How I Failed and Then Passed My Comprehensive Exams


My desk during comprehensive exams. Don’t let this image fool you, this is a partially staged photo.  My desk is usually much messier than this.

I failed my comprehensive exams.   Looking back now I probably should have never tried to take them since my father was in the hospital battling leukemia and recovering from a cranioplasty right before the exams began.   As he laid there in the hospital bed I thought he would bounce back as he did so many times before.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The 10 day written exam began on January 1, 2016 and I figured I would go to the hospital to see my father before I got stated.  I didn’t stay too long in part because he was resting.  However, before I left I gave him a long, sustained gentle hug, which was somewhat unusual because, well let’s just say he wasn’t the warm, touchy-feely type.  He often resisted my embrace.  But I did get to hug him and pray for him, and I let him know I would return the next day.

Later that evening, around 11:00 pm, I got a call from my son, Chris.  I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was upset and chills went down my spine as he explained how he was heading home when a large truck trailer hitch became dislodged from a vehicle in front of him and flew into his windshield while he was traveling over 60 miles an hour.  I quickly jumped in my truck and drove out to the scene.  When I arrived I could tell he was still shaken and affected by the ordeal and I instinctively put my arms around him and gave him a bear hug.  I thought about how earlier in the day I embraced my father as he lay in a hospital bed and how at that moment I was hugging my son after he managed to cheat death.  Thus, in less than a 12 hour span I found myself hugging and comforting two of the most important men in my life.  I remember feeling like I was under some type of spiritual attack where Satan, instead of trying to destroy me, was going after those closest to me.

The next day I tried to recompose myself and continue working on my comps, I was still worried about my father, however.  I noticed the doctors contacted me less often and I stopped receiving phone calls in the middle of the night.  I took it as a bad sign, not that his condition had improved, but that the end was near and they had begun to focus their attention on patients they could save.  It was just a feeling I had and my suspicions were confirmed when I received a phone call from the hospital on January 4th.  A doctor called to arrange a meeting to “discuss the next steps in your father’s medical care”. Dad was in and out of the hospital, but not once did a doctor ever call to arrange a meeting. I could tell his condition was deteriorating long before I received that call and assumed the doctor wanted me to come in so he could tell me face to face that Dad was dying.  I quickly called my sister and she agreed to attend the meeting with me.

On January 5th, day five of comps, two doctors sat us down and told us they did the best they could, but death was imminent.  I wasn’t surprised since he had battled leukemia since May of 2003, and currently had a host of other medical problems.  And because my sister was a geriatric nurse I am sure she knew dad was dying long before the doctors called us in.  She cried a little bit when the doctors told us, but I was stoic.  I told the doctors I didn’t want to hear a time frame as no one can really predict when someone will die.  I contacted my siblings and other family members and let them know that Dad only had a limited amount of time to live.

Again, it was day 5 of my comprehensive exams so I had to decide if I was going to continue or pull out.  In the end I decided to press on in part because I knew my father would have wanted me to do so.   He would have told me to let nothing, not even his illness and prognosis, get in the way of my education.  Still, I knew there was no way I would be able to finish my exam before the deadline so I contacted my advisor, informed her of the situation, and asked for an extension.  She agreed to give me more time.  In reality working on comps was both good and bad.  On one hand it was a welcomed distraction; it forced me to think about something other than Dad’s condition.  On the other hand, I couldn’t fully dedicate my time and energy to the exam like I wanted to.  There were just too many medical, financial and end of life decisions to be made.  For example, instead of giving up on Dad my brother and I transported him 60 miles away to the Veteran’s Administration hospital in East Orange, NJ in part because I wanted a second opinion and believed he would get better care there.  The folks at the VA treated my father royally.  The doctors kept me abreast of his condition, listened to my concerns and supported me during Dad’s illness.


With Chris – enjoying a gourmet meal from the Food Truck after I learned I passed my comps.

Eventually, I submitted my exams.  I knew it wasn’t my best work but I did the best I could under the circumstances.  Once I turned them in I began to spend just about all my free time with my father.  I decided to spend the whole day with him on March 5th.  On that day I gently sang I Will Trust in the Lord and other hymns, prayed and did everything I could to comfort him.  I needed that time with him, to say goodbye to comfort him in his hour of need.  Earlier I mentioned that I felt like I was in a spiritual battle, an absolute fight.  But spending time with Dad was also a spiritual experience in a totally different way.  I felt like he was somehow passing life force, his spirit, his strength unto me.  It would be impossible for me to describe or explain what happened or what while I was in that hospital room. I only say that I felt very connected to him on that day, much more so than ever before.

I departed and planned to see him again on the next day.  However, later that evening, around 10:00 pm, a person from the hospital called and told me that Dad had died.  I knew was going to die, but I still didn’t want to hear those words.  He was my father, my best friend and later in life he became my child.  He hated that our roles got reversed to the point where I made some decisions for him.  He often reminded me that “I’m your father, you’re not mine!”

On March 9th, my professor sent me an e-mail to inform me that I failed my comprehensive exams.  It was a devastating blow because I desperately wanted to get over the hurdle and move forward in my doctoral program.  To make matters worse that e-mail arrived in my inbox about 30 minutes before I was to view my father’s body for the last time.  It felt like someone spun me around and slammed me against a brick wall and then placed me in some type of strangle hold.  Yet, I still had to make it to the funeral home and prepare to preach Dad’s funeral the next day.

As strange as it may sound, preaching my father’s homegoing service was relatively easy in part because I knew I gave him all that I had when he was living, I took care of him as best I could.   I was nervous when I assumed the pulpit, but I was also prepared and in ministerial terms I knew exactly where I wanted to go with my sermon.  It wasn’t until the service was over and it was time to commit the body to the grave that I almost lost it.  Standing in the cemetery it all hit me; I would never see Dad again, at least not on this side of eternity.  My eyes filled with tears so much so that I couldn’t read the words in my small funeral book.  Then out of nowhere I noticed something white near the side of my face.  Seeing I was in distress my wife handed me a tissue.  It was a simple yet beautiful thing to do.  I removed my glasses, wiped my tears away, and with my voice shaking I read the final words to commit the body to the grave.

A few days later, I met with my adviser and she pointed out the mistakes I made on my comps and told me that both she and another professor would support me as I prepared for the next exam in August.  The only problem was that I developed a nasty case of writer’s block so submitting material for their review was difficult.  Instead of writing I spent my time trying to heal and figuratively catch my breath.  I went to work every day, but once I got home I spent my time on Facebook, watching TV and worrying about what would happened if I failed comps a second time.

It is important to point out that while my father’s illness and death had an impact on me, it would be unfair to say I failed comps because of him.  There were other factors that lead to my lackluster performance including the fact that all during my doctoral program I worked during the day and took classes at night.  While I received high marks I never really had time to put my books, papers, and other materials in order.  As a result during comps I found myself hunting and looking for misplaced books, files and documents.  I knew I would have to be more organized if I was to pass the exam the next time.  To this end, I slowly began to put things in order.  I set up a home office, installed book shelves and a printer table, purchased toner, and even picked high capacity staples.  I did so because I knew comps were just around the corner and I wanted to make sure I had everything to be at my fingertips.

In addition to setting up my office, I categorized and placed all my seminal journal articles written by authors like Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Tara Yosso and Pierre Bourdieu, James Earl Davis and others in 3 ring binders.  Additionally, I put all my important books written by John Creswell, Richard Delgado, Pedro Nougera, Annette Laureau and Paulo Freire and other writers on my bookshelves.   Again, the first time I took comps I had materials all over the place, on the floor, in the car, in different rooms and in some cases in different states.  This time, however, I made sure that all my information was in one spot.

Electronically, I put my PDFs and Microsoft Word files in properly labeled folders on my hard drive or desktop, bookmarked certain web pages and made sure my sources were properly categorized in Refworks.  I also e-mailed classmates who previously took and passed the exam and asked them for some pointers and tips.  The information, support and encouragement they provided proved to be invaluable.

I secured and reviewed old exams.  Doing so helped me learn the types of questions I could expect.  To use a sports analogy I wanted to be able to hit whatever pitch they threw at me. In sum, I tried to cover all bases and leave nothing to chance.

My father, even though he was gone also helped me.  Before he passed I made sure to put his financial affairs were in order; as a result all of his children received a little money.  I took a portion of the money he left me, paid some bills, and financially got on my feet.  In sum, his death lifted certain financial burdens to the point where I didn’t have to work for a period of time.  Instead I could dedicate all my time and energy to preparing for the exam.

About a week before the exam I purchased and prepared enough food to last 10 days, I didn’t make anything special; beefaroni, baked chicken, meatloaf, tuna and turkey salad.  I also cut the grass and told my wife and church family members that I would not be in service for two Sundays.  In other words, I let folks know that I would be sequestered; I simply wanted to avoid any and all distractions if at all possible.

I was relieved when I received the new comprehensive exam in my inbox.  I was familiar with most of the questions, and since I had a new home office I didn’t have to go searching around for various journal articles and books.  I won’t say the exam was easy, but I will say that I was much more prepared this time.  Still I was worried.  I knew a person who failed his PhD religion comps twice and they essentially booted him from the program and granted him a master’s degree as a consolation.  What if I failed again, would Temple do that to me?  Would I drop out of the program and enroll in another PhD program at another university?  How would I explain myself to my friends and family members?  I was worried, very, very worried.  I was afraid I would somehow blotch the test a second time.

On September 21, 2016, I received an e-mail indicating that I passed my comprehensive exams!  I was with another doctoral student at the time and when I told her I passed we both laughed, high fived and hollered.  She recently passed her exam so she knew how I felt.  I sent my wife a text message to let her know I passed made it over the hurdle.  Shortly thereafter I met Chris on campus and we purchased dinner from the Food Truck to celebrate.  I had chicken over rice and he had lamb over rice.  As soon as I got home I changed my Linkedin and other accounts from PhD student to PhD candidate.  There is an important distinction between the two; candidate means I am clear for take off and can begin working on my proposal as well as move forward with my research and dissertation.

Later when I was alone I kind of wondered what I would do next since I made it over the comps hurdle.  I still have to work on my dissertation proposal and of course I have to conduct my research and write my dissertation.  But the number one thing I was thinking was that “now I could grieve.”  I had been running full throttle since my father’s death and I began to think about how I needed to take a break and acknowledge my loss.  I think about Dad all the time.  I know I will see him again one day.





One response to “How I Failed and Then Passed My Comprehensive Exams

  1. Pingback: How I Failed and Then Passed My Comprehensive Exams | Urban Ed Researcher·

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