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Clinical Comprehensive Examination

The university requires that students in doctoral programs take a comprehensive examination prior to the dissertation in order to establish their mastery of the field and readiness to undertake a dissertation. In the Psychology Department, the comprehensive examination for clinical students is administered twice a year. Students normally take the examination in the administration closest to completion of their master’s thesis. A student may not take the comprehensive examination until they have defended the master’s thesis and been formally continued into the doctoral program (See section on continuation into the doctoral program).

The exam involves two parts, and students have a deadline for proposal for Part 1 and then a matching deadline for submission of both Parts 1 and 2. See table below.

Deadlines for the Two Administrations of Comprehensive Exams

  • Proposal due for Part 1: Last Friday of March; First Friday of September
  • Committee approval of Part 1 proposal: The committee will provide feedback to the student within 3 weeks of proposal submission deadline. If the committee requires revisions, the student must submit a revised proposal to the committee within 3 weeks of receipt of committee feedback. Time required to reach committee approval for the proposal does not change the comps submission deadlines. The committee will provide feedback to the student within 3 weeks of proposal submission deadline. If the committee requires revisions, the student must submit a revised proposal to the committee within 3 weeks of receipt of committee feedback. Time required to reach committee approval for the proposal does not change the comps submission deadlines.
  • Final Parts 1 and 2 due to committee: Last Friday of August; Second Friday of February
  • Comps results given to comps chair (assuming no third grader): Last Friday of September; Second Friday of March
  • If a minor revision decision, revised comps due date: 3 weeks from date of feedback from comps chair
  • If a major revision decision, revised comps due date: Second Friday of February; Last Friday of August
  • If a reject decision, new comps proposal due date: Last Friday of March; First Friday of September

Committee: Students should notify the Comps Chair as soon as they know that they plan to submit a proposal so that the Chair can assign a comprehensive exam committee for the student. The evaluation committee consists of two graders (not the student’s mentor) who will grade both parts of the exam for any given student. The Comps Chair will try to prioritize an even distribution of the workload for faculty (considering both recent membership on Comps committees, as well as other section and department service committee assignments), but also will try to match known competencies and areas of research interests with the student to facilitate grading. The Comps Chair is also responsible for compiling and giving feedback to the students and for serving as a third grader if there are grading discrepancies.

Structure of Comps

The comprehensive exam consists of 2 parts. Students must complete both parts by deadlines specified. Part 1 requires a proposal, whose deadline appears in the table above. Part 2 requires that the student follow the Psychology and Social Work Policies and Procedures Manual for appropriate deidentificatiion of the case prior to submission for grading.

Part 1: Either a Literature Review or an Empirical Paper

The purpose of the paper is for the student to independently demonstrate the ability to conceptualize, integrate, and critically evaluate the primary psychological literature. A specific goal is that the student demonstrates advanced integrative knowledge in two or more discipline-specific domains (developmental, biological, cognitive, social, affective) and application of that knowledge to an area of profession- wide competencies (research, diversity, assessment/diagnosis, intervention, ethical/professional decision making). Advanced integrative knowledge means that the student can combine concepts, theories, or topics from at least two of the discipline-specific domains in an integrative fashion.

Affective Aspects of Behavior includes topics such as affect, mood, and emotion. Biological Aspects of Behavior includes any biological underpinnings of behavior, such as neural, physiological, anatomical, and genetic aspects of behavior. Cognitive Aspects of Behavior include topics such as learning, memory, thought processes, and decision-making. Developmental Aspects of Behavior include transitions, growth, and development across an individual’s life; the topic should be considered, at least in the arguments within the paper, across at least two developmental periods (e.g., infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or late life). Social Aspects of Behavior include topics such as group processes, attributions, discrimination, and attitudes.

The paper needs to be either an empirical study or a review paper (both separate from their thesis or dissertation), of the student’s choice. While it is not expected that this paper will be fully ready to publish, it is expected that the paper will be a carefully written and revised document, representing the highest quality work of the student. Thus, the “publication readiness” of the paper is merely a guideline to structure and its true publishability is aspirational.

Statistical Considerations

If the student anticipates needing consultation on the statistical analyses for the paper because the statistics are more advanced than the methods taught in either of the two first statistics courses, they must seek that consultation prior to proposing their project, and any analyses conducted after the project has been proposed should reflect the student’s independent work. It is also important to note that, because it is a comprehensive exam and not necessarily a final pre-publication submission of an empirical study, it is understood that there may be some limitations to design and analysis (e.g., power). However, we would expect that students can speak to sample size and related design issues within the paper. That is, this project does not necessarily carry the same standards for sampling or advanced statistical analyses that might be expected in a dissertation, but there should be advanced knowledge of the relative strengths and limitations of these choices within the manuscript.


The student must submit a proposal for this paper to their comprehensive exam evaluation committee. The proposal is an abstract (2 pages single-spaced; references do not count in the page limits) that clearly states the aims of the paper, the method, the source of the data, and the proposed analytic approach. The proposal should clearly indicate what discipline-specific knowledge areas they are integrating in the work.

The comprehensive exam committee members will each review the proposal and determine whether they feel the proposed paper serves the purpose of integrating two discipline-specific knowledge domains.  If necessary, the committee will make recommendations for areas of coverage, as well as relevant supplemental questions that the student must answer even if they do not fit into the paper itself. If revisions to the proposal are required before it is approved, they will be due to the committee within 3 weeks of the committee feedback on the proposal; otherwise, the student will need to resubmit the proposal in the next comps cycle. Any submitted revision must still fit within the 2 page limit, but can include Track Changes (edits and comments) if this facilitates helping the committee identify changes that were made. No cover letter is allowed.

Role of the Mentor 

The comprehensive exam is an evaluation of the students’ conceptual/critical thinking, integrative knowledge of psychology, and methodological acumen. As a result, the actual work and the final comps product should be completed independently of the mentor. However, students should consult with their mentor about their Part 1 proposal. The mentor can help the student develop an idea, suggest directions, edit the proposal drafts, advise about skills the student needs to develop prior to submitting the proposal so that the project can be successfully carried out independently, etc. The mentor and student should also discuss the ownership of the data and authorship of any publications that could potentially arise from the comprehensive exam product. It should be clear to both mentor and student that, because comprehensive exams are meant to test the independent competencies of the student, the consultation should be limited to the general nature of the paper, what data would be used (if any), and plans for authorship should the paper be something that could be further revised into a publication after comprehensive exams is over. The mentor must sign off on the proposal document prior to submission to the comps committee. Once Part 1 is successfully proposed and approved by the committee, the mentor should not be involved at all in the student’s comps process. An exception is if the student has proposed collection of data, as the mentor will need to sign the IRB (see below). The mentor could also talk briefly with the student about time management, balancing completion of comps with other duties, responsibilities, but not actual content about either section of the exam.

Guidelines for Structure

Guidelines for the structure of each type of paper appear below. Regardless of type, the paper must be in a publishable format (i.e., consistent with a journal submission) and in APA style.

Structure for a Literature Review (maximum 30 pages of text, not including title page or abstract; maximum 50 pages total including title page, abstract, references, figures, tables, and appendices; students should note that papers considerably shorter than the maximum are not likely to cover required elements)

The literature review should critically evaluate the current state of knowledge on a topic in psychology, consistent with the goal of integrating together at least two of the following domains:  developmental, biological, cognitive, social, and affective bases of behavior.

The review should contain the following elements:

  1. focus on important, relevant, and operationally defined topics
  2. a clear case for why a literature review of the topics is important to advance the science and/or practice in the field
  3. description of the systematic process or method used during the literature review. There are articulated ways to do "narrative reviews" just as there are ways of doing meta-analyses (Moher et al 2009; Siddaway et al 2019)
  4. a critical and inclusive review of previous theory related to the relevant topic. Critical means identification of problems, contradictions, controversies, strengths, next steps, and potentials in the theories. Inclusive means there is active evaluation of the theory relevant to the topic. This may include an historical account or background of the development of the theory or research program reviewed.
  5. a critical and inclusive review of previous empirical research related to the topic.
  6. Critical analysis of interpretations of the findings with consideration of how interpretations change as new findings are reported.
  7. Discussion of the methodological diversity of studies reported, and populations studied in the literature review and the implications of this diversity for new knowledge or future research.
  8. Raising provocative and innovative questions on the topic not discussed before in the literature. Include ?take home? messages that generate new hypotheses and new research or that discuss the clinical implications of the review.

Moher et al (2009). Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: The PRISMA statement. The British Medical Journal.

Siddaway, A. P., Wood, A. M., & Hedges, L. V. (2019). How to do a systematic review: A best practice guide for conducting and reporting narrative reviews, meta-analyses, and meta-syntheses. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), 747–770.

Structure for an Empirical Paper

Structure for an Empirical Paper (max 20 pages of text, not including title page or abstract; max 35 pages including title page, abstract, references, figures, tables, and appendices; students should note that papers considerably shorter than the maximum are not likely to cover required elements).

The empirical paper should analyze a specific research question(s) that integrates together at least two of the following domains: developmental, biological, cognitive, social, and affective bases of behavior. The paper should be a report of original research, which can include novel analyses of secondary data (archival datasets) or collection of new data. Given the timeline of comps, students are instructed to think carefully before proposing collecting of new data, as a study should not be proposed that would not realistically fit into the comps deadlines. However, if they plan to do so, the mentor will obviously need to read through the IRB application and sign it (but their involvement in the research process should otherwise be completely limited to the Part 1 proposal stage, as detailed above).

The paper should include distinct sections that reflect the stages in the research process, including:

  1. Introduction which develops the problem under investigation, including clear statement of the purpose of the investigation and its significance; clear development of the rationale for the proposed study based on limitations of the existing literature; and clear integration of the two areas mentioned above.
  2. Clear and detailed description of the participants
  3. Clear and detailed description of the measures (including critical psychometrics)
  4. Clear and detailed description of the procedures used
  5. Report of the statistical analyses and the findings
  6. Discussion of the results, including a summary, degree to which the results address limitations in the prior literature and implications (particularly with regard to the integration of the two areas that were the focus of the study), consideration of limitations of the study itself, and future directions.

Part 2: Case Conceptualization

The purpose of the written case conceptualization is to evaluate whether the student can integrate discipline specific knowledge (developmental, biological, cognitive, social, affective) with clinical skills (diversity, assessment/diagnosis, intervention, ethical/professional decision making).  We expect that this will be an empirically supported case conceptualization of a de-identified case that the student has actually treated in the PSWC, with a maximum length of 12 pages of text (double spaced) and accompanying references (that do not count in page limit). Assessment only cases will not be allowed for this portion of the comprehensive exam.

It is expected that the case conceptualization will include integration of assessment and treatment information about the patient per the following guidelines:

  1. We expect the student to describe the background of the case by considering developmental, biological, psychological, sociocultural, and diversity issues, with empirical support for why these are relevant considerations in this case. In this way, the student can demonstrate the ability to integrate discipline specific knowledge and apply it to a clinical situation. Citations of relevant literature are required.
  2. In so doing, we expect the student to utilize existing assessment data, including results of any tests/measures that were administered, as well consider any additional data/tests/measures that could have been informative but were not administered.  We also expect the student to provide empirical citations for this information. In this way, the student can demonstrate their understanding of empirically supported assessment and its importance in case conceptualization. 
  3. We expect to be able to see the student’s decision-making process with regard to their case conceptualizations, diagnostic impressions, integrating together a biopsychosociocultural perspective with the assessment data. 
  4. Then, we expect the student to consider not only the treatment that was selected for the client (with both theoretical and empirical support for this choice), but also to consider at least one additional treatment option, why this may have been appropriate for the client (again, citing research evidence), and to articulate their decision making process between these two options.
  5. Further, we expect the student to discuss the course and process of treatment for the client and how it evolved over time. This may include treatment process and outcome data, the role of the client’s cultural identity and context, other client characteristics (e.g., presentation/mental status), adherence and theoretical issues, alliance with the client, and other contextual issues.
  6. If appropriate for the case, we expect the student to demonstrate any ethical/professional dilemmas that arose and to describe the decision making process they undertook to address the issue(s).

Role of the Supervisor(s) 

While clinical supervisors might advise students on general appropriateness of a case for use for this part of the comprehensive examination, or even suggest to a student that a case might be appropriate for comprehensive exam purposes, the supervisor(s) should not play an active role in helping the student beyond perhaps suggesting that a particular case might be good for use as this part of the comprehensive exam. The supervisor(s) cannot read or edit the case conceptualization, or make direct suggestions as to how a student should approach writing the case conceptualization. Thus, the student should not choose a case that they have already presented as a case conceptualization in practicum and upon which they have already received evaluative feedback. A student should review points 1-6 above to help them determine whether a particular case would be appropriate to use for this portion of the comprehensive exam.

Role of the Clinic Director 

The student must make the Clinic Director aware of the case they have chosen for their comprehensive exams, so that the committee members will be able to check back on the veracity of the information presented by the student in their case conceptualization. In addition, students should follow the deidentification procedures in the Clinic’s Policy and Procedures manual prior to turning in their case for review. Because the case conceptualization must be deidentified consistent with the clinic policy and procedures, students should provide the Clinic Director with a more or less complete draft (only minor polishing left) of the case conceptualization at least three weeks before the due date for comps, to give the Clinic Director time to confirm that the case was appropriately deidentified.  

Grading for both parts of comps 

The two graders will use the following grading rubrics to independently grade the exam. Graders are required to complete the grading rubric by putting in comments for each rubric (no comment if it does not apply). Some graders may also opt to provide additional comments via Track Changes in the comps document itself, but this is optional and meant only to assist the student in making revisions. The average scores across the two graders determines a pass for each section of comps. If the average scores for a section are above a pass, the student passes that section.  If the average scores fall below a pass (4), the committee meets to determine actions that the student would need to take as a follow-up to the failing score. If there is too much discrepancy between the two graders (more than 1 point), the third grader is the chair of comps and the average grade would then be across the three graders. Note that this would lead to delay in feedback to allow the third grader to read the documents, and students would be notified why there is a delay and the length of the delay in getting a response.

Revision documents 

If the student is required to conduct minor or major revisions, the student should follow the feedback given by their comps committee for making those revisions. The revisions are due as specified in the above table. Documents requiring revisions should have changes visible using Track Changes and must also have a letter accompanying the revised comps document that outlines changes that were made to each specific point of feedback provided by the comps committee. Page limits for the actual comps answer remain the same as given above; the revision letter has a page limit of 2 double spaced pages. It is generally expected that the committee will be able to grade the revised documents within two weeks, although this may vary dependent upon when the revisions are submitted and the degree of revisions that were conducted. As is true with journal manuscripts, it is possible that reviewers’ comments may differ from, and in some cases contradict, each other. Graders are aware of this as they will have access to the other grader’s comments. If a student is confused by any of the comments, they should feel free to consult committee members for clarification.

Need for extensions

If a student encounters circumstances that create barriers to their ability to submit their comprehensive exams on time, they can ask for an extension by requesting one from the comps chair and their committee members. Because each situation is likely highly unique, there is no standard set of extensions for comprehensive exams, but will be based on the unique circumstances of the student. The request should provide an explanation of the unique situation(s) that have created the extension request and a new proposed deadline. The extension request can be made separately for each part of the comprehensive exam. The committee members and chair will review the request and will then approve, modify, or decline the request.