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Doctoral Comprehensive Examination

The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination

The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination (referred to as “the comps”) is a two-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. They 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, the exam is typically taken in the spring of the third 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
  • Psychopathology
  • 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:

  1. Clinical Theory and Practice
  2. Research Topics and Method
  3. Behavior Classification and Assessment
  4. Treatment Approaches

On the first morning of testing, students are presented with three questions from category A (Clinical Theory and Practice) and three questions from category B (Research Topics and Methods). Students are required to answer three of these six questions, with at least one from each category (i.e., students cannot answer all three questions from one topic area). On the afternoon of the first day, students answer three more questions, choosing from three category C questions (Behavior Classification and Assessment) and three category D questions (Treatment Approaches). Finally, on the second day of testing, students are presented with six more questions, drawn from all four categories, but with three of the questions designated as “Ethics” (E) questions and three as “Diversity” (F) questions. Again, students are required to answer three of these questions, with at least one from each of the two areas (Ethics and Diversity).


Comps questions are graded on a five-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 three 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 six 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 three questions, of which they must answer any two, 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 two 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 two 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.