5 Steps to Prep and Study for Comps

In a recent post, I detailed the next part of my PhD journey after finishing coursework: Comprehensive Exams, better known as Comps. The post described what Comps are, what their purpose is, and how to create lists for them. Now that I have my lists, a few people have asked me to describe how I am preparing and studying for the exams, so here’s a step-by-step guide to my process.

Step 1: Get organized.

I’m pretty sure this is the number one step for most of my how-to guides when it comes to graduate school. For some people, just having the lists is enough. I need more.

One of the first things I did was create an Excel spreadsheet that has the title and author of the text, along with some other pertinent information. What else you choose to include is up to you, but I included: whether or not I had read the material; read it but not recently; whether I had reread it; whether I owned it, needed to get it from the library, or could get it online; if I needed to Interlibrary Loan (ILL) it, or whether I wanted to buy it for my personal collection; and a separate section for notes.

Having the Excel sheet setup like this helps me see at a glance what I need to read, how I need to obtain the text and gives me an opportunity to write down any additional notes.

Step 2: Plan it!

I admittedly do not have an intricate plan for the order in which I’m reading things, at least not right now. Because I’m starting early, I’m mostly choosing things off of my lists that I wanted to read anyway for fun.

Once I’m in the thick of reading (i.e. when I’m doing nothing but comps), I will do another post about how I’ve planned out my readings. As of right now, my goal has been to read 1-3 books per week.

Step 3: Read!

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I try my very best not to overwhelm myself with reading, especially during the summer when I’m supposed to be relaxing. As always, I read in small chunks, either one chapter at a time for academic texts, or in intervals of 25 pages for novels and comics/graphic novels, making sure to take breaks in between each section. I spend the most time on the introduction and conclusion, making sure to highlight or underline the author’s thesis, the goals of the text, the evidence they will use and their methodology. I try to spend no more than 30 minutes per chapter, unless the chapter is particularly pertinent to my own research interests.

For novels and graphic novels, I try to simply enjoy reading them, because it was, after all, my love of them that got me into graduate school in the first place.

Step 4: Take notes

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In addition to the Excel sheet, I also keep a physical journal where I take notes on the texts that I am reading. My process for note taking varies by the type of text I am engaging with but here are the key subjects I hit during my note taking:

  • For novels and short stories, I read the entire text, highlight and underline key passages to my heart’s content. Once I’m done, I provide a brief summary, pull out themes and motifs from the text, note fast facts like the date published and etc, write down main characters and then my thoughts and questions. I like to use the “thoughts” section to synthesize and make connections between the current text and any others that I have read. For example, when reading The Bluest Eye, I used this section to make connections between Maureen, Pecola and tragic mulatto narratives that I read in my Interracialism class.
  • For comics and graphic novels, I like to note keywords, themes, and visual and/or verbal motifs. I have a “thoughts and questions” section for things that troubled me during my reading, as well as things to bring up during Comps meetings with my faculty members.
  • For academic texts/non-fiction, I cite the main argument, the goals of the text, evidence used, and methodology with a brief descriptive summary of the text. If I can discern it, I like to note the scholarly lineage of the text, which is to say which other scholars is the text in conversation with, and from where does it draw its secondary sources. I also have a section to discuss ways in which the text may be of service to my own scholarly work. (Where does my scholarship fit?)

Step 5: Decompress!

Be sure to give yourself time in between texts to take care of yourself. Reach out to your friends, go to the gym, eat a good meal. You will spend a lot of time with just you and your thoughts, but don’t let it consume you.


So there you have it: a step-by-step guide to preparing and studying for Comps. As the year progresses, I’ll have even more detailed guides to prepping for the big exams, but this is how I’ve been doing it thus far. I hope at least some of this was helpful to you. Happy reading!

Digging in My Tool Kit: Navigating Identity in Academia

My first year as a PhD student has come to a close, and now after two months of much needed distance I can say that I somehow survived. I made it out with my skin still attached, I scraped past the beast and kept my teeth. I refer not to the “nightwalker” that is the looming deadline, or the paralyzing gorgon of self-doubt. I am not bemoaning the money that grad school has sucked out of my pockets like Charybdis did the sea. The hazard that I escaped is one that I had forgotten between my stints as a student: I had forgotten how it feels to be a problem.

Before I lose anyone on that point let me be clear. I am grown. I am not sitting at the cramped table of the intimate basement classroom tossing spit balls and forgetting to raise my hand. Oh no, this is PhD life honey! I am a problem in the same way all Black folks are in academia. I am an issue because I placed my body and its otherness into a space that fought so long and hard to maintain its monogamy. I hear people tell me, “You’re in the door girl! Now all you need to do is work!” To that I say, sure; if the proper symbol for the Black student’s entrance into academia were a door, then that would be an appropriate stance. But that expression isn’t fitting here. In entering the university, the Black student has not “gotten in the door,” the Black student has instead made her way through the first in a series of gates. These gates are meant to compartmentalize, to discourage, to limit and to control our experiences in the university.

The second of these gates to come crashing down in front of my feet was the gate of assumptions. The otherness of my body came with a great many numbers of expectations. My body belongs to a Black person, and with this package comes ideas about my personality, my speech, my history, my motivations, my interests and of course my abilities. My body also belongs to a Black woman. The otherness of my womanhood only tacks onto these expectations and with them comes a danger. In this body, in this skin I have to be careful. This gate, and its expectations, reappear over and over during the academic odyssey. It comes back y’all. It is battled using the greatest and most important tools in the Black student’s arsenal: The Black Performative.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’ll speak on the most essential tools in the kit that is The Black Performative; these being the successful voice, the successful body, and mindful usage. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too; y’all know what the successful voice is. It is the change in our tonality, in our speech pattern, in the use of our dialect. Some of us call it “the school voice,” but it follows us. We pull it from our pockets on the phone, at the checkout, even when someone strange bumps into us. It is a defense mechanism that is literally needed to succeed in academia and so to call this tool the successful voice is very easy and very appropriate. I am immensely guilty of indulging in my successful voice. As a Black woman with southern roots I speak a very different English at home, one of which I am proud to say I could break down the grammar rules of on a dime. My home speech is unique, it is the remnants of an old code spoken in Dothan, Alabama. It is complete with its own rules and unique vocabulary that, outside of the comfort of my home loses all of its meaning, but y’all kin come takes muh words from muh cold dead hands. Ain’t not nare ‘nough yenom on earth to pay me to divorce muhself from muh language.* And the act of requesting me to do so is pure barbarism! I feel strongly for my words and advocate for inclusion of multiple Englishes in higher learning, but I am still guilty of falling into my performance. Should I blame years of knowing that it was necessary, do I not want to make things harder on myself as I near the end?

Digging back into that tool box, we come to the successful body. In the year that flew by between completing my MA and beginning my PhD I had forgotten the stress that comes with my physical presentation. See that pesky gate of assumptions coming down again? You may say, “Now Justine calm down we all need to look professional.” Sure darling, that’s true, but what is acceptable and professional in my culture doesn’t always fly in an academic setting, nor is it always worth the aggravation. I’ve taken care to make sure my shape, you know the body I physically live in, doesn’t show too much. God forbid, I am too obviously a possessor of two “X” chromosomes. I’ve waited an extra week before changing my hair for the eighth time in a semester just to push back that “your hair is always different conversation” and I have bitten back venomous words when classmates with whom I have never had conversations with reach out to grab, stroke, and pull my hair while they shower me with foreign compliments. God, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a problem. I have to smile through all of this, attitude in check, resting bitch face buried beneath a smile that reminds me of Barbie’s friend, Christie. I grew up in the 90’s and back then Christie (the Black Barbie) didn’t have any African features aside from her brown skin.

That 90’s Christie doll is a perfect embodiment of the last tool I’ll speak on today. She looks trapped in another body, carefully presented, forced to smile 24/7: This is mindful usage. Mindful usage isn’t about the presentation of the Black student’s body, it is about how the Black student moves in a public space. Those pesky assumptions that we have to fight against just don’t stop popping up. If I don’t mind how I move my body I typically get one of two responses: I am perceived as hypersexual or more annoyingly I am slapped with the violent Black woman sticker. I have to divorce myself from my non-verbal grammars, the languages I can speak with my hands and my neck, the nonverbal cues that are common place in my house, in my hood, in my space; they get left behind, unless of course I want to wear that “Black women have such attitudes” badge. I have slipped before and cocked my neck, given a sarcastic fluttering of the eye. This has led to some uncomfortable moments, but nothing of consequence, right? Oh, certainly not so horrible in the classroom? Well that depends on which side of the classroom I’m sitting. Yeah, I’m a PhD student, but I’ve been teaching at the college level since before I began this adventure. Being a Black woman at the front of the college classroom is altogether a different experience. I could write a book on that one. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too, the academic odyssey is a lot like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, navigate as best you can. And I urge you, try to keep as many bits and pieces of yuhself in dat boat as yuh kin.

*Nare means “not any” but is more firm!  Yenom is an old code for “money”


nullJustine Nicole Wilson is a second-year Ph.D. student at St John’s University where she majors in English and received her MA in English from Stony Brook University (Class of 2015). Justine’s research interests span trauma literature, the graphic novel, mythology, folklore and children’s media. Justine’s recent work aims to dissect trauma as “the common language of heroism,” and explores our societal consumption of trauma as a product. She is in the beginning stages of drafting her dissertation prospectus which will focus on the portrayals of mental illness and trauma in the Superhero genre.

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