The preparation for the written synopsis will require in-depth research into the most recent primary literature on your topic. Individual students have different styles of doing their comps and interacting with their faculty committee. You are strongly encouraged to meet with your comps chair early in the term in which you are preparing your synopsis, so that together you can work out an approach to the assignment that will work well for you.

Many students find it useful to make a series of deadlines during the term to keep them moving toward successful completion of the synopsis. It is especially important to determine your list of key references (see below) in consultation with your advisor, well before the time that you produce a rough draft.

You can meet with your committee members as often as you and the faculty feel is appropriate. At the discretion of the faculty author(s) of a particular question, there may be one or more meetings for all of the students doing that question. Every faculty member handles comps differently, and it’s up to you to determine the pace of writing and to adhere to deadlines. It is your responsibility to turn in a draft of your comps to your committee in a timely fashion and seek feedback during your writing term.

You are not in competition with other students who are working on the same question. On the contrary, you are strongly encouraged to discuss your ideas and research with others working on the same question during your preparation. However, it is important to keep in mind that your submitted comps work is ultimately an individual and original effort.

Whatever topic you choose, it is essential that you base your paper on a fully contemporary review of the primary literature. If you have not had much experience with literature searching, you can consult with library staff to learn about the many tools available to Carleton students for accessing primary literature. Comps students frequently ask how many references they need to cite in their synopsis. Contrary to rumor, there is no magic number! No matter what the total number of papers, you would not want to omit a recent reference that directly addresses the topic of your paper.

Note that your final paper will include a Bibliography rather than a “Literature Cited” section. The Bibliography includes all papers cited in the text, but should also include non-cited papers that you read during preparation of the synopsis. This provides the faculty committee with a basis for understanding your general background and the breadth of your investigation into the literature.

Within the Bibliography, there should be 8-10 key references indicated by an asterisk as the first character in the listing. These are the papers that are the most essential contributions to the topic of your paper. Your key references should not be review articles (as in the “Trends” journals). Instead, choose primary research papers in which important research results or conceptual advances first appear. Each of these key references should be cited at least once in the text. During the question period after your oral presentation, you will be expected to be able to explain why you chose these key references and to have a thorough understanding of all elements of the papers.

The synopsis should be written in the style of a professional review. The audience for this work is the faculty, not other students. Assume that the readers are familiar with the area under study and much of the background material. To get an idea of what comps papers are like, you are strongly encouraged to consult the bound Bio comps from previous years, available in the Biology office (Hulings 210).

Your written synopsis will be limited to 2200-2500 words, typically well less than 10 pages (see details in format instructions). This is surprisingly short, and it will be necessary to write clearly and succinctly to cover all of your ideas, data, and conclusions. Headings and subheadings can be a helpful way to make the organization and flow of ideas clear to your reader, though these are not required. Figures and tables are sometimes useful, but excessive use of these can become cumbersome and distracting. Discuss with your comps advisor the nature and number of your figures and tables.

As you prepare your final draft, it is essential that you consult the detailed format instructions. Late submission of the Synopsis and Bibliography is not allowed except under extraordinary circumstances. If you fail to submit the paper on time, you may not be allowed to complete the Integrative Exercise during the current academic year.

Tips for your Comps Paper:

Below are a few tips that the faculty have compiled to help you think about your comps paper. However, please keep in mind that there is no one way to write a successful comps paper, and you should consult regularly with your comps advisor to get their feedback and advice for writing your paper.

  • The introduction to your paper should include a thesis statement that presents your argument and/or point of view to the reader.
  • Comps papers should include figures from the literature. The figures should illustrate the findings of a study (or studies) that are important to the thesis of the paper. The figures should be referenced and discussed within the text of the paper. Comps papers can also include a conceptual model or diagram (adapted from a paper or created by the student).
  • While you can assume that the readers are familiar with the area under study and much of the background material, remember that it is important for any audience that you state the context and significance of your work.  
  • A significant majority of literature cited in the comps paper should be published within the last ten years in high quality journals. You should limit the number of reviews cited.
  • The paper rough draft that is shared with your comps advisor should be a full draft with all parts of the paper fully developed. The purpose of the rough draft review is for your advisor to give feedback to help polish a complete paper.