How to prepare Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

At The American College of Financial Services, the majority of the Ph.D. students are CFPs, have successful full-time financial planning practices and a few work full-time for the financial industry. When it comes to approaching preparation of Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam, students cannot rely on the traditional Ph.D. students method. For Financial Planning Ph.D., there are a handful of universities like Taxes Tech, Kansas State, Ohio State, etc. These Ph.D. students are mostly not CFP or CFP practitioners yet and they mostly focus on the academic side of the research.

The first Ph.D. cohort of The American College of Financial Services or TAC took their Comprehensive Exam mid-December 2015. I met Kimberly Turner at The Academy of Financial Services in Fall of 2015.  Kimberly is in TAC’s first cohort and presented her Policy Class paper at the conference; I asked her to share her experience with preparing the Comprehensive Exam in Feb 2016. She recommended our study group to start early in developing the summary of each course six months before the Exam.

Our study group, Rebecca Stay, Jay Cruise, David Peters and Kris Carroll, we brainstormed based on Kimberly’s recommendation. Kris developed a course summary template for the study group. We then divided up to each study group member to take two or three courses to fill the templates with a summary of the course. We resumed right before summer of 2016 to review the status while we are still taking Ph.D. courses. We spoke to Jeffrey Camarda from cohort 2 about his experience too in mid-2016. Our leader Jay helped to direct the effort and by the last two courses in our residency in Oct. 2016. We had all 12-course summaries ready to study.

About one month before the exam, the study group gets together to go through themes, critical theories, integration of topics, current hot topics, etc. Rebecca came up with a summary of all theories for each course as a reference guide. I came up with a master cross-reference guide to all research papers with the theme such as accumulations, decumulations, investing, consumption, regulation, behavioral finance, financial literacy and current trends. The Master Reference and theories guide served as a quick reference to locate and cite research papers when you answer the Exam question. Kris identified that accessibility is the key strategy. David predicted which course to pay less attention of for the purpose of the Exam.

Our weekly study group discussion since the inception of the Ph.D. program helps us to collaborate and raise issues and overcome challenges. However, at the same time, we helped each other get the integration through many subjects or courses. During the last month of Exam preparation, we discussed how the theories weave into the overall argument. The last two weeks before the Exam, I gave myself a potential topic to write, but this was challenging and risky. I went ahead and pretended that was the topic and start pulling reference and make arguments about them. I am so glad I did that, it was not about how to reference, but to actually use the reference to argue about some topic. We stored all our team work in Google Drive. Google Drive also served as our backup during the Exam preparation period.

Here is the timeline for those who is preparing for Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam at TAC:

6-Month before Exam: gather your study group, assign two to three courses for each study group members to provide a summary. The summary has to be brief. For example, each research article has three bullet points to summary the important ideas. Each article is fully APA, so you can copy and paste quickly later.

3-Month before Exam: Check the Summary courses status. For example, Kris had some business and family issues in the summer. So I finished up half of his assigned course. Reassign courses if a team member is not up for the task. Ultimately your goal is to have all 12-course ready one-month before the Exam.

1-Month before Exam: Discuss and integration of major theories, themes, current event and potentially try to ask the question for the purpose of the practice. About one week before the Exam, each of us downloads the latest copy from Google Drive to make sure we had all the latest updates locally at our own desktop.

The day of the Exam: read all Exam questions first, don’t try to solve anything yet. Put together your Exam schedule first. For example, when I saw the Exam, I cried first. I did not know what are they talking about, specifically on one terminology. However, I went ahead and put a schedule of Monday, answer Question 1, Tuesday, Question 2, Wednesday Question 3 and Thursday for Question 4. Friday, review, rewrite, rearrange Question 1 and 2. Saturday, review, rewrite, rearrange Question 3 and 4. Sunday, double check all APA citation, grammar, spelling, etc.

Chia-Li Chien PhD Comp Exam Words

Chia-Li Chien PhD Comp Exam Words

The week long Exam, I lose much sleep at night. If I was awake, I went downstairs and started writing again. When I am tired; I take a nap or sleep. The schedule was awful because you had a deadline to return four papers and each paper is about 15 to 20 pages long. That was much writing in one week. During the Exam week, there is no access to the internet, no collaboration from anyone. This is very difficult for me, because English is my second language, and I would love to have someone edit for me but I cannot. What I did instead was to purchase Grammarly desktop version to do all the grammar and spelling check. In Grammarly, you have the option to check grammar based on Academic Dissertation. Grammarly is not perfect, but my only option without any editing help. According to Grammarly’s weekly report, in my Exam week, I wrote 15,198 words.

After the Exam is the most excruciating wait about 8-week, the handbook indicated 6-week, but due to the holiday, somehow it stretched to 8.

I do not know if TAC will change the Comprehensive Exam format or not but if it is the one-week long format with no internet access or collaboration. Then this method works for me and hopefully for you. Might you ask me for a copy of our preparation work? Well, it is best for you to put your own effort to retain the information.

Best of luck!


About Chia-Li Chien, PhD candidate, CFP®, PMP®

Chia-Li Chien, PhD candidate, CFP®, PMP®; Chia-Li “like JOLLY,” Succession Strategist of Value Growth Institute, dedicated to helping private business owners increase their company equity value. She is the award-winning author of the books Show Me The Money and Work toward Reward. Chia-Li is an Instructor & CFP® Program Director at Ball State University and Adjunct Faculty of the American Management Association. Her blog and newsletter were named a Top Small Business Resource by the New York Times You’re the Boss blog. Schedule your appointment today!
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