Comprehensive exams and qualitative research

As many of you are aware, my comprehensive exams are fast approaching. I’ve talked to several others about their exams and have learned that the process is very institution and faculty dependent. Given the horror stories I’ve heard about others, I’m glad that our comprehensive exams are actually useful. They are one more element in the supporting structure to help us be successful in completing our PhDs.

In our faculty, the comprehensive exams involve writing two 15-page papers in the span of 20-business days (4-weeks).  We are given three questions (one mandatory and a choice between the other two), which form the topics of our papers. The questions are determined by a small committee (your thesis supervisor and two others) and are approved by the graduate office (to ensure quality across the program). The questions are directly related to the students expected research topics (the student provides the committee with the general topics for the questions and a reading list that helps the committee determine questions).

In addition to answering the questions, students are encouraged to “take a stance” and use the papers as an opportunity to express their personal opinions and back them up with appropriate quotes and citations. Finally, if the written papers are accepted, the students then must successful complete an oral defense of the papers.

So, in the end, the student ends up writing two papers that should directly contribute to their proposals, and they get a practice run at an oral defense. At least that is how it works in principle, I can’t yet comment on how it actually works!

In preparation I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Not just reading, but reading, annotating, reflecting, and capturing my notes (quotes and key points) into massive Word documents. The act of transcribing reflections and margin notes helps the ideas solidify in my brain, and provides me with another opportunity to reflect on the key content.

Having finished one of my reading lists, it occurred to me that I needed to go through notes to discover the key themes. This in-turn had me realize the similarity of this process to qualitative research. I realized that this process, and especially the emphasis on expressing a personal stance, favours the students who do qualitative research. I can now see that many of the students in my cohort who are worried or are struggling are those that are not accustomed to there opinion counting. The weight of the experience of the researcher themselves is something that is taken as important in qualitative research, but is seen as not objective in quantitative research. So I see the struggles.

In making the leap that this process is really a mini qualitative research project, I find myself wondering if qualitative research software such as NVivo or HyperResearch would help with my analysis? I have no idea if these will be at all valuable, since I’ve not used qualitative research software before, but I figure I might as well give it a try. I’ll let you know what I discover!

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