Tag Archives: comprehensive exams

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!

Comps Reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider has been on my reading list for years. Ever since I read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” for the first time years ago, Audre Lorde has been high on my list of favorite theorists– though it is mentioned in the book that she did not view herself as a theorist, but rather a poet. (Introduction, p. 8) I even have a pair of Audre Lorde tattoos on my wrist which read, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” (“New Year’s Day”)

Poetry reveals itself through out this text as Audre Lorde uses prose to do what she claimed poetry did for her: help put words to an unnamed feeling, unmask that which has been hidden away, and build community between those who have difficulty hearing each other. She sprinkles actual lines of poetry amid her prose, because as she tells Adrienne Rich in an interview, “somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information….The poem was my response.” (p. 82) The lines slip in when she gets close to a feeling that it seems she might not otherwise be able to identify. It’s moving.

Reading Sister Outsider had me feeling like Lorde, in that her sentences provided vital pieces of information, providing a response for feelings that were previously unnamed. I think this is interesting, this need to name feeling that she has. This is one part of the difference between pain and suffering that she notes in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”: pain becomes suffering when the feeling is “incomplete” and unnamed. (p. 172) I find her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering intriguing, but I do not know if I am convinced. She writes that pain is an event and it must be named, but suffering is something that one can “condemn” oneself to, a relieving of unnamed pain over and over again. I suppose the part which I take issue is the condemnation because it implies that suffering is a choice. What I think Lorde may mean there however, is where pain can be named and acknowledged, it should be, because it is one way to avoid suffering.

In a similar vein, Lorde describes the difference between hatred and anger in “Eye to Eye,” stating that anger is a “passion of displeasure” and hatred is an “emotional habit or attitude…which is coupled with ill will.” (p. 152) Lorde writes that anger does not destroy; hatred does. She writes that anger can be a powerful fuel and in “The Uses of Anger,” a piece which compliments “Eye to Eye” nicely, in my humble opinion, she writes that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” (p. 127) Again, I believe her discussion of both anger and hatred are novel and convincing, but not perfect. I am not sure that I believe that anger cannot destroy, but I suppose when it has morphed into hatred, the point is mute. But that raises a question: she argues that hatred becomes the source of anger, but is it not the other way around? Wouldn’t anger about a situation lead to hatred?

But her main point of these particular essays, or at least what I am taking away from them, is that Black women have internalized self-hatred and thus are angry at each other in a self-destructive way. While Lorde struggles to unpack the inexplicable animosity between Black women, I struggle to unpack that she believes that animosity is there at all. She struggles with this animosity because she cites women as the main source of her restorative energy and thus finds it concerning; as someone whose main support system is a pack of Black women, I really want to know what kind of relationships has she had which have exposed such powerful hatred that she felt compelled to write two separate essays about it. It makes me want to write about Black female friendship and relationships because there is no power greater than the feeling of being supported by Black women.

On an unrelated note, I found it interesting that Lorde bookended her text with essays about other countries. The first are notes from her trip to Russia, in which she basked in the glory of the country like an other tourist, while also being sensitive to racial difference in order to provide a comparison between Russia and the United States. It seems every Black intellectual that I admire has some notes on “Another Country” (for a little Baldwin joke), in which being abroad makes even more stark the state of American racism. The last is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which was mostly interesting to see Grenada through the eyes of an outsider-insider: Lorde herself is Grenadian but she views the country with the sensibilities of an American, having lived there all of her life. (Brief and related side note: no where in her text is “American/America” capitalized. Because it is consistent, I am sure there is a reason for such a choice, but I do not know what it is. If someone knows, please leave me a note in the comments.)

Lorde has so many different identities, which she weaves seamlessly into the text to create a complex interwoven web, and I’ve chosen to simply follow a few of the strands. Among those that I have missed in my brief discussion of her work are her identities as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Cancer survivor, as a Grenadian-American, and particularly as a poet. What she says about these things which make her different is that we must not merely tolerate difference. It must go deeper than that. We must not merely say “Black is beautiful.” It must go deeper. The question which springs immediately to my mind is: How? Lorde is invested in the means of offering solutions: a solution is what she is offering when she says “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” A solution is what she is offering when she says that we need to practice being as kind to ourselves as we are to our neighbors, for only that will off-set the hatred which we have internalized. We must raise our children to feel for themselves and not do the feeling for them. I think her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” which discusses raising a boy as a lesbian feminist, tackles that issue justly.

The last thing I want to think about is the relationships between Black women, white women, and Women of Color, which can sometimes include Black women, but the way that Lorde uses it, (when quoting white women) is a way of including the issues of Black women, but softened by the perspectives of other non-white women. I do not believe this is a view that Lorde holds herself, but rather the way that white women use the term “Women of Color.” (See her discussion of This Bridge Called My Back in “Eye to Eye.”) Some of these tensions become most prevalent in Lorde’s interview with Adrienne Rich, who sometimes seems impatient with Lorde’s view of intuiting and feeling as a way of understanding and knowledge making. When she says the white man says, “I think therefore I am” and the Black woman says, “I feel, therefore I can be free,” Rich points out that people have found this sentiment anti-feminist, drawing on preconceived notions of femininity. I don’t agree: I think there is something very feminist in reclaiming emotion for women, which is so much of what Lorde’s work is. She is reclaiming anger, helping to reshape hatred, teaching us that guilt is ineffective. But I guess my question is, if rationality is to the white man as emotion is to the black woman (which is a problematic dichotomy in of itself) where does that leave Black men and white women? It seems as though white women get clumped into the rationality of white men. But what of Black men? Just something else to think about while I’m driving through town tomorrow.

There are so many things to think about when discussing Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and I do not believe I can do it justice in a short blog post, but I did want to take the time to write down a few of my many thoughts because for one, I had a lot of them while I was reading, and two, it is probably a good practice to review my books as such as I read them. I probably won’t have time to do such an in depth review of every one of my books, but I probably will do this for the important ones, my favorite ones, and the ones which have given me the most to think about.

So to leave you today, I want to offer you some of my favorite quotes from Sister Outsider, on the off chance you don’t plan on reading it yourself. (Which you most definitely should.)

Favorite Quotes and Ideas:

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” (p. 37)

“The Black mother within each of us– the poet– whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (p. 38)

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (p. 41)

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (p. 60)

“One oppression does not justify another.” (p. 63)

“Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (p. 78)

“Documentation does not help one perceive.” (p. 104)

“The mythical norm.” (p. 116)

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.” (p. 123)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” (p. 138)