skip to main content
Second Language Studies
University of Mississippi

Comps FAQ

What are comprehensive exams?

Comps are an important milestone in your career. You must take this examination before you begin writing your doctoral dissertation. If you know what your research interests are, try to identify three major fields in which you would like to work in the future. If you don’t know what you want to study, talk to your advisor and try to find some interesting topics in second language studies! 

When am I ready to take comps? What do I need to do before I take comps?

You are ready to proceed to the exams when you have completed your coursework (up to 30 hours must be completed at the UM) and satisfied the third language requirement. To be eligible to take the exam, you must have the following done: 

1) determine three research fields of your interest (for example, Multilingualism, Second Language Acquisition, and Pragmatics); 

2) work with three professors to develop a reading list and establish a committee. One of the professors must be your exam committee chair; 

3) prepare by studying your readings and developing an annotated bibliography; 

4) schedule your examination with the help of your comps committee chair and members. 

How should I work with my exam committee to prepare for the exams?

The three professors you have formally invited on your committee each specialize in a specific area. Work with them to develop a comprehensive reading list, which will include 120 works, 40 per discipline. Ask your professors about the structure and the tentative content of the exam. They may tell you what they think a good exam answer should look like. Always talk to your committee chair before you make any important decision, for example, scheduling your exam. Don’t forget to keep the committee members updated on your decisions and progress. 

What does an exam committee chair do? What is an advisor? What does a committee member do?

An examination committee chair must be a tenured professor (associate or full). They will supervise the examination process and help you fill out any necessary or required documentation. An advisor has practically the same roles; this notion is used to put an emphasis on the fact that the professor’s supervision is primary to your research. A committee member is a professor on your committee who will help you with preparing for the exam by working with you on your reading list. They will also develop a comp question for you and proctor their portion of the exam. 

What is the difference between my comps committee and dissertation committee?

Your comps committee is responsible for administering your comprehensive examination. Your dissertation committee is responsible for the supervision of your dissertation writing and defense. It is advantageous to you if these committees are represented by the same professors, and the topics you want to study do not change after you take the comps. 

Who can chair my committee? How do I find a committee chair?

A committee chair must be a tenured full or associate professor with whom you have worked to create a committee and schedule the exam. To find a chair for your committee, ask your GPC for the list of specializations of the Modern Languages associated faculty. You will also receive this list while taking the LIN 721. Do not schedule an exam on your own and invite the chair to join your committee at the last minute! Always contact your chair about any important changes in your preparation or scheduling of the exam.   

What is a fourth reader and when do I need to find one?

A fourth reader is a professor working outside of your field or the department whom you must invite to serve on your committee to supervise a certain aspect of your examination by Part 2 of your exam. You don’t want to invite a physics professor on your committee to read your linguistics-related prospectus, so choose wisely! Identify some aspect of your work that needs improvement through interdisciplinary work and invite a professor who specializes in that aspect. 

How do I find a committee member?

If you are interested in a certain phenomenon in your, say, Morphology class, study it under the professor’s supervision to increase your knowledge or maybe even develop a topic for further research. Formally invite the professor to serve on your exam committee in a polite and timely manner. If they refuse to participate, it is only because they think that their areas of work are not really close to yours. If they agree, put their name on the committee list and start working in the direction of a comps reading list! 

What is the structure of a comps reading list? 

Each of the three 40-piece fields on your 120-piece reading list should consist of works that can be divided into three classes or groups: foundational works, recent works, and research interest works. This means that each field on which you will be tested will be roughly divided into three categories of sources. Dividing your reading list into these categories is a good thing to do, as it helps to better navigate and organize the works you are required to read.

Comps committee and reading list template

How many works does a professor put on your list and how many are yours to find?

It is best to ask your professor about this. They will usually put down the titles of approximately 10-15 foundational works (books, articles, etc.) for you to read. All of the materials are yours to find online via the university’s library system or in hard copy. You are lucky if your professor agrees to share their own copies with you! All the other works on your 40-item list are yours to put on the list and find! 

How do I find the materials for my reading list in a most resource-saving way?

Use the university library search systems: OneSearch, Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (LLBA), interlibrary loan, etc. You may put on your list the articles or books that you have previously read, discussed, or presented in your graduate courses, provided that they are relevant to your research topic. 

Do I really need to read and be able to speak on every page of my 120-piece reading list?

You should be able to dissect all the works and collect the information which is the most relevant to your topic or research interests. It doesn’t mean that you are required to read and retell every single page from every paper or book. Look for themes and notions that are relevant to what you want to study. 

My professor put 15 books on my foundational works list. Should I read and memorize every page of these 15 books?

If you can read so much and remember all the information, then yes! However, you should know that your professors want you to increase your knowledge in your specific field. So, if you are assigned a gargantuan book, look for themes and theories that are relevant to your research interests. Don’t forget fundamental notions in general applied linguistics theory – things that every scholar must know! 

What is an annotated bibliography?

It is your condensed summary of the 120 works on your reading list including the citation for each work. Such a bibliography will be useful both in your exam preparation and dissertation writing.

Annotated Bibliography Template 

How do I summarize an article for my annotated bibliography?

First of all, read that article and understand its content! Your summary should include all the information which is relevant to your work: the author’s approach, methodology, data collection methods, participant population, procedure, results, any statistical or qualitative data, and a conclusion. It is also important to provide a detailed summary rather than just a few sentences. Your own thoughts regarding the article may also be relevant.  

What is the structure of the exam? 

See the official departmental guidelines and ask your committee chair! The examination consists of two parts. The first 9-hour part tests your knowledge on the three fields you have chosen, with 3 hours dedicated to each field. The second part is a take-home exam, in which you are given a specific question and are expected to answer it within one week by developing on its basis your 50-page dissertation prospectus. 

When should I take the first and the second part of my comps?

It is best to ask your exam committee chair. Typically, they may be taken up to a semester apart, or in the beginning and the end of the same semester. Don’t schedule the second part the week after you have taken your first part! Your professors need some time to read and provide feedback on your work. If you are asked to make revisions, don’t feel frustrated! Your professors only want you to improve your work and eventually succeed in the program.  

What are the chances of failure?

This is the wrong type of question to ask when you are preparing for your comps. Don’t waste your precious time on overthinking and anxiety! Work harder while you still have time! 

How can my professor help me in preparing for the comps?

You can ask them to have you pass a “simulation” of the exam. This will not be the actual exam, but extremely helpful preparation for it. Your professor will give you a question to answer in a limited period of time. Based on your result in this mock exam, your professor will provide feedback and tell you what you should work on. This will also be useful for you to overcome anxiety. Remember: always seek advice from your professor and peers. 

Do I bring my own laptop and flash drive to the exam?

Bring your own laptop. The proctoring professor will bring their own flash drive. Remember to take your charger! Make sure your computer’s operating system is up-to-date and won’t start updating right before the exam when you are expected to turn off the internet and start writing.

Am I allowed to use my notes from LIN 721 or any other sources?

No, you are not allowed to use any notes. This exam tests your ability to independently analyze and synthesize information that you have imbibed from your readings. 

In the official departmental guidelines that my professor shared with me, what does“submitted a term paper from a graduate class” mean? 

This simply means that you are expected to have already written and submitted a final project or paper in any graduate-level class. As you are now ready to take your comps, it is obvious that you have taken a number of classes in which you developed final papers.  

Should I submit the Form GS5 myself or with the help of my committee chair?

You fill it out on your own to the best of your knowledge and give it to your committee chair for them to sign and redirect to the Graduate School. Remember: this form must be submitted well ahead of the exam date! 

Can I take all the three exams in one day? 

This depends on your vitality and your committee and advisor’s decision. It is much better to allow a day in between your three exam weekdays. For example, take your Morphology exam on Monday, your Spanish linguistics exam on Wednesday, and your final Multilingualism exam on Friday! This way, you will have more time to recover and prepare! 

Are there any formatting or style requirements that my comp answer must meet in order for it to receive a better review from my professors? 

It is best to consult each of the three professors on your committee, one of which is your advisor. It is generally understood in the department that the quality of your work is prized over its quantity or appearance. 

How to avoid distractions and stay focused?

The wall between the small conference room and the Ph.D. office (C-004) is thin and you can perfectly hear your peers talking to each other, their students or family, which can be a major distraction. The best thing to avoid this is to bring a pair of noise-canceling headphones or ask your colleagues in advance to be understanding of the importance of your examination. 

What type of comp questions will my committee give me?

This depends solely on your research interests, your reading list, and your committee’s decisions. You may ask your professors to give you a sample question that they consider relevant to your work and similar in a certain way to the actual question you will get. 

Before Part 1, am I allowed to prepare a structural outline of my tentative essay and start writing on the exam date using this template? 

Absolutely! You may use a certain structure, but you should remember it – no copying! When the exam begins, you are expected to start writing in an empty document, from scratch. Your proctor will give you your questions on a flash drive and/or in hard copy. 

Am I allowed to bring a copy of my reading list to the exam?

Yes! You may have a copy, as long as that copy contains only the citations. No summaries or notes should be present! Such a list will help you with citing your sources as you write and remind you of what you should discuss in your answer. Remember: always discuss such questions with your proctors and committee chair! 

When will my committee tell me whether I have passed my comps part 1, part 2, and oral defense?

Professors need time to review your work and make a decision. Please respect their work and be patient! While you are waiting, you can focus on other research goals. 

What is advancement to candidacy? What is a Ph.D. candidate? What is ABD?

After you successfully pass your comps, you are considered to be advanced to candidacy. This means that you are now close to obtaining your degree and may officially start working on your dissertation. You may refer to yourself as a Ph.D. candidate after the Graduate School has processed your form GS5.1. ABD is an informal term meaning “All But Dissertation”. 


Created by Timur Akishev ( and Marta Galindo (
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments regarding this FAQ list. 
(This information was last updated on May 30, 2020.)