Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blogging the Comps

I'm starting this blog to ensure that I make adequate progress on two papers that I need to submit in September. These papers are the most important factor in whether I am allowed to continue in my graduate program. Most of my posts will probably be pretty boring, so I am not planning to advertise this blog even to friends and family. It may evolve into something I want to share with others, but that's not my goal. I'm just using it as a mechanism to force myself to put some thoughts down on virtual paper every day. I hope that doing so will help me make consistent progress on these projects. As a secondary goal, I hope that regular practice will help me learn to write more quickly without sacrificing quality.

I'm in the spring term of my second year in the PhD program in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) at the University of Pittsburgh. Students in my department are required to submit two research papers by the end of the third full week of September in their third year. These papers are informally called "comps" because they are part of the "comprehensive requirements" that students must fulfill before they can proceed to the prospectus stage, in which they write an in-depth preview of their proposed dissertation (a prospectus). Those are the papers I am working on.

The stakes for these papers are pretty high. Students who fail one or both comps in the fall do get a second chance in the spring. If the paper shows promise but needs further development, they are allowed to revise and resubmit it. If it is way off the mark, then they have to start over with something different. I believe that third chances are rare, and would have to be warranted by some kind of extenuating circumstances. I think students who fail usually receive a "Master's pass" as long as they are making a reasonable effort, which does allows them to stay in the program long enough to complete coursework for a (basically worthless) Master's degree in HPS.

The standards are fairly high as well. Our Graduate Handbook says that the papers must give "a clear indication that its author is capable of original research and independent scholarly achievement, such as might lead to journal publication, as opposed to mere recapitulation of existing sources and seminar notes." Basically, the papers need to be publishable in a very good journal, if not in the very best in the field. This year, three students passed both comps, one passed one and failed the other, and one failed both. Those results are pretty typical, I think, if not slightly better than typical.

The papers need to be no more than 7,500 words (about 25 pages as a Word document with standard font size, margins, etc.), including substantive footnotes but excluding the bibliography and footnotes that merely cite references. The philosophy comp needs to be formatted for submission to the journal Philosophy of Science, the history comp for Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science. The chair of the department and the director of graduate studies choose two readers for each paper submitted. If those two readers are not convinced that the paper deserves to pass, then the whole department has to read it before issuing a fail. The review process is supposed to take no more than six weeks, but it took a bit longer than that this year. Waiting to hear back can be excruciating, especially because delays are a sign that people are probably going to fail (since the whole faculty has to agree in order to fail someone). It's also a practical problem, because while you are waiting you do not know whether you need to be thinking about revising your comps or about starting work on the prospectus.

I have had a paper published in Philosophy of Science, but it took me more than two years to write. (And because I wrote it before I came here, I can't use it!) Now I have to write two papers of comparable quality in eight months. The deadline is 4:45 P.M. on September 23, 2011.

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