Category Archives: Intermission 2

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!

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!

Guest Post: A Series of Unexpected Events

When I finished undergrad three years ago, I told myself a thousand times that I was never going to graduate school. Finishing a Bachelor’s degree was hard enough, why would I willingly put myself through more academic torture at an even higher cost (both mental and financial)? It seemed unnecessary at the time and even if I were to go, I had not a clue what I would study. My career path upon graduation was uncertain to say the least – the last thing on my mind was another degree. Now fast-forward to today… *cue maniacal laughter at my previous naiveté* …and I am headed back to grad school this coming fall. Yes, I said back, as in for my second attempt. It has been quite an interesting chain of events and along this journey, I’ve learned that sometimes where you need to be is right where you started from the beginning. *clears throat* Let me explain.

As a Virginian who grew up near Charlottesville, UVA was an obvious choice for college. I knew a lot about the University and had been there for football games and that sort of thing. From what I had experienced prior to enrolling, UVA offered the quintessential college experience, the kind you see depicted in the movies. When I got in, I was thrilled, proud, over-the-moon– but I was also nervous. My mom didn’t go back to finish her Bachelor’s degree until she was pregnant with me, so her college experience as a married woman with a family looked very different than mine would and my dad did not attend college at all. Not being able to rely on my parents to give me advice on what to expect as I ventured into unknown territory was scary, but I knew that I would figure it out. What I didn’t know was that most of the lessons I would learn throughout my undergraduate career would not take place in the classroom but in my day-to-day interactions with other students and other members of the University community. The biggest lesson that I learned about myself during those ever-important four years? I have anxiety. At times, borderline crippling anxiety, and the worst part was not that it took me until college to figure it out. The worst part was that I was unaware that it wasn’t normal.

Growing up in a small, rural town in Central Virginia, mental health was a rare topic of discussion and during instances where it was actually acknowledged it was always with regard to extreme cases of mental health disorders. In high school my classmates would make ignorant jokes toward others about having multiple personalities or being “special.” So that was really my only exposure to what constituted mental health issues. At home, there was even less talk of it. My parents maintained a very traditional black household where things like “what do you have to worry about?” and “mind over matter” were phrases that framed anything stress related. They always made it seem like my sister and I were too young to know what anxiety was so I didn’t know any different. Maintaining the idea that nothing was wrong kept me from seeking help, kept me from understanding that it’s okay to talk about my anxiety and depression, especially when it came to being a young black woman studying at a very prestigious predominantly white institution.

The source of my anxiety and depression while in undergrad was this: I never thought I was good enough. I compared myself to everyone at every turn. I had no concept of my worth. Then my self-esteem hit the lowest of lows following a bad break-up that took place during my first year of college. I didn’t know it then, but I was seriously depressed for over a year after that split. College is hard, breakups are hard, finding confidence in yourself as a single black woman when it feels like the world is on your shoulders at all times is hard. Finally getting my diploma at graduation and reflecting on all of those tough experiences had me thinking, “there’s no way I could ever go back and do this again,” but then I landed an unexpected job offer. Four months after graduation I was hired as an Admission Counselor for UVA and I found my passion– working with students who don’t see their potential, students who struggle to see their worth. Students like me. That’s when everything changed.

After finishing two admission cycles at my alma mater and loving the work that I was doing, I decided that I did want to go to grad school. So I applied and was accepted into UVA’s Master of Higher Education Administration program and I began taking classes part-time while I continued to work full-time. However, juggling both work and school simultaneously proved to be a challenge that triggered my anxiety in a slightly different kind of way than before. This time, my anxiety came from feeling stagnant. I got antsy with the idea that I was “stuck” at UVA, being that I had studied there, worked there, and was still studying and working there while many of my friends had moved on and found higher-paying jobs in cooler cities. I started to compare myself to others again, I felt like this whole “adulting” thing was a competition and it seemed like I was losing by a mile. So in an overwhelming state of frustration I made a rash decision. I chose not to enroll in grad classes for the coming semester and I applied for jobs at other universities until I got an offer to work for a school in DC. This was like a dream come true! I could finally move out of my parents’ house and have my first real apartment on my own, I would be in a city that was full of young black professionals, and I would be making more money (or so I initially thought). Well, life has a really funny way of humbling you when you least expect it and that’s exactly what happened.

I took the new job and hated every second of it. The leadership was awful, the electronic processes were archaic, the office culture was unhealthy, and given the higher cost of living in DC I really wasn’t making more money. This is when my anxiety and depression caused me to hit rock bottom. I started taking the prescription anxiety medicine that my doctor had given me several months prior hoping that it would make a difference in my day-to-day functioning, but I still had days where I could barely find the motivation to get out of bed. I was broke, unhappy, and I had never felt so alone. Emphasis on alone, living by yourself in the city sounds cool in theory until you realize that you come home to an empty apartment everyday. That’s not something that makes you feel any better when your work life is hell on Earth. I lasted six months in that position before I quit and decided to come back to UVA for grad school full-time. I’m even taking a class this summer to catch up so that I’ll still be on track to finish the program next spring (yay!) and it finally feels like I have my life back on track.

This time last year I never thought that I would be so excited to be moving back home and starting grad school again, that just goes to show that sometimes we have to go through difficult situations before we can see things clearly. It’s so true what they say about how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I definitely learned that the hard way but that’s okay. Not every lesson we learn in life will come easy. Moving forward I know that my anxiety hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s something that I will have to deal with through grad school and beyond. The difference is that now I’ve been through things that have taught me that I am stronger and wiser than I used to think I was. I have found ways to better manage the moments where I feel like I’m on the verge of a panic attack. Those are life skills that I may not have learned as quickly if I didn’t take that leap of faith and accept that other job. It may not have been where I needed to be but we gain insight from every experience we have as human beings, good or bad, and that’s the silver lining.

Do I still have moments where I question my worth? Absolutely. Are there times when I doubt myself? 100%. But at the end of the day, I don’t beat myself up about those things nearly as much anymore. What brings me peace of mind through those inevitable ups and downs is the reassurance that, despite the detours I may have taken along the way, I know I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.


IMG_1593Alexis Richardson, 25, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in 2015. After three years of working in college admissions she has returned to UVA as a full-time grad student to finish her Master of Higher Education Administration.