Surviving Comprehensive Exams or How I learned to stop worrying and love the stress

Liza has been posting some great things about applying for grad programs. I thought I’d come at the wonderful, infuriating, enlightening, gut-churning time that is grad school from a different angle. I just finished my comprehensive exams*, not unscathed and certainly changed by the experience. I wanted to share a few things I went through and some things that really helped me survive the process.

*Different universities use different terminology. These could be qualifying exams, oral exams, exams + prospectus, etc. They also all have slightly different processes. I think my comments should apply to most situations but I’d love your feedback on your own experiences.

GET A SUPPORT SYSTEM! This could be a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, brother/sister, colleagues, favorite uncle, next door neighbor, friendly shop assistant; ideally all of them. Anyone who will help you study, listen to your (read: my) incessant ramblings about ethnography and globalization, read through your drafts, suggest different points of view, supply you with kleenex and reassure you that you are (again read: I am) not the dumbest thing since woolen underwear in the tropics. Successfully completing your comprehensive exams is a process that is exceedingly difficult to do on your own, emotionally, mentally, and in some cases physically (you have no idea how many books I needed to take out of the library. My long-suffering spouse is going to have to help me carry those back again).

EAT SOMETHING! This isn’t just about remembering to eat. In my case, the stress of preparing for and taking comps manifested itself in a very upset stomach for a very long time. I’ve had more digestive problems this past year than I had in the rest of my life up until this point. However stress manifests itself for you, make sure you are taking care of yourself. Sleep is also essential…which brings me to…

PUT DOWN THE BOOK AND GO TO BED! I was recently watching SciShow on YouTube and came across this entry on sleep: It’s kind of scary what happens to us when we don’t sleep. Hallucinations and death are at the extreme end but lowered immune systems and depression can also result. My brain tends to shut down around 10 pm anyway, so studying after that point is rather pointless for me, but on many days my schedule was: wake up, read, eat breakfast, read, eat lunch, read, eat dinner, read, sleep. Repeat. I might not be able to work after 10 pm but I could watch a movie or play a game or, heaven forbid, read for fun (I kinda remember what that’s like). I could finally have some time for myself. The point is, I wouldn’t be going to sleep at 10 pm and that severely cut into my sleep time because my body likes to wake me up at 6 am every morning, regardless of when I go to sleep. So whatever your preferred pattern is, make sure you are sleeping.

WHY DON’T I KNOW HOW TO READ ANYMORE?! I keep saying this but everyone will have their own process for studying for these exams. The goal is to find something that works but not get tied too strongly into one particular system. Being consistent and flexible is really helpful. At the beginning of this process, I was completely overwhelmed (and remained so for most of the time) but I noticed that the actual reading for these exams was different from all the other reading I had done previously. For my program at the University of Hawaii (UH), we have to compile book lists for ethnomusicology as a field, two geographical areas, and two issues. What worked best for me was reading introductions, conclusions, and strategic chapters in the books. While I read, I took notes on my computer and kept everything organized in a specific folder. I also made note cards to quiz myself on authors, titles, and publication years. For my issues lists, I also wrote out notes longhand. I noticed that writing longhand helped me remember things better but typing the notes in a word document meant I could find specific things faster. However you work it out, find something that works for you and stick to it…until it doesn’t work anymore, then find something else that works.

PLAN YOUR TRAVELS WELL! This may be more unique to my situation. I’m currently enrolled at UH but am living in Ohio. Thus, when I went back for my comps, I actually returned about six days early. This was to give myself time to get over the jet lag and to survive the worse cold/cough I’ve had since the last time I caught pneumonia. Everyone’s situation is different but even if you’re in the same town, arriving early is a good thing.

I’M FINALLY DONE! I NEVER WANT TO LOOK AT MY RESEARCH AGAIN! I am currently experiencing this. Again, everyone’s comps are different, but for UH, we have a written portion and then an oral defense that includes defending our dissertation proposal. I was asked to do some rewrites to the proposal and submit it to the chair of my committee within two weeks. I now have one week left and absolutely no desire to write. My body and brain have been focused on these comprehensive exams for so long that now that it’s all over, they can’t understand why we can’t just take a break for a while. This is not the last step of the process, brain. Stay with me! The goal I have set for myself is to write at least two pages every day. This does not mean writing four pages today so I can take off tomorrow. If I write four pages today (yay me!), I’m still writing two pages tomorrow. My friend Justin Hunter also recommended the site 750 words ( I haven’t tried it yet, but he uses it and says it’s great motivation to keep writing everyday.

Whew! Long blog post today. I hope this is helpful (or at least amusing) and that you’ll all share your experiences too.

– Heather


One thought on “Surviving Comprehensive Exams or How I learned to stop worrying and love the stress

  1. Congrats on passing your comps!

    It’s so interesting how these exams exist pretty much at every school, and yet they are so different place to place. At the masters level, we have a portion of the exam that is specific to us, in which we review literature related to our thesis, and then we have a portion that is “general” and based on our required coursework. The qualifying exams, which are for our PhD students, I believe include a listening portion, a transcription, and questions on both a primary and secondary area.

    For our test, I used good ol’ fashioned 3″ by 5″ note cards, made by a previous student. I copied them down onto paper and used colored markers to separate scholars and ideas, and added some information. (These cards were my life; I rewrote information on them, I recited them out loud, I read from them). At the end of the day, I put all of these notes in something I labelled as “The Ethno Binder,” and plan to pass it down to future students, because a lot of the material stays the same.

    At the end of the day, I had mixed feelings at the end of my test: you realize what you know really well as you write, but you also realize where the holes are in your knowledge. I also didn’t want to look at that research for a while… but now I’m getting back into it, and I feel quite a bit better. I also love 750 words- great site for getting things down on paper.

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