Saturday, September 1, 2012

Project OpenComps

This semester I'll be taking my comprehensive exams, or "comps." As a first-generation college student from the working-class rural Midwest, this is pretty unknown territory for me. I remember being a naive undergraduate who had to ask what masters and doctorates were, and when I started my PhD program I had to ask similarly naive questions about the mysterious and vaguely threatening-sounding comps. Quite simply, comps is my opportunity to show a committee of faculty members that I have the knowledge and skills to take on my own research -- namely, my dissertation. Yes, there are written and oral examinations, but it's the process of working with a committee of faculty to both narrow my focus and double-check that I know what I should know that makes the process valuable.

Thankfully, I've been able to watch other graduate students prepare for and take their comps (usually passing, but not always) and now it's time to prepare for mine. I'm going to share that process and preparation with you and tag things #opencomps along the way. You might consider this a step in the direction of something like Hack the Dissertation. I've learned that the entire comps process can vary from program to program, so I can only really describe what it's like for a math education student in CU-Boulder's School of Education. Let's recap how I got this far:

  • With a BA in Mathematics (Teaching) from the University of Northern Iowa and six years teaching high school math, I decided to go to grad school. Having missed the admissions deadline for a master's program, I spent a fall semester as a continuing education student and was admitted into CU-Boulder's master's program for the spring. It went remarkably smoothly, thanks to the help of my advisor David Webb.
  • I expressed an interest in the PhD program and was encouraged to apply. I got recommendations from my current professors and good (enough) GRE scores to be accepted. This meant abandoning the master's program, but thankfully many of the credits I earned transferred to the PhD program.
  • My first year in the PhD program was spent in the "core," the set of six courses every cohort of incoming doctoral students take in the School of Ed. Those courses include two semesters of quantitative methods, two semesters of qualitative methods, a course on theoretical perspectives on social science research, and a course on education research and policy. I took a seventh core course, covering multicultural education, the first semester of my second year.
  • I focused the rest of my second-year coursework on two areas: math education (a course on algebra and a course on theories of mathematical learning) and educational measurement (a course on survey research with an introduction to item response theory, and an advanced measurement course with more IRT and generalizability theory).

I'm required to have 56 hours of coursework (not including dissertation credits) for a PhD. In some programs you need to finish those classes before comps, but in my area it's okay to just be close to 56 so long as the coursework provides the necessary foundation. With over 50 credits under my belt my advisor says I'm ready, so I've taken the first two steps this semester towards comps. First, I needed to choose a committee of three faculty members. My first choice was easy -- my advisor David Webb. I can trust David to make sure I'm ready in the areas of math education and classroom assessment. Also on my committee is Derek Briggs, who will surely hold me to task in the area of quantitative methods, validity, and causal inference. Derek didn't actually teach my core quantitative classes, but I took my measurement courses from him and enjoyed working with him. Due to my wandering interests, the third choice wasn't so easy. (Someone in policy? Qualitative methods? Stats ed? Learning sciences?) I went a bit onto a limb and chose someone I've never taken a class from: Bill Penuel. I got to know Bill a bit last spring during some facilities work, and I'm working for him this semester on a project that combines many of my interests: math ed, professional development, technology, pedagogy, task design, and assessment. I like what I've seen of the project so far and think working more closely with Bill will be a very good thing.

The second step I've taken towards comps this semester was to assemble a reading list. Basically, the reading list contains what I've read for my classes and what I've cited in papers and it gives my committee a place to look for holes in my knowledge. Thanks to Mendeley and careful curation over the past two years, the list wasn't too difficult to assemble. It's long and looking at the 40+ pages of references made me not feel so bad about not reading much over the summer. Take a look at my reading list for yourself, and feel free to ask about anything there, or suggest something you think might interest me!