The doctoral comprehensive exam is broadly interpreted as a rite of passage (Tinker & Jackson, 2004). In 2012, doctoral comprehensive exams were required in 94% of all counseling programs (Schweiger, Henderson, McCaskill, Clawson, & Collins, 2012), and varied in format; across the board, various forms of both traditional and non-traditional exam formats warrant the use of citations, can comprise of open and closed questions, and prompt written or oral tasks (Kostohryz, 2016; Schweiger et al, 2007). Unfortunately, available resources to prepare for success are somewhat limited, which largely explains how we might hear horror stories surrounding this rite of passage (Kostohryz, 2016; McAdams & Robertson, 2012).
With these critical ideas in mind, the purpose of this blog is to provide helpful ideas inspired by both the literature and conventional experience. These casual ideas may pose as helpful to consider when approaching the preparation process, and can be used at the readers discretion.
Build a Personal Foundation; Mission, Vision, and a Guiding Lens
A requisite to building a foundation for studying for the doctoral comprehensive exam is familiarizing oneself with the structured format of the exam at-task. Parameters, such as available time in your schedule, your exam date, your prioritized objectives and content areas-of-growth, and level of study engagement, are vital to identify when creating a sound and cogent strategy. For instance, as a foundation to build objectives from vague expectations, CACREP’s doctoral standards provide a broad scope of content areas. Students may learn that their assessment is either time-sensitive or take-home. In addition, students may be expected to provide written, essay-form responses or oral arguments, and are prompted to “go beyond ‘parroting’” their answers from textbooks.
As a conventional position of the author, a key foundation for strategy is solidified when the student embraces a guiding lens. A lens, perhaps the most advantageous, is Blooms Taxonomy (Bloom, Madaus, & Hastings, 1981). According to Kostohryz (2016), the highest priority for faculty referees is assessing cognitive complexity. Reflective of cognitive complexity, examinees should demonstrate both the ability to synthesize and integrate content sufficiently. The ability to compare, contrast, and critique information used on the exam should also be readily observed within the works of the examinee (Kostohryz, 2016). Comprehensive examinations, let alone doctoral counselor education programs, are created with Bloom's Taxonomy in mind as a facilitator for cognitive complexity (Granello, 2010).
With these ideas in mind, what do you envision when the referee reads your submission: Do you envision an exposure to cognitive complexity as a factor for success? Do you envision a demonstration of your aptitude to take what you’ve learned and utilize it at a higher level of complexity? Do you envision being able to do so with proper logic, fluidity, structure, or prose? Or do you just want to pass? The perspective of the author suggests that each vision implies a different mission, or a series of actions, to ensure the vision comes to fruition. This vision and mission should become your personalized, guiding motivation.
Read, Reflect, and Remember Articles, but Memorize Authors as Linchpins.
Revisit course content to reflect on key cornerstones of philosophy behind theories, models, and applications. As students may consider various angles of reflection, they should also consider how they are directing their reflections. The recommendation is for students to actively parallel their reflections of content alongside an intentional taxonomy of learning. Specifically, examinees should utilize their learnings with the processes identified by Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). For instance, when thinking about the use of phenomenology as a qualitative form of inquiry, you might think about what the philosophical foundations are (recall), how these foundations differ across methodological contexts (contrast), how specialized forms of phenomenology might both be similar and different from each other (compare), critique a specific application of phenomenological inquiry from an accessible study (analyze), or conceptualize your own phenomenological study based on a recent media event (synthesize).
You should also archive your learnings with an author of interest who is directly tied with broad content areas. Read and reflect on the works of the authors directly, rather than from the textbook, and be prepared to rote-memorize authors (e.x.Moustakas, 1994); this idea comes full circle when you’re able to recall the author citation during the exam, opening the door to revisit memorized information and recall content reflections at your disposal.
Prepare for a Dry-Run
The overarching goal behind the dry-run should be to strengthen the ability to recall content from a self-authorized perspective. With this in mind, students should approach this strategy with a “come-as-you-are” attitude; to casually verbalize content areas, and bridge competencies that reflect cognitive complexity, are the goals. There are multiple advantages to the dry-run approach, although the process can be fatiguing. Each session can be customized to assess and direct attention to areas of growth such as content areas, sentence structures, logical flow of arguments, or time-horizon adaptation. Furthermore, each session may either be applied to a case study or can simply be a canvas for students to flex their knowledge.
Following each run, students should assess their own performance and scaffold their strategy accordingly. In addition, students are encouraged to revisit their work to supplement with more helpful content, restructure arguments with more cogency, cataloguing cited works based on content areas, or re-conceptualize the approach overall. Dry-runs are most successful when revisiting each session with the recall of new content, expansive structure, or rigorous citations that strengthen the work from its former state.
If the exam possesses an oral component, try to say the content aloud in a comfortable location. Record yourself, and revisit your recordings with memos and concrete materials at your disposal; use the memos as ideas to bolster your arguments. Listen to your recordings frequently during your morning commute or a tedious activity. Nag your partners, family members, and friends about the wonderful world of counseling. The opportunity to voice thoughts is critical; without much practice, you risk compromising your prose in a way that might sound distinctly off-line from its intended objective.
Remember – “You’ve been studying this the whole time!”
A Comprehensive Exam is exactly what it implies – an exam where all of the content you learned is fair game. You might’ve been notified of your exam date months in advance, or you have finally found a structure within your schedule where you can fully commit to your studies but with only weeks to prepare. Before deciding that riding anxiety is the only available option for success, a reframe is offered. All examinees have been doctoral students for some time, studying and engaging in courses and other scholarly activities. Examinees completed assignments, projects, reflections, presentations, and publications that satisfy all course requirements. This also means examinees should have access to textbooks and past assignment submissions. Taking this trip down memory lane is most helpful when the examinee recognizes that she or he is not approaching this exam tabula rasa, but from an approach that is quite familiar. Thus, the reframe is offered: “I am tasked to complete my doctoral exam that covers content I’ve already been exposed to and have applied throughout my doctoral career.”
If you are reading this and are broaching your exam date, this suggests high regard toward your performance which is a marker of successful outcomes. My request is that you recognize learnings that you possess, the strengths that brought you to this moment, and consider how the identified ideas might be tailored to your preferred model of success. If certain areas of this exam still seem vague, I highly encourage you to engage with mentor relationships. Best of luck, and I can’t wait to read your future dissertation!
Leo Balseiro, MS, LMHC, NCC
Adjunct Professor - ADSOE Department of Counseling
11300 NE 2nd Ave.
Miami, FL 33161
Bloom, B. S., Madaus, G. F., & Hastings, J. T. (1981). Evaluation to improve learning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Granello, D. H. (2010). Cognitive complexity among practicing counselors: How thinking changes with experience. Journal of Counseling and Development, 88(1), 92-100.
Kostohryz, K. (2016). The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination in Counselor Education: Faculty Members’ Perception of its Purposes. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 8(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.7729/83.1068
McAdams, C. R., & Robertson, D. L (2012) An informed look at doctoral vivas (oral examinations) in the preparation of counselor educators. Counselor Education & Supervision, 51, 176-188. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6978.2012.00013.x
Schweiger, W. K., Henderson, D. D., McCaskill, K., Clawson, T. W., & Collins, D. R.
(Eds.). (2012). Counselor preparation: Programs, faculty, trends (13th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Tinker, P., & Jackson, C. (2004). The doctoral examination process: A handbook for students, examiners and supervisors. Glasgow, Scotland: Bell & Bell Ltd.