Tag Archives: Comps

How I’m Staying Sane During Comps

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.

Reading

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.)

Self-Care

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.

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.