For those of you who don't know what this means, let me elaborate. "Comps" or "comprehensive examinations" (alternatively known as "compies", "the Thirteenth Labor", "cromps", or "the Grinding Ice of Helcaraxë") are a series of capstone tests in which the doctoral candidate demonstrates a level of mastery over their academic subject. I had been studying for this event for almost a year, refreshing my general music history knowledge, paying particular attention to five specialty topics for which I would need to have deep historical and scholarly knowledge: Counter-Reformation, French Opera (Lully to Revolution), Nineteenth-Century Character Pieces, Soviet Music (Revolution to Death of Stalin), and Genre. My comps were administered over the course of four days: I spent two days writing lengthy and detailed essays on my specialty topics (A Questions) and on general music history (B Questions); a third day was devoted to score identification where I had to use sheet music excerpts to make inferences on mystery pieces' style and history; and the last day, scheduled for the week after, consisted of an oral examination with my committee of three musicologists. All in all, about 19 hours worth of comptastic excitement!
Of course, every discipline and every institution has different methods for measuring and assessing said mastery, but once passed, the candidate is declared ABD, that is, a PhD in "All But Dissertation". It's a big deal. Having emerged victorious from this ordeal here are some thoughts on the process. Hopefully they may prove helpful, not just for those of us whose comps are yet on the horizon, but for anyone considering doing something intimidating, complicated, and absolutely worthwhile.
- Seek Out Guidance and Support
The challenge I faced in comps not only concerned needing to establish the scope of my project early on, but to continually assess the project as it threatened to overflow its boundaries. Any progress I made inevitably expanded my horizons, a sensation simultaneously thrilling as it showed me exciting new paths yet to take, and mortifying as it emphasized how much further I had yet to go. The only way for me not to be derailed by the details or overwhelmed by the big picture was to seek out people who could guide and support me. Doing so requires admitting your confusion, fears, and limitations, a difficult exercise that turns an academic requirement into a stretching opportunity to mature on a variety of levels.
- Be Careful Who You Talk To
Just as important as opening oneself up to others for help is the need to guard against negativity. With my mental constitution pushed to its absolute limit there were enough negative voices in my own head without adding outside influences. Whether they come from well-meaning but frightened people or from outright jerks (aka mean spirited and frightened people) these sorts of comments end up being nothing but distractions from doing your best.
- Get Organized and Know Yourself
With all the moving parts that make up comps, a big part of my process involved figuring out how to organize myself and discovering how I work best. In these endeavors I found that it worked best to pick a method and roll with it. Some particulars included taking hand-written notes on lined paper, organizing my A Question notes in color-coded binders, writing out my reading assignments on a wall-sized calendar, and distilling authors onto notecards for quick reference. At the same time I would regularly assess the effectiveness of my workflow and make adjustments if I had gotten into a rut. My wife Jessica (an organizational goddess) and my colleague Luke (an insatiable optimist and pragmatist who was studying for his own comps at the same time) were essential in this regard.
In order to pass your comps you have to work very hard. It is difficult to conceptualize or evaluate the many hours that I've devoted to this monumental project over the past ten months; the strains that it has put on various aspects of my mental, personal, and social life; and the extent to which it pushed me further than I had ever been pushed before. While I definitely can't say that I enjoyed every minute of the process (my tailbone particularly disliked prolonged hours in uncomfortable chairs) comps have more than ever solidified my personal conviction that this is what I was made to do. Many of us have passions that seem crazy to others and it is in times of extreme testing that you might realize just how deep that passion goes.
- Embrace Real-World Distraction
Doing something amazing and difficult naturally involves stress. It reminds you that you are growing. Yet throughout my comps process my wife occasionally marveled at my lack of completemental breakdown beneath the strain. I attribute this overall, foundational-level calm to a variety of factors, but I'd like to particularly mention the value of cultivating a perspective that sees beyond the present moment. Occasional reality checks grounded me and made me more excited and able to devote myself to studying. Just some of the most helpful distractions include:
- Pregnancy: It's hard to freak out about comps when my wife is due to deliver my first child a month after they're done! Birthing classes, breathing exercises, rearranging the house, setting up the crib, beach walks, driving my pregnant wife everywhere, attending baby showers... nothing gets you out of your own head as much as stepping up to fatherhood!
- Birthday: My wife planned a veritable extravaganza at our home for my thirtieth birthday which happened to fall on the weekend between the written and oral portions of my comps. Friends, family, food, twinkle-lights, a Costco cake bigger than my head... so fun!
- Multiple Illnesses: The week before comps I came down with a nasty cold. Then I broke out in partial body poison oak rashes due to a hiking incident from the week before that required the administering of mood altering steroids... Not fun! However, and I'm serious, it ended up helping my nerves, forcing me to relax, drink liquids, and take it easy.
The night before comps I was struck by the propitiousness of my situation: I was on the brink of doing something extremely difficult, I had worked diligently towards mastery, and I felt confident in my abilities to succeed. And I knew that I had not gotten to this point alone. My present moment was due in large part to the long line of supportive, patient, and enthusiastic teachers who had encouraged and guided me along the way: family members, piano teachers, choir directors, conducting coaches, band leaders, theory professors, composers, musicologists. In their own way they helped to guide me along my way and I count myself greatly blessed at having been their student. I find that the things worth saying are rarely said often enough. Now as a teacher myself I cherish those rare moments when students articulate the difference that your teaching efforts have made on their lives.