Taking The Dreaded Comps

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Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek


Taking The Dreaded Comps

Students, past and present, loathe saying too much about the exams they endured.  The more difficult the exams, the less inclined most students are to dwell on them.  If a particular exam was in the recent past and the student did well on it, there may have been a brief period of unburdening, a few moments of release and celebratory recounting; but if s(he) did not do well, the tendency was to say little and then try to get it out of your mind.

Exams yet to be taken are a source of dread that is not usually shared openly, or with others who are not close friends or confidants. The impending dread tends to build slowly until test time when the fear of failure is finally exposed for all to see in your body language.  We all are inclined to remember the toughest exams and the deepest dreads.

And the more important the exam is to one’s immediate future or career, the more likely the remnants of dread about those exams become hard-wired in our brains. As examples, the College Entrance Exam; the Graduate Records Exam; the Law School Admission Test; and others; have been significant milestones along the chosen career paths of many, but also had the dark color of dread written all over them.  If they did not do so well, most people soon had to decide what alternate career paths were open to follow. As frightening as growing into maturity really is without having to face additional barriers, the institutional barriers of entrance or qualifying exams make the journey all the more difficult.

From time to time the Footloose Forester seeks a cathartic cleansing of his secret fears, and baring his soul about taking exams is always a prime candidate for catharsis. That includes elements of the abuilding dread before exams; and the disappointments, regrets, and disillusions after they were over.  In many cases, the hard-wired thoughts have resided in his brain for many decades.    

Most brilliant people find no need to proclaim their intelligence to the world and would be adjudged as pompous if they did. And most genuinely stupid people somehow know how far they should go in signaling their limited mental capacities; thus manage to get along by self-selecting their place in their community. It is the large segment of people of average intelligence who are in the middle, that tend to fear the most and to retain the most dreaded, secret thoughts in their brains.  At least that is the opinion of the very average Footloose Forester.  His most dreaded fears were about the Comprehensive Exam for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree for which he was a candidate.

In reality, the examination process for the Ph.D. about which he was most informed was the traditional process in vogue within the College of Tropical Agriculture of the University of Hawaii, where he was a Graduate Student. His declared major was Soil Science but since all graduate students in that particular Ph.D. program were also required to earn credits in Agronomy; the successful candidates were awarded the Ph.D. in Agronomy & Soil Science. Graduate Students thus had faculty committees normally composed of five members from various disciplines.

Degree completion culminated with an oral examination of a few to several hours of grilling; a series of five written examinations in those various disciplines that, together, constituted the “comps” or comprehensive examination; and the defense of a dissertation on an approved topic of original research.

Orals came first. Most questions were designed to touch on the overall knowledge of the subject matter, but a few questions required answers that could only be judged as either objectively right or wrong.  Whereas a question about plant evolution might provide latitude for an opinion about why there might be variations in evolutionary dissimilarities, coming from the Professor of Botany and Ecology; the several questions about statistics and experimental design had to be conclusively and objectively correct. The Footloose Forester labored over one part of the explanation in a statistical design, but his professor was patient enough to wait until the proper explanation emerged satisfactorily. All of the questioners ascribed to the “pimping” technique whereby they continued to ask more complex questions until the candidate used up his/her knowledge; or until they were satisfied. Pimping is also used as an examination technique in medical schools; not to catch a candidate who doesn’t know an answer, but to probe how much he/she seems to know and thus likely to attain the information. The longer the pimping went on, the better it was for the candidate during the oral exams.

The comprehensive written exam set was the most worrisome. In principle, each committee member submitted two questions that should be possible to elaborate within two hours. So, five exams on five separate days, with the expectation of four hours to complete each subject, in turn.  His required exams were scheduled in subject areas best described as: Plant Physiology; Statistics and Experimental Design; Soil Fertility; Plant Ecology; and Soil Genesis and Chemistry.  After more than 37 years; and due to an overall state of amnesia that blotted out most of what transpired, the Footloose Forester cannot now elaborate on the questions or the results, except to say that he passed the written exams.  In all, he filled 60 pages in the lined bluebooks provided for writing down his answers. By far, the most vexing exam was the one drawn up by his advisor, in Soil Genesis and Chemistry.

The two questions that the professor submitted each had seven parts. For example, Question #1 did indeed have a Part 1a; 1b; 1c; 1d; etc.  So there were literally 14 questions in all—because the answer to Part 1b had nothing to do with Part 1a, and Part 1c had nothing to do with either Part 1a or Part 1b. And so on…. None of the subsections could be related back to the subsection above it; for either Question #1 or Question #2; thus 14 separate answers were required. The 30 written pages given by the Footloose Forester as his answers in that exam are now part of his confidential academic record of the University of Hawaii, College of Tropical Agriculture. Yes, 30 pages of answers to two questions in Soil Genesis and Chemistry, and 30 more pages for all the others. Nobody is likely to refute the veracity of that claim after so many years, so there is no way to check.  Yet, it is no wonder that students harbor fears of failure and sometimes retain their secret dreads forever.

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