The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination
The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination (referred to as “the comps”) is a 2-day, closed-book written examination. The Comps are offered annually, on two successive Fridays (one full day, one half day) at the end of January/beginning of February. The comps cannot be taken until after students have completed almost all of their coursework, and have accumulated at least 50 credit hours (including transfer credits). Thus, it is typically taken in the Spring of the 3rd year, although students occasionally choose to delay the comps for one more year. Importantly, students are not permitted to hold their dissertation proposal meeting until after completing the comps.
The Comps are intended to demonstrate an intermediate level of competence in a range of skill and knowledge areas, including:
- Psychological Measurement
- Theories and Methods of Assessment and Diagnosis
- Effective Intervention Techniques
- Evaluating the Efficacy of Interventions
- Professional Standards and Ethics
- Issues of Cultural and Individual Diversity
These knowledge areas are assessed through a series of 18 questions that fall within four broad categories:
On the first morning of testing, students are presented with 3 questions from category A (Clinical Theory and Practice) and 3 questions from category B (Research Topics and Methods). Students are required to answer 3 of these 6 questions, with at least one from each category (i.e., students cannot answer all 3 questions from one topic area). On the afternoon of the first day, students answer 3 more questions, choosing from 3 category C questions (Behavior Classification and Assessment) and 3 category D questions (Treatment Approaches). Finally, on the second day of testing, students are presented with 6 more questions, drawn from all four categories, but with 3 of the questions designated as “Ethics” (E) questions and 3 as “Diversity” (F) questions. Again, students are required to answer 3 of these questions, with at least one from each of the two areas (Ethics and Diversity).
- A. Clinical Theory and Practice
- B. Research Topics and Methods
- C. Behavior Classification and Assessment
- D. Treatment Approaches
Comps questions are graded on a 5 point scale, where a 1 represents a grossly inadequate or frankly incorrect response, 2 represents an unacceptably weak, but not frankly incorrect response, 3 represents an adequate response, 4 represents a very strong response and 5 represents an essentially perfect response. Typically these determinations are based on the number of “points” made in the response and the quality of the argument.
Each question is “graded” by 3 separate faculty members, who are blind to the identity of the student. Mean ratings are generated for each question, and they averaged across each of the topic areas (A through F).
A passing grade is 2.5 or better. Students are required to obtain a passing grade on EACH of the 6 topic areas, and an overall average grade of 2.5. Students who “fail” an individual section of the comps are required to re-take that section (i.e., are administered 3 questions, of which they must answer any 2, with an overall grade of 2.5 or better). This “re-take” will occur before the start of the next semester, on a date determined by the faculty. Students who fail 2 or more sections of the comps are required to re-take the entire exam. Any student who fails the comps twice may be terminated from the program.
There is no established reading list for the Comps, nor is there a “recipe for success.” The Comps questions provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate an intermediate level of competence, as would be expected of a doctoral student who is prepared for the predoctoral Internship. Although the questions are challenging, they are not so sophisticated or specialized as to require excessive preparation or memorization. Most students prepare by reviewing the readings lists (including supplemental readings) for most the “core” courses (e.g., assessment and intervention courses, ethics and multicultural courses, etc). However, the Comps test more than simply course information and students are expected to demonstrate at least a basic understanding of important topics in psychology, regardless of whether they have been covered in coursework. Hence, a major source of information for students is the contemporary research literature. Students typically spend much of their preparation time reviewing recent issues of leading journals such as Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, and Clinical Psychology Review.
Students are well-advised to insure that they have answered as least 2 questions from each of the first four topic areas (A through D); answering only one question increases the likelihood of failing that section of the comps.