Comps was the first thing I asked about when I came to my grad program’s admitted students day in 2016. I wanted to know how it worked, what the exams were like, how you made your lists, how you studied for them– and my now friend, James, said to me: “Worry about that when you’ve done your Masters.”
Well, James, it’s definitely time to worry about them.
In truth, I have moved past my initial fear and anxiety surrounding the exams. I’ll worry about taking the actual tests in April. Right now, I’m just focusing most of my energy on reading, organizing my schedule for readings, note taking and meeting with professors. So I thought I would take this time to break down how I’m structuring my time, making the most out of meetings with my professors and caring for myself during what would otherwise be a pretty stressful time.
The most productive piece of advice I can give you is to make yourself a reading schedule in whatever feels like the most effective way for you get the job done. I have an Excel spreadsheet open at all times with five tabs: four tabs for each of my four lists and a tab for my reading schedule.
For my sheets with the lists on them, I have columns for the title, author, date published, and whether or not I’ve read it. The books are broken down into smaller sections, which group the books according to time period or theme, about 4 or 5 sections per list. At the bottom of each list, I’ve got a running count of how many of the list I’ve read and how many I have left to read.
PROTIP: If you read something in a graduate level classroom, I have typically marked those books as “read” but highlighted them as something to come back to at the end to review if I have time.
My reading schedule is fairly rigid but also pretty flexible at the same time. I read on average 10-12 books per week, but I’m flexible about when during the week I read them. I could read three books two days out of the week, two books two more days, and take a day to rest. I could read one every day, and then a few days I read two. Whatever works so long as I get the books that I’ve listed for that week read with notes.
Meeting with Professors
Every professor is going to be different but so far, I’ve found the most effective use of everyone’s time is to just send your professor a quick email update with what you’ve read since the last meeting and single out a few texts that you really want to talk about or have questions about.
But the best advice I could give you about meeting with your professors is to establish some ground “rules” for how meetings should go: What do they expect from you? Do they want written reviews? Email updates? Can you email questions in between sessions? How often do they want to meet? How best can you utilize that time?
PROTIP: Take your notes and any texts you want to discuss so it’s easy to refer to. (Don’t bring your entire library cart. Your meetings won’t last particularly long, as they do have to work after all. 3-4 texts seems to be working for me.)
And most importantly, I’m caring for myself during this time. I have
- picked up a relaxing new hobby
- started going to the gym (semi) regularly
- Been taking a weekly Mindfulness class
- Started writing comic book scripts for a series I want to publish one day (writing 30 minutes a day)
- Started cooking more meals at home and
- Been spending time with my family.
Even though doing comps requires doing an insane amount of reading, in reality, it’s kind of nice if you let yourself believe it. Most days, I’m in bed or on my couch with a stack of books, some coffee and my dog, reading and taking notes.
In order to make the best use of my time, I’ve set my days up to look like this:
- 7 AM-8 AM Wake up
- 8 AM- 9 AM Morning routine (walk dog, breakfast, coffee, meditation, etc.)
- 9 AM- 12 PM Work Block #1
- Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to read at least one book in this three hour block (and if time permits, take notes)
- 12 PM-2 PM Afternoon Break (lunch, gym, walk dog, catch up on TV, nap, etc.)
- 2 PM- 5 PM Work Block #2
- Using the Pomodoro Method, I try to either finish the first book or read a second. (if time permits, notes)
- 5 PM-7 PM Evening Break (walk dog, dinner, self-care time)
- 7 PM-8:30 PM Work Block #3
- This is time that I reserve for note taking, making connections between texts, reflecting on them, etc.
- 8:30 PM- 10 PM Evening Routine (walk dog, shower, journal, write for fun, catch up on TV, meditate)
- 10 PM-11 PM Sleep
Granted, this is what my ideal comps day looks like. Not every day pans out like this, I’m okay with that. Generally speaking though, I do like to work between 7 and 8 hours a day, broken up into blocks of 2-3 hours. This method helps me focus, but do what feels right to you!
The last thing that I do for myself every week is I give myself at least a half a day, to a whole day, off every week. I always give myself Sunday mornings off for church. I can read for the whole rest of the day if I want, but from the time I wake up on Sunday to the time I get back from church, I am offline.
Structure and organization will most definitely help you get through comps, but don’t be rigid to the point of breaking with your scheduling. It’s there to guide you, but do know that life happens. Just do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.
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