Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 3, Scene 1

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.

Week 2: On Rejection and How to Deal

Let me begin with a moment of transparency: I have been rejected more times than I care to count in the last three months. A professor I wanted to work with on Comps rejected my request. In a moment of intense vulnerability, I submitted two stories to literary magazines for the first time in my life and was rejected by both. I submitted an abstract to a conference at Princeton on the Black Impossible, thinking there could be no better place for my scholarly work on Black superheroes, only to be rejected weeks later. To rub salt in the wound, I also dealt with a personal rejection, which resulted in the dissolution of a long standing friendship.

And that is just in the last three months. If I go back further, the list of rejections might seem endless, peppered with deserted abstracts, denials from grad schools, and papers with biting feedback that, despite the grade, made you feel as if you had failed. I think of my rejections in grad school, my most spectacular failure was submitting three different blog posts to Black Perspectives, only to have all three promptly rejected within five minutes.

This list not an invitation to commiserate with me on my failures. It is not an invitation to pity me. It is an attempt to be transparent about a fact of graduate school: you will apply for things that you will sometimes not receive. You will be disappointed sometimes. And I am here to tell you that it is okay.

Fortunately, the list of triumphs outnumbers the failures for me. For every misstep, I found two more to guide me in the right direction. I have to believe that life is about balance, that even if I am having a season of rejection, it means that a season of “yes” is coming my way soon.

So, if rejection is inevitable at some junctures in your life, how best can we deal? One way is to be open about what you are going through. It may feel that the best way to handle it is to hide the rejection letter in a box under your bed and bottle up the feelings. Short term, that’s reasonable, but ultimately not sustainable. I’m not advising you run through the streets screaming that you’ve been rejected; however, it might be a good idea to let a few, trusted people in to share in your frustrations. Sharing your feelings will make you feel a little better and, if you have the kind of friends that I do, they are going to let you cry it out, but then hype you up and insist that you try again. Sometimes, just hearing someone say that they believe in you can go a long way. Seek out those who will support and encourage you, but also make a point to return the favor when they need the same from you.

If opening up to people is not your style, I still recommend you find someway to rid yourself of the negative feelings that come with rejection so they do not fester. Try having a long conversation with your pet, journaling it out, or writing a strongly worded letter and then tear it up.

Make sure you allow yourself some time to feel the sadness, to mope and to declare you will never write/apply/submit/create again. Watch a sad movie, eat a pint of ice cream, cry if you need to, but then when you are done and you are ready, tell yourself that you are going to be resilient and that you are going to try again. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this experience? Be vigilant in this process. For example, one of the literary magazines I submitted to offered me some positive and helpful feedback on my story. I took heart in the fact that there were aspects of the story that they liked, but that they also took the time to identity the features which weakened it. I can take that information and go back to the story and rework it. Even if I never submit it anywhere else, at least I know I will have made it a stronger story than it was before I first submitted it.

While I have placed a lot of emphasis on getting validation outside of yourself (leaning on friends and positive feedback), I implore you to also seek internal validation. Affirm yourself. For me, affirming myself was taking an evening off from everything, grabbing a journal and a pen, and writing a long letter to God and then a long list of things that I liked about myself. I wrote that I loved my hair, that I was an excellent writer, that I was smart, that was compassionate and a go-getter. At the end of the list, I reminded myself that even if these literary magazines or conference committees did not want some aspect of me, it did not make me any less of the amazing things that I listed. When I am feeling down, I come back to that list and even add to it, because it is such a beautiful thing to be able to lift yourself up.

Finally, the last thing that seems to help me is to have a mantra, a phrase, or a few, that you can come back to that consistently give you energy. For me, those phrases are: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing,” (Audre Lorde); “Someone, somewhere is waiting to read my words;” and “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14). Put your mantras somewhere you can always see them– on your mirror, next to your bed, on your desk, or in my case, on my body. (I have “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” tattooed on my wrists.) Allow yourself to be moved by those words.

There is no magic potion for recovering from rejection. Dealing with rejection is an act of courage and requires extreme vulnerability, courage because you choose to be resilient and vulnerability because you made the radical decision to share a sometimes very private part of yourself with those who have the ability to judge you. It takes time and a willingness to be as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else in your position. Allow yourself to feel everything that comes with a rejection, but then be resilient enough to learn from it.

And most importantly: always, always try again.