Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Story of My Comps

I did my oral defence for my comprehensive exam this morning and wanted to share what I learned, since it might help others.  The details aren't important, but suffice it to say I got a conditional pass - I just need to do an implementation for my major topic.

Dolly Stressed Out! by kelvin255

The main thing that I wanted to express was the fact that I seemed to have a different idea of what the comprehensives were for than some of the committee members.  This is by no means anyone's fault, but being aware of it might help you if your exams work in a similar way.  I wrote in my previous post about the exams:
How these are run seems to differ school to school, and even more between disciplines.  For our School of Computer Science, we have to choose three topics - one major and two minor - and know these topics at a fourth year undergraduate level.  Then we have a two or three hour written exam on each of them, followed by a one hour oral once they are all graded.  The oral is usually used to ask the student questions on areas they didn't do as well on in the written portion, making it a second chance of sorts.
It seems that some expected more depth of knowledge than the broad fourth-year undergrad level.  They wanted me to interconnect ideas from the books and go beyond them to draw from other knowledge.  To be honest, I didn't clue into this until it was too late.  I was thinking in a very structured undergrad exam kind of way, where you answer the question and that's that.

Could I have gone deeper if I had realized I needed to? Perhaps for some questions, but to be honest, I didn't prepare that way and crammed all my studying for the comps into two months, so quite possibly not.  I'm also not very good at doing that on the spot - I tend to need to think about something on my own first.  I always thought I was good at seeing the big picture and making connections, but maybe I need to rethink my ability to do this and find new ways of digging deeper.  (What are your strategies for achieving this level of understanding?)

My advice for anyone who has yet to do their comps is to determine exactly what's expected, and maybe even confirm your impression with all of your committee members before deciding how long you want to spend preparing.  That way, if you are expected to have a deeper knowledge, you can leave time to practice with implementations, thinking about connections, and reflecting.


Godaigo said...

Even though this is the Female Perspective I just wanted to say that I've found your insight into the Phd process really helpful, and the insight you've been sharing about the female perspective equally interesting. I really appreciate the sharing and it's definitely played a roll in my own consideration of whether or not to pursue a CS Phd. Thanks!


Gail Carmichael said...

This blog is absolutely not a girls-only club. :) I am really happy to hear my posts help. Do note that if you are not in Canada some things will differ for you. What's your feeling so far on the PhD? Think you'll go for it?

Godaigo said...

Hi Gail, thanks for the response! Regarding the Phd I'm not entirely sure yet. I'm very interested in research though and I've been looking around to see if I can get involved in some existing projects. I have a graduate degree in a non-CS field and am coming back to CS after a few years further afield, but so far the PhD looks really good! I'm in the US, but the comps experience seemed close enough to things I've encountered in other disciplines that it struck a chord! :)

Gail Carmichael said...

Cool! Well, best of luck - if you love research you should do just fine. :)

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