PhD Degree - COMPS2

Successful completion of the COMPS2 is required before a student is admitted into Ph.D. candidacy. The following are guidelines for the comprehensive examination:

  1. At least two weeks before the Exam, the candidate must provide each member of the Ph.D. committee with a written document representing original research by the student.
  2. The form "Application for Admission to Candidacy for an Advanced Degree" must be completed by the student. The application with all required signatures must be submitted to the Graduate School at least 14 days before the COMPS2  Exam is taken.
  3. The COMPS2 exam must be taken by November 15 of the third year.  This assumes that COMPS1 was first attempted just prior to the start of the second year in August; exceptions will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  The student is responsible for scheduling the Examination.  If the student is not ready for the examination at this time or if committee member travel schedules preclude scheduling, the student should submit an Official Request for Time Extension.  Failure to take the exam in the allotted time frame constitutes a failure of the exam (see #6 below).
  4. The COMPS2 Exam typically requires 2 hours.  The candidate makes an oral presentation on the research, typically of about 40 minutes duration, for which attendance is open.  The remainder of the Exam consists of questions directed to the candidate by the committee members (closed attendance; only the candidate and the committee).  The questions typically pertain to the subject matter and content of the research, but may also be asked on topics outside this area, at the committee's discretion.
  5. The Exam is conducted by the Ph.D. Committee. The student’s advisor cannot be the chair of the Examination Committee (although the advisor typically serves on the Committee).
  6. A successful candidate must receive the affirmative votes of a majority of the members of the examining board. In case of failure, the examination may be attempted once more after a period of time determined by the Ph.D. committee, which typically does not exceed 3 months. The student is automatically suspended after a second failure.


The goal of the second comprehensive exam (COMPS2) is to demonstrate the candidate's ability to conduct independent research. The objective is not to eliminate poor students, but to teach students how to do research, and confirm they are learning the process. COMPS2 consists of writing a paper on, and orally presenting the results of, a research project. The oral presentation is followed by questions from a 5-member exam committee (which is selected by the student). The questions are meant to probe whether the student is familiar with the literature in the area, whether they understand the basic techniques and science related to the problem, and whether they have the ability to work and generate research ideas independently. Generally it is desirable that the research be of a quality that could be published, or lead to something later that could be published. Indeed at this point some students are able to submit (or have already submitted) a paper on their Comps II project to a peer-reviewed journal.

Occasionally some students have trouble with COMPS2. A common problem is that students are not given a well defined problem by their advisor that is uniquely their own, as opposed to a group effort. Students have to demand a problem from their advisors that is well defined, and depends mainly on their own work. If a student is uncertain about the problem, they should form their exam committee early and have the committee assess the problem. Another common issue is that some projects take longer than expected, resulting in a delay in taking the exam. In this event, the student should discuss the delay with their committee to ensure that they are proceeding as efficiently as possible in a fruitful direction. Rarely a student’s project is destroyed by events beyond their control, such as a satellite malfunction. This can result in a very substantial delay. In this case a new question related to the thesis (so that the thesis is not delayed) may be posed, and the COMPS2 delayed until that project is developed. Such a decision would need to be approved by the ATOC Chair, in consultation with the ATOC graduate advisor.

If the student is funded as a research assistant, then the research topic is typically selected to fall within the scope of the research grant providing the financial support for the student. However, the student is expected to select and articulate their own research topic. Varying degrees of guidance may be provided by the research advisor and other members of the research group; it is generally expected that the research advisor will work closely with the student to ensure the research project is of publication quality. However, the student must still demonstrate the ability to conduct independent research.

The length of the research papers of successful candidates has varied widely. A typical length is 25 pages; 10 pages is likely to be too short, while 40 pages may be unnecessarily long. A successful written research paper and examination convinces the Ph.D. committee that the candidate has:

• A thorough understanding of the research literature in the chosen field
• Addressed an original research problem
• Familiarity with the tools and methods of research
• Demonstrated a capability to conduct independent research
• The writing skills to satisfactorily communicate their research