When Erin MacDougall began studying for her August comps in December, she thought she was ahead of the curve. "I started earlier than other folks," says MacDougall, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at The University of Akron.
By June, she was studying six hours a day, and by August, it was up to nine. When the test finally rolled around, she felt confident. "I thought it went pretty well," she says.
It didn't. A few weeks later, MacDougall's advisor, Linda Subich, PhD, invited her to stop by to discuss her test results. MacDougall immediately sensed that something was wrong.
"She said, 'This is the worst news I could deliver to you today,'" MacDougall remembers. The grad student massaged her temples and tried to process the information. "I was very much like, '...Where do I go? What do I do?" she says.
Other students have faced similar questions. Failing comprehensive exams isn't common, Subich says, but it does happen, even to top-notch students. Here's some expert advice on coping if it happens to you:
Take some time off. Most graduate students are high-achievers, and a comprehensive exam may be the first thing they have ever failed. So before diving back into the books, they should consider taking a break, says Nadya Fouad, PhD, a professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "These are people who have been successful in multiple venues in their life; sometimes it takes time to integrate that." To that end, MacDougall took a month off before revving up to take her comps again. "I went back and saw clients," she says. "I went back to teaching, and that's helpful."
Acknowledge your feelings. Failing your comprehensive exams may stir up feelings of grief and loss, says James Werth, PhD, a professor at Radford University in Virginia. He advises that students to talk about how you feel to people you trust or discuss it with a therapist. When Lore M. Dickey, a graduate student in counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota recently failed his qualifying exams, he did just that. He also made sure to eat right and exercise. "Self care has always been super, super important to me," he says.
Figure out what went wrong. When you're ready, talk to your professors. Ask them to look at your test and tell you which answers were good, and which needed more work. If your answers didn't match their expectations, ask them why. Did you answer the question that was asked? Did you adequately integrate the literature you studied?
Practice, practice, practice. Many professors are willing to look at sample tests and talk about them, says Werth. It also helps to recreate the test environment, says Subich. So when you go to practice, don't look at the questions beforehand and stay within time limits.
Talk to other students. You don't have to broadcast your scores, MacDougall says, but you don't have to be ashamed of them either. Plus, your peers can provide study tips. For example, by talking to her colleagues, MacDougall realized she had been too detailed in her preparation. "When studying this time, I'm really going to look at the main points of the articles," she says.
Failing comps was scary and disheartening, MacDougall says, but in a way, she's grateful for the experience. "I think this was a very good opportunity going into the field of counseling," she says. "This makes me feel what it's like when folks are coming in and struggling, saying 'I failed.'" And it's made her even more determined to become a psychologist. "It helped me realize I really want this," she says.
Jessica Gould is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.