PhD Degree - COMPS1

The Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination is conducted in two parts, referred to as "Comps1" and "Comps2". The goal of Comps1 is to demonstrate mastery of foundational ATOC concepts.  This can be achieved either by passing the 4 common required core classes (ATOC 5050, ATOC 5051, ATOC 5060, ATOC 5235) with a defined minimum combination of grades or by taking an exam with a written and oral component to show mastery to reach the minimum grade requirement. Comps2 is an oral exam based upon a written report of original student research.  Successful completion of the Comprehensive Examination is required before a student is admitted into Ph.D. candidacy.




COMPS1 summary:

COMPS1 consists of students demonstrating mastery of the core concepts in ATOC, based upon the four common required core classes (ATOC 5050, ATOC 5051, ATOC 5060, ATOC 5235). A pass in COMPS1 is automatically achieved by earning a combination of two A- and two B grades in the above listed core classes. If one or more of the grades fall below the minimum requirement, or students did not take some or all of these core classes, students can pass COMPS1 by taking an individualized exam in some or all of these courses, with a written and oral component to show mastery. In that case, students have two attempts to pass COMPS1.


Interim COMPS1 Fall 2022:

COMPS1 consists of students demonstrating mastery of the core concepts in ATOC. This can be achieved either by passing the 4 common required core classes (ATOC 5050, ATOC 5051, ATOC 5060, ATOC 5235) with a defined minimum combination of grades or by taking an exam with a written and oral component to show mastery to reach the minimum grade requirement. The minimum combination of grades that gives students an automatic pass for COMPS1 is two A- grades and two B grades across the four common core classes listed above. If these minimum grades are not reached, students have to take a combined written and oral exam in some or all of the common core classes (depending on the grades already earned) to demonstrate mastery at the required minimum level. Students have two attempts at taking the combined written and oral exam to pass COMPS1 if they do not pass by meeting the minimum core class grade requirements.


This interim COMPS1 format will apply to any graduate starting in fall 2022 and will remain in place until a permanent COMPS1 is instituted.  


Any ATOC graduate students who started in the program prior to fall 2022 and who have not yet passed COMPS1 will have two options as listed below: 


Option 1 - Pass a 6-hour written exam consisting of 7 questions, of which you will need to answer 4 questions from the following: ATOC 5050 OR 5060, plus 3 from the remaining 5 courses ATOC 5051, 5151, 5200, 5235, and 5600. For more information, please contact ATOC's Graduate Program and ATOC's Graduate Advisor.


Option 2 - Pass [x] questions on topics taken from the courses listed below. This Interim Comps1 exam is a combination of written and oral. For more information, please contact ATOC's Graduate Program and ATOC's Graduate Advisor.


For masters students (thesis and non-thesis): We will require showing mastery in the topics of the four common core classes at a minimum level of B. This can be achieved through grades in the core courses, or by passing an exam with the same format as the interim COMPS1 in core classes where a grade below a B was earned. As for the exam for COMPS1, students will have two attempts to achieve the required mastery through the exam. 


For students who entered the graduate program in AY21/22 or earlier and who have not yet passed COMPS1: Students must pass either the old-style 6-hour, 4-question written exam, which was in place when they entered the program, or the interim COMPS1. The minimum threshold for passing the interim COMPS1 is four B grades in the common core classes (ATOC 5050, ATOC 5051, ATOC 5060, ATOC 5235). If students do not meet this minimum grade requirement in one or more of the core classes, they have to take the combined written and oral exam in the format described elsewhere in this interim proposal in all of those core classes where they did not earn a grade of B or better. 


As part of this interim COMPS1 proposal, the ATOC faculty also commits to discussing a revision of the ATOC core curriculum over the next year, with the goal of ensuring students gain a solid understanding of foundational concepts of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, including the ability to apply this knowledge of key topics to actual applications (a discussion of a list of key core curriculum learning goals could be part of this process, similar as was done for the undergraduate introductory classes). Furthermore, the ATOC faculty commits to discussing whether we should introduce additional requirements to the ATOC PhD program, such as whether we want to require a colloquium talk before the PhD defense and whether we want to require students to propose their research to their committee well before COMPS2 (in individual meetings or a committee meeting; both of these would not be part of a COMPS exam).


Details about the combined written and oral exam (required only if COMPS1 is not already passed by meeting or exceeding the minimum grade threshold in the core classes, as defined above)


Which core classes will the exam be taken in: The exam will focus on topics from all classes that fell below the minimum grade requirement, or where the core class was not taken in ATOC (e.g., in the case of transfer students), to ensure understanding of the concepts in those classes is at the minimum required level of mastery for COMPS1. The required minimum grade distribution for the four core courses can be achieved through a combination of core class grades and exam grades. This implies that  there may be situations in which  students can choose which core courses would be the focus of the exam. The student will need to make that choice and communicate it to the COMPS1 committee within 4 weeks after completing the last common core classes. If no choice is made by the student, the COMPS1 committee decides in which courses the exam will be given. 


Example of when students could choose: if a student earned 3 Bs and 1 A in the four common course classes, the student can choose in which of the three classes they earned a B they want to take the exam to show a higher level of mastery (at A- level); if they earn a B-, B, B, A- in the core classes, they have to take the exam in the class they earned a B- in. If they think they will be able to meet A- or better mastery in the exam, that course would be the only one they would take the exam in. If they assume they will only show mastery at B level in that course, they should additionally choose to take the exam  in one of the two courses they earned a B in, to show A- or better mastery in that course. 


When is this exam taken: The exam process will be started in the semester after the last common core class is completed. If some or all core classes were not taken in ATOC (e.g., transferring credit from another university), the exam should occur within 1 year of starting in ATOC or in the semester after all common core classes taken in ATOC have been completed, whichever is sooner. If a student does not earn a passing grade in a core class (i.e., a grade below B-) and needs to or wishes to repeat the core class, they can choose to take the COMPS1 exam before or after re-taking the core class. Students will be able to apply for COMPS 2 only after they have passed COMPS1.


Format of the exam: Students will take a combined written and oral exam, to show mastery of the material they did not yet show mastery of in the core classes. An exam committee of at least 3 ATOC faculty members will administer and judge the exam. 


The written component of the exam consists of students answering questions about topic areas from the applicable core courses, identified by an exam committee in consultation with the instructors of those classes of which students did not show mastery. Students will receive the list of topics from the core classes of which they did not show mastery once it is clear which classes they will take the exam in, so they can start preparing. Students will receive the specific questions for the written exam four weeks before the date of the oral exam, and they will have three weeks to provide their answers in writing to the exam committee. The written answers will not be graded but will form the basis for the oral exam. During the oral exam, the exam committee will use the written answers from the student to ask further questions to probe areas in which the student does not appear to be demonstrating sufficient knowledge, or to ask the student to expand upon their written answers, while limiting the scope of the oral exam to the topics the written questions were about. The goal of this two-part exam is to ensure the student has developed the required level of mastery of these topics, allowing for follow up questions and the probing of areas that continue to show weaknesses or misunderstanding in the written responses. The oral part of the exam will not exceed one hour. 


Students may seek help in preparing for the exam, if needed, by consulting faculty who taught the common core classes, as well as other students and faculty. However, this help should focus on understanding the general topics, not the question(s) itself. Students should answer the written questions individually and the written answer should reflect their own understanding, which will be probed in the oral exam. 


What is the exam about: The specific topic areas of focus for the exam will be based on identified specific weaknesses of the student in the class(es) to be examined, if possible. The COMPS committee will request a list of topics that the student showed weaknesses in from the instructor(s) of the respective core class(es). Once received, the COMPS1 committee will forward these to the exam committee and to the student. The exam committee will then decide on specific questions based on this list of topics and send them to the student four weeks before the oral exam. 


To ensure weaknesses of specific students are recalled by the instructor, instructors should make a list of specific weaknesses of any students who earn less than a B in the common core courses as soon as the course concludes. For students who did not achieve the required A- mastery, the COMPS1 committee will inform instructors of the need to compile a list of topics specific for the student as soon as the student has chosen the core classes for the exam.  For students who have not taken the ATOC core classes, a general list of topics to be examined for each core course will be created. 


Who administers the exam: The COMPS1 committee will appoint an exam committee consisting of no fewer than three core ATOC faculty (and, typically four). The exam committee will include the instructors of the relevant core classes. If that is not possible, it will include instructors who have taught the relevant core class in other years, or who have relevant expertise in the subject area. It will also include at least one additional ATOC core faculty member who has not recently taught a core graduate course, to familiarize all faculty members with the core curriculum, as well as to include all ATOC core faculty in the COMPS1 process over time. A student’s research advisor will not be part of the exam committee, to minimize potential conflicts of interest.


Role of the COMPS1 committee: The COMPS1 committee will inform students and their advisor within two weeks after the common core classes are completed if they have passed COMPS1 through their grades in ATOC core courses or not. The identities of the students who have passed COMPS1 through grades, and those students who have not, will be treated confidentially at all times. Only the students themselves, their advisor, the COMPS1 committee, ATOC staff keeping the academic records, and the exam committee will know the identity of the students who take the COMPS1 exam. The COMPS1 committee collects the topic areas the exam will focus on from core instructors, appoints the exam committee for each student, and forwards the topic areas for the exam to the exam committee and the student, as well as schedules the COMPS1 oral exam. For any second exam attempt, at least one member of the COMPS1 committee will also participate in the exam as an observer, to ensure consistency between the level of mastery required for a pass at A- and B level. Participating as an observer means they will not provide or ask questions, but they will contribute to the committee discussion about the level of mastery after the exam has concluded. 


What happens after the exam: Students will receive a written report after the exam. That report will list the topic areas covered during the exam, and a performance evaluation for each area (e.g., pass at A- or above, pass at B level, below B (not a pass)). Specific feedback will be provided in areas where the students showed weaknesses and/or excellence. This feedback will be provided for all students, including those who pass. The intent of the report to all students is to make this a learning opportunity. The exam committee will write this report and send it to the COMPS1 committee within a week of the oral exam. The written answers of the students will not be graded but the committee report should comment on areas of concern from the written responses, as well as areas of concern from the oral exam. The COMSP1 committee is responsible for ensuring the report is received and for sending it to the student.


For students who do not pass the first attempt at the exam, a second attempt will follow. The questions of the second attempt should be focused on the weaknesses identified in the first exam, and be aligned with the goal of ensuring the student shows mastery of the material. The process for the second exam should begin within three weeks after the first exam process concluded, and follow the same timeline (questions to student four weeks before the exam, written answers due one week before the oral exam).