The Sum Total of My New Smarts

I signed up for my comprehensive exam today.  October 31.  Halloween is my favorite holiday, so I figured it would bring me good luck, and I’m going to need it.  See, I’m in trouble.  In order to graduate this December, I have to write my culminating paper this fall and pass the exam.  Normally, this program is one and a half or two years, but I took a couple of years off to move to Afghanistan, and so I took the introductory courses four years ago.  Apparently the exam is based on the introductory courses.  Right now my plan is to befriend some young, innocent, smiling grad student and cajole their notes out of them.  The fact that I go to class at night when I’m cranky is kind of a road block to this plan, but I’m cagey and tenacious, so I figure I can pull it off somehow.   The introductory course that I’ll be tested on is basically IR theory with some other stuff thrown in.  I’ve taken a few international relations classes, so I remember enough of it to think it’s pretty useless.  My four years working in international affairs has pretty much solidified that notion for me.  If I ever heard a diplomat justify his or her actions based on realist theory or a commitment to constructivism, I’d faint from the sheer shock of it.  IR theory helps people explain lucky guesses and screw ups in the past, not prevent present-day idiocy or encourage enlightenment. Maybe cynicism can be my schtick?  Do I need a schtick for the exam?  Law school was different, we just made stuff up, then argued really hard for it.  I like that kind of intellectual laziness, I’m comfortable with it.

This is not to say that I haven’t learned a lot of really great things in my program (international security studies.)  I had a very smart professor explain international monetary policy in a way that I could understand, and now when I listen to NPR market report I know what they’re talking about.  I had a professor pass out maps when he did area studies units–and I finally figured out what was up with Burma, and can find Nepal.  That’s pretty cool.  I pretended to be Joe Biden in a crisis simulation course, and neatly led the U.S. down the garden path towards total international isolation and nuclear conflict with Iran.  So I learned that I shouldn’t be vice-president, or maybe I learned that I shouldn’t negotiate with Iranians, or maybe I learned that I shouldn’t be a man…hmmm….on second thought I’m pretty much just remembering the humiliation and can’t think of what I should have learned.  I learned that if you write a memo over two pages in the government, no one will read it.  (Actually, I already knew that from work…and it still makes me giggle.)  I learned that micro robots can cooperate as a unit to surveille hostile areas.  I actually learned a lot about robots in my technology class, and now I want one.  (Truth be told, I want an astromech unit from star wars, because I’m sure it would be a loyal friend and do my housework, so that isn’t so much a school thing as a nerd thing.)  I learned that Russia and England fought over Central Asia in this fabulously dramatic “great game” of colonial intrigue–there are fantastic stories of spies, massacres, and one very brave pony.  Right now I’m taking a terrific class on mass media and security studies.  Apparently sensationalism, gossip, grisly crime, and animal attack stories have always been a staple of the American media–it’s not just CNN.

Despite all my, frankly very useful, new knowledge, I don’t think it’s going to help me on the comprehensive exam.  I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet, con a naieve youngster, and actually study.  I’ll keep you posted.


  1. I don’t see you asking for advice here, but I’ll give some anyway. When I was in my MS program I had comprehensive exams thrown at me 18 months after I had taken the introductory courses. Ack! What I found was that when I approached the faculty members who would be writing the questions they were more than happy to give me tips about what areas to prep for. I have no idea if this would be a possibility in your program, but it may be worth a try.

  2. Woops! Forgot to say, “Good luck!”

    Good luck!

  3. Oh, comprehensive exams… I take mine next May, and I’m already freaking out about them.

    Best of luck from a fellow grad student in a political science-related field.

  4. Peter LLC says:

    If I ever heard a diplomat justify his or her actions based on realist theory or a commitment to constructivism, I’d faint from the sheer shock of it.

    Heh. Ain’t that the truth. About the only time I’ve heard diplomats explicitly reference an outside work is when dropping names like the Kissinger, Schulz, Perry and Nunn WSJ editorial. Then there was the UNODC working group on asset recovery in which knuckleheads from the US, UK, India and other countries tried to see who could work the most ABBA song titles into their interventions.

    I, on the other hand, have a quotation from Legro and Moravcsik on my bulletin board to, well, keep things real.

  5. Aaron Brown says:


    For some reason this post is reminding me of our IR/IL class with Anne-Marie Slaughter. As I recall you really liked it, while I did not. So imagine how much worse off you’d be if the only grad student you could hit up for IR notes was me!

    Aaron B

  6. Karen,
    This might help you brush up on your IR.

  7. kuri, let’s hope that’s the exam!

    Aaron, I did really enjoy that class. It was the second time I’d had IR, and the first time I really got into it. It kind of lost it’s charm the third and fourth time…

    Eris, thanks for the tip–really good idea.

    Thanks all for the good luck wishes!

  8. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Maybe once your exams are over, you could tell us some more about the usefulness of what you studied.

  9. Karen, this was hilarious. I’ve been there many times. Soon the dreams will start–the ones where you find the test is in a language you don’t speak; turns out it was a math class and it’s all esoteric equations you’ve never seen; you find out you are in a play going on that night and you’ve never been to a rehearsal and don’t know your lines: etc. It’s when those dreams start that I know I’ve got a test coming up!

  10. Steve, my recurring nightmare is that I go back to jr. high school after a long absence, I can’t find my locker, I can’t remember my locker combination, I don’t know what my class schedule is, but I do know that I have math class, and I haven’t kept up with my assignments, so I’m terrified to go to class. I always wake up completely exhausted, and trying to remember the quadratic equation….

  11. Oh! I still dream about my locker combination. That and that I have a basketball game and don’t have my shoes.

    I have comps next spring… can’t wait for all that magic to start up again.

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