methods professor. Only one question of the six was actually about Research Methods.

Needless to say, it was not at all what I expected. Most of the questions were about weather. That's a good thing, because that's what I'm getting my degree in, but a bad thing because I had focused primarily on research methods in preparation.

I found most of the questions to be relatively easy regardless. One question asked me to discuss common lightning knowledge such as the 30/30 rule and heat lightning. While I know quite a bit about lightning (I even have a published paper on the topic now), those two basic things were never covered in my education. Luckily, I had given a presentation on weather safety to school kids the week before and had included a slide on the 30/30 rule (if you hear thunder within 30 seconds of lightning, stay inside for 30 minutes). At the end of the talk, a 6th grader asked what heat lightning was... to which my friend replied, "it's just lightning so far away that you can't hear the thunder." To you, my 6th grade friend, I owe you much gratitude. You saved me some serious embarrassment and stress.

It just goes to show you that a graduate education doesn't come only from the classroom. You learn from projects, research, extra-curricular activities and even community involvement. When it comes to comps, anything and everything is fair game!

Written Comps Day 2

Day two of written comps consisted of two exams in four hours. We were given both exams at the beginning and were able to jump back and forth as desired.

I personally don't like to read ahead on exams, because then my mind starts whirling through too many ideas at one time. I prefer to answer a question as soon as I've read it and then move on. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. This time, I had to bounce around a little more than I like to.

I started by skipping the questions that instantly made my head hurt, like, "Describe the differences between warm and cold core systems: their genesis, thermal wind, and upper and low level wind profiles." Ugh.

I also skipped the "opinion" question which asked me to describe the responsibilities of a broadcast meteorologist and rank them in terms of priority. I skipped that one because if I didn't have time to answer everything, I didn't think it would greatly affect the outcome of me passing or failing (in the end, I answered that question with one minute to spare, and my hand almost fell off doing it).

I started with the questions that I could answer easily enough and show off my great store of knowledge. I believe the first one I did was, "Describe the lifecycle of a water molecule in a tropical thunderstorm." I actually had fun with that one and told it like a story.

Perhaps the most frustrating question was to explain the following public phrases: "Squeaky door, sticky drawer, coming rains will pour and pour;" and "when cattle fight, the sun will shine bright." When cattle fight, the sun will shine bright? Really? I had never heard that before and thought it sounded like complete nonsense. I would never trust my forecast to cattle, or I would probably be out of a job.

I took a break and walked to the bathroom down the hall. I ran into a friend on the way, and he just saw me mumbling to myself about cattle. In the end, apparently that question was a joke. But trust me, when you're taking comps, you will be in no mood to catch a joke.

There was a little bit of chatter amongst the six comps-takers during the exam. No cheating, of course, but just little comments about how much our hands hurt or how hot it was. Four hours is a long time to sit in silence. Mike, my advisor, gets special credit for bringing us pizza for dinner!

At the end of the exam, I made some notes on a scratch piece of paper for myself as to what questions I may have missed. That will be the starting point for my oral comps.Oral Comps

I have never been so nervous in my entire life. I can't even explain it. I took a deep breath before following Mike into the office where my other committee members were waiting at a table. There was an empty seat. Should I sit or stand? It looked like I should sit, but for some reason I always pictured the oral exam with me standing in front. The chair threw me off.

Awkwardly, I sat down. They asked me if I was nervous. I said yes. I was the first student to go for oral comps. They tried to make me feel at ease. One professor told me I had answered his written portion better, perhaps, than any student ever had. It was a great compliment! But my nerves were too far gone... it didn't help.

Neither did the first question. Apparently I had written something on one exam about the tropical jet ventilating a hurricane. I didn't remember writing that. But it was wrong. They asked me to explain what a jet would do to a hurricane. Tear it apart? Yes. Why? I don't know. AHHHHH!

Other questions piggy backed off that first question, all about hurricanes and their structures and "what would happen if..." Let me tell you, that first ten or fifteen minutes was rough. Mike told me afterwards that hives had started to work their way up my neck and he decided to throw me a softball question to calm me back down. I’ve never been so nervous I got hives before.

The questioning went on for about another hour. Besides the first question, I did pretty well. I didn't get everything exactly right, but it was kind of like having a conversation with my professors. At one point I started talking to my thermodynamics instructor about entropy. Mike told me afterwards that if you've made it to entropy, that probably means you passed.

Of course, I didn't know that at the time. They sent me away for a few minutes while they deliberated. I stood in my office a little bit dumbfounded until Mike came back to get me two or three minutes later. It was a short deliberation.

Now, there are four outcomes to the comprehensive exams. You can pass. You can pass conditionally, which means you have to write a paper answering some question they want to make sure you fully understand. You can fail conditionally, which means you have to retake the oral exam in two weeks. Or, you can fail.

I wasn't worried about failing, but I was worried I may have only passed conditionally. That first hurricane question could have meant some extra work for me. It wasn't the work so much that bothered me; more the disappointment and embarrassment. I pride myself in being a good student, and that means passing.

Well... I passed!

Took about a day for it to sink in, my head to clear and my mood to lift, but there it is. Assuming I pass the rest of my classes this semester, I am going to get my Master’s degree!

I grabbed a few friends and went out for a much needed drink.

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About the Author: Rachael Kroot has a B.S. in Geography from the University of Maryland and is currently attending graduate school for broadcast meteorology.

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