Category Archives: Comps

Week 4: Comprehensive Exam Colloq

Two very important and exciting things happened this week:

First, I had a paper accepted to the Southeastern American Studies Association Conference in March! If you remember the secret project I was working on all spring, this is the fruits of that labor. I’ll explain more as I get closer to the presentation. I am particularly excited because the conference is going to be in Atlanta, a city I’ve never been to and am dying to see.

I also successfully completed my comprehensive exam colloquium. For those of you just joining me, the main purpose of the comprehensive exam colloquium is to meet with my committee members to ensure we are all on the same page about my exams, and to set a date for them. Mine will be April 29-May 3, 2019, with an oral exam on May 9th. As a refresher, you create three fields, one major, two minor, with the major field split into two lists, and you have a professor work with you on a list that represents each field. Altogether, I have four professors working with me; two on African American literature, one on African American History and one on Comics and Media Studies. At the colloquium, you set the final lists and you can’t change them; so at this point, you can officially start reading for your exams.

I have three main pieces of advice for anyone that has a colloquium or some similar meeting before they can embark on the journey that is comps:

  1. READ THE HANDBOOK. I made the rookie mistake of asking my advisor if there was anything I needed to have for the colloquium without reading the handbook for myself. When she said no, I took that as gospel, only to find out that I was actually supposed to have written a 1,000 word intellectual autobiography and a one page description of my dissertation project. Fortunately, there are no consequences to that; I just have to write the two pieces and send them out to the committee via e-mail by Monday. Mostly, I’m just shaken because I don’t think I’ve ever been unprepared for something. I’m working on both pieces now and all will be well but please, please, please, DON’T DO WHAT I DID! READ YOUR HANDBOOK!
  2. ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF. Again, I didn’t do this and now I have 286 items to read before my exams in April. If you think you have too many texts on your lists, tell your chair and see if they will advocate for you. In an effort to please everyone, I said yes to all the additions without actually thinking through what would be feasible for me to accomplish in the next 7-8 months.
  3. ASK QUESTIONS. Don’t know how the exam is structured? Ask. Don’t know what paperwork you have to do? Ask. Want to know best practices for acquiring books? If your committee has any advice for studying? How many meetings are usually required? Ask, ask, ask. Comprehensive Exams, or Qualifying Exams for many people, mark the end of your professors seeing you as a student in their class; you’ll now be an independent scholar. There are no more syllabi with deadlines and no more required papers. If you want to know how something is going down, you need to ask.

All in all, my colloquium was a good experience. It was mostly my committee suggesting books to add, suggesting that I re-organize my lists and setting the date for the exam. It was also peppered with many compliments about the way that I think and write, which definitely helped my self esteem. Having my committee members all in one room together was great because it gave me a sense of how my oral exam is going to go. I have a low key group with very different personalities and skill sets, but the one thing that they have in common is that I truly believe they all have my best interests at heart. Not a single one of them is going to let me in the room if they think I’m at danger of not advancing to the next stage of my doctoral career. I can tell they all believe in me, and that’s going to sustain me through this process.

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.

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!