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BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

The Comprehensive Exam: My Comprehensive Experience

Author: Tegan Hargreaves

The elusive and dreaded comprehensive exam. You may have heard it called a qualifying or preliminary exam, but however you phrase it, it can strike fear into the hearts of every PhD Student, Candidate, or holder.

In April 2023, I completed the comprehensive exam (“comps”) component of the Neuroscience Graduate Program and am officially a PhD Candidate or All But Dissertation; however, before going through this process, I was confused about what it was, how it worked, and how to survive.

In the spirit of not gatekeeping, here is The Comprehensive Exam: My Comprehensive Experience (aka Comps Survival 101). 

What is it and what does it mean?

Broadly, the comprehensive exam is typically completed within the first 24 months of a PhD program and after all of your coursework is finished. “The form and general requirements for the comprehensive exam vary according to the faculty or department, degree sought, university, and country, but typically tests knowledge of the student's subject area and two or more related areas and may be used to determine a candidate's eligibility to continue his or her course of study. At the graduate level, the purpose of the comprehensive exam is to ensure the student is familiar enough with her area of research to make original contributions.” (Wikipedia)

Comprehensive exam process and requirements in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

In the Neuroscience Graduate Program at McMaster, the comprehensive exam must be attempted by your 20th month as a PhD student. You will need to select a comps committee that is different from your dissertation committee; this is to include your supervisor, one member from your dissertation committee, and two faculty members that are not on your dissertation committee.


Sandra will send an email typically once per semester on the comprehensive exam to students in the first 20 months of the program. This email will include need-to-know information as well as a Survey Monkey link. This survey is where you will include the proposed topic and committee members, which will need to be approved by the program before beginning your comps.

The entire comps process is 6-8 weeks; your committee must have your completed proposal no less than 1 week before your defense date. The comps requirement for our program is a maximum 10-page CIHR-style project grant application; however, we are only expected to include the actual proposal, not the full grant application such as proposed budget.


Broadly, your comps topic should be “conceptually and methodologically distinct from thesis work as well as have the potential to inform the thesis work”. While replicating your thesis/dissertation work would be inappropriate, selecting a topic that is entirely different from your area of interest would, overall, have little value. For example, my thesis work aims to identify biomarkers of development or treatment response in substance use disorders using MRI; my comps proposed a study of identifying shared and distinct neurobiological phenotypes of comorbid alcohol use disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. My rationale here was that there is a large amount of clinical research of this comorbidity, but little MRI research, as well as that this was distant enough from my direct dissertation work that I would still be able to take a lot from the process.

Having gone through it, here are my takeaways:

  1. Start planning early! In the first year of your PhD program, even just planning a general timeline of when would best fit for your comprehensive exam is a great place to start.
    • Personally, I started thinking about when I would like to complete my comps when I started my PhD. At the start of my second year, I started to discuss topics with my supervisor and dive into the literature to identify where the gaps were and where I could go with a proposed project that would be relevant and interesting.
    • Try to think about any major holidays during the 6–8 week block of your comps.
    1. You can submit the Survey Monkey regarding your comps to Sandra at any time (I thought once it was approved you had to start right away!).
    2. Your comps committee can read drafts and give general suggestions/thoughts prior to the examination but aren’t allowed to make substantial revisions (similar to a reviewer!).
    3. The why of your proposal matters just as much as the what.
    4. Work closely with your supervisor and comps committee to see if they have suggestions on things to include that you may have missed.

    Additional tips:

    1. Start the process early of disseminating what your dissertation work will broadly focus on so you can work outwards to determine a comps topic of interest that is different enough from your dissertation work.
    2. Set a schedule for your day-to-day with regular goalposts to help keep you on track.
    3. Make time for yourself! 
    4. Work dates with other students, either in real life or virtually to help boost accountability.
    5. Try to get outside at least once per day to get away from your computer and remember that there’s life outside your comps.
    6. Schedule a mock defense with your peers, especially with those who aren’t in your lab.

    You’ve got this! Your supervisor and committee wouldn’t set you up to fail. Be confident, be strong, and you will get through it.