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  • Writer's pictureJohn H Keess


I had high hopes for this post and have started it a few times. Given these false starts I’m going to write a fairly blunt description of the comp experience from a methods point of view. Excuse the lack of prose.


The RMC War Studies PhD has four components: a language requirement, a course requirement, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. So far, I have found the comprehensive exam to be the least formal part. Requirements and expectations flow from individual field supervisors, as they should. With this mind, take this guide loosely, as individual professors will likely have different requirements and approaches.

Comprehensive exams (comps) are designed to test your general knowledge of a field’s literature and ability to express it in person. They also certify you to lecture undergraduates in a particular area. War Studies has three general fields: Military history, international relations (IR), and the history of Canadian defence policy (CDP).

The exams take place after you’ve finished your coursework and consist of two parts: a closed-book, four hour written exam and an oral board. My schedule looked like this:

MONDAY – Military history (4 hours)

TUESDAY – IR (4 hours)

WEDNESDAY – CDP (4 hours)

THURSDAY – am – oral board. Late am – dissertation proposal

One my supervisors advised me that studying for comps is a bit like training for a race – tapering is required. Given my particular degree scheduling, the below methods I used for a very short training period – about six weeks. There were two prepatory phases, administration and studying; and two action phases, execution and recovery.

Phase 1- Getting started – Administration

I learned during this process that it’s vital to engage early and in detail with your PhD supervisor, the field examiners, and the chair. Everyone has a part to play and it’s important to ensure you’re on the same page as everyone else. What worked for me was developing an email list of all involved, then sending quick summaries of meetings I had with any component to the list with as many specifics as possible - especially timings.

Keep in mind that I recommend email summaries. Emails themselves do a poor job transmitting tone and everyone has a lot going on. You should try to arrange a series of meetings or phone calls in this order:

(1) Supervisor. Check your progress and determine how long you need to get ready. Determine your field supervisors. Determine who will contact field supervisors.

(2) Chair. Run your proposed dates by the chair, get their approval or modification. Send email summary.

(3) Individual field supervisors. Meet to determine expectations, reading lists, and draft study questions. Ideally, reading lists will be based off of coursework you’ve already done with additions filling the gaps. For example, I did an excellent IR field course but we didn’t discuss the English School very much, so for my comps I read up on Hedley Bull, etc. I didn’t do this, but send a consolidated email summary of reading lists and draft study questions to avoid duplication between fields early on.

Phase 2 - Get to work – Studying


I broke Phase 2 into three distinct stages: reading, reviewing, and refining.

Stage 1 – Reading. I had one major field requiring 120 works, with about 40 books and 80 articles, plus two minor fields that had reading lists between 50-80 works. The first thing I did was to determine which works I already had notes on. (pro tip: if you’re doing courses now, take detailed notes).

After finding my blind spots, I organised my notes into colour coded folders, assembled roughly by question. This really depends on the field, though. As an example, for IR, I broke down my notes by paradigm or theme, such as Liberalism, Constructivism, etc., plus some on IR as a field. I organised my historical folders chronologically. As I made up on readings I hadn’t done yet, I moved the notes into these folders.

To stay strong studying, I adopted what I will call the “pomodoro sweatshop.” (you can read about the pomodoro technique here.) I combined the pomodore technique with a time goal and a reward– basically “I’ll have x time in pomodoro time, actually doing the studying, before I am allowed to go to the gym and go to sleep,” and used a simple Android app to keep track of things. I aimed for five hours but it quickly became four - I’ll tell you now this is an effective but absolutely miserable way to live your life. I have no solutions, save saying not everything is supposed to be pleasant.

The notes I ended up with were modified Cornell notes. The modification came from a small sheet attached to the front that acted as a stand-alone summary (not pictured in this case). I also attached timelines for my history comps. I chose to write these out by hand as I find computers distracting, but to each their own.

Stage 2 – Reviewing. With my notes in hand, I began reviewing. Continuing on with my sweatshop technique, I assigned myself a stack of notes to review each day. I also began to practice making short essay outlines from memory, then going back on my notes, or, if those were inadequate, the original readings to fill the gaps in my knowledge. To prioritised my study time, I’d attach a small post-it note a rough percentage of confidence in the area covered by a particular folder.

Not much to say here save that it continued to be brutal. I found my pomodoro time dropping to three and a half hours. Remember, you're tapering over time, and really, you mind can only soak up so much. Hold youself accountable, but don't sit around pretending to study, either.

Stage 3 – Refining. I had a bit of fun this phase, though I imagine by this point my very understanding wife wondered why I was babbling about “ontological security” and “Hume Wrong’s early functionalism” so much. Basically, here I tried to recombined the information I had by answering my draft questions, both through timed essays and eventually making youtube videos.

Essay practice proved why a good Phase 1 is so important. I had the expectations from my profs in hand and could guide my draft answers. I knew, for example, that the IR comp would have three short essay questions to answer in four hours. I naturally practiced writing a topic, closed book, in 1:15. This would give me 3:45 answering questions and 15 minutes to review my answers. Start with the topics you dislike the most. Make sure that you don’t just note the event or idea, but name specific authors. When going through your practice essays check your product against the expectations you’ve hammered out with your field supervisors in Phase 1.

Besides practice essays I also made youtube videos. If I made a bad video, I wouldn’t post it. I’d review it, find the gaps in my reasoning or knowledge, review my notes, and try again. Somehow having an audience, however small, motivated me to get things right and explain them well.

Generally, a good Stage 3 goal was one practice essay and one video per day. I’d try to mix them up – an essay on military history in the morning and video on a policy-heavy CDP question in the afternoon.

Try not to be miserable during Phase 3. Like an athlete tapering, you should be proud of the fact you’ve put so much work in so far. You’ll need your confidence and good humour going into the exams.

Phase 3 – Execution. All of my exams were at 0800. Get used to waking up on time before going in – your sleep patterns will likely have become erratic during phases 2-3. My schedule generally looked like this:

0630 – Wake up

0715 – Walk or bike into work

0800-1200: Write exam

1200-1400: Walk or bike home, eat lunch, watch something genuinely inane on Netflix

1400-1700: Review soft spots in today’s answers

1700—1900: Prepare for tomorrow

1900-2030: Supper

2030-2130: Administrative preparations, last minute review

NLT 2300: Bed.

Exercise. Nothing intense – I took a break from Crossfit but worked some good walking and biking into my routine. I had originally planned to live like a monk, but found this counterproductive – a glass of rye while washing up after supper was well worth it.

Phase 4 – Post-ex drills. This process will entail you asking a lot from those around you. Spend a week putting the books down and devote it to tidying up and serving those around you. Give back – you’re running a marathon with a support team, not a sprint by yourself.

Quick concluding notes This is a very sketchy post, but it's about all I have time for right now. If you have any detailed questions, please ask them in the comments and I’ll go into more specific detail.

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