Tag Archives: Comps

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!

#RavynnReads: “Eloquent Rage” by Brittney Cooper

This week and I got off on the wrong foot. Weird things were happening with my mood, I couldn’t sit still and I was feeling generally out of sorts. So, I decided do what I always do when I’m feeling in a funk: I get books.

I drove up to the north part of my city to the public library that I prefer– brand new, new books, and a general sparkle that always inflates my mood. I didn’t have any books in mind– I thought I’d just go have a look around and see if anything caught my eye. When nothing did, I took to the computers to see if they had any of the books that I needed for comps. After spending about five minutes in the search engine, I began to notice a trend. Every time I would search a book that I wanted (The New Jim Crow, Audre Lorde’s Collected Poems, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Eloquent Rage, etc.), my heart would leap with excitement upon noting that the library had the book, and do a mild decrescendo upon realizing the availability was at the library downtown.

As I left the library fuming about the inconvenience of having to drive all the way across town to the other library, it struck me that all the books that I wanted were Black books and they were all housed in the library smack in the middle of the Black neighborhood. Quelle surprise. As if Black books were not able to take up space in a predominantly white space. As if all a Black populace would be interested in is Black books. As if white populations would not be interested in Black books. (Granted there were thousands of books in both libraries, but I’m still frustrated that the majority of the Black books were in the “Black” library.)

Shocked at my own naiveté, I decided half way home that driving the 25 minutes across town was worth it if it meant getting Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. This library was dimly lit and generally of a poorer disposition than the library in the white part of town, but within minutes, my arms were full of my beloved Black books, including a Okorafor book, The Book of Phoenix, Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and of course, as the title of this piece implies, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper.

After simmering down from the injustice of realizing my books had been segregated, I settled into the couch to read the opening chapter of Eloquent Rage. Within moments, I found myself chuckling at Cooper’s candor, snapping my fingers in agreement with many of her sentiments, and riveted by her analysis which seamlessly wove together theory and personal anecdotes which produced scholarship which would be palatable to a broad range of audiences.

Damn, I thought, drowning in my own admiration, I want to write like her when I grow up.

In Eloquent Rage, Audre Lorde shares the stage with Beyoncé, who shares with Patricia Hill Collins, who shares with Michelle Obama. Black women have been theorizing about anger forever, both in academic and non-academic spaces. Cooper breaks down and analyzes Beyoncé’s “Formation” video with the same care that she defines ‘feminism’ and ‘intersectionality.’ For that, I am eternally grateful because I have seen what the type of public facing scholarship I want to write looks like in Cooper’s work.

In addition to discussing Black women’s rage, which as Audre Lorde notes is both full of information and energy, and an appropriate response to racism (Sister Outsider), Cooper discusses understanding her own feminist identity in conjunction with other identities that don’t always inherently mesh well together. I am thinking specifically of when she discusses being a Christian feminist and also being a heterosexual Black feminist. Cooper’s right that feminism has yet to really take into that God plays a big part in a lot of Black feminists’ lives, but I think she’s also right to point to the fact that Black churches still tend to be sites of Black patriarchy run amok. How do we reconcile those two spaces? How do we become good God-fearing Christians while also wanting to smash the patriarchy?

Another topic which I think Cooper nails in “Love in a Hopeless Place,” is difficulty heterosexual Black feminists face while in pursuit of relationships, a place I only know too well. I am either too intimidating, too angry, too sassy, too opinionated, too bossy, or too independent– words that essentially equate to “You cannot be forced into submission by me. I find that threatening.” Cooper’s analysis is rife with statistics and a much more eloquent analysis than what you will find here. She turns a conversation about a difficulty find mates into a debriefing on the Moynihan Report, which essentially calls the Black family a “tangle of pathology” and that our maternal led households are a part of the problem. Much of the Moynihan Report is based on the assumption that “legitimate” families are constituted of (1) father, (1) mother and (2.5) children. (Maybe not the 2.5 kids part but the “nuclear family unit” piece is there.)

Using Beyoncé as a jumping off point for discussing feminism, Cooper states that feminism’s tagline should be, as her idol says, “I love being a woman and being a friend to other women.” (28) If that’s not your MO, then you’re not a feminist, Cooper decides. That goes for nonsense about not having Black female friends because “they’re too much drama” or you “get along better with men.” Cooper explicitly says:

Friendships with Black girls have always saved my life. I give the side eye to any Black woman who doesn’t have other Black women friends, to any woman who is prone to talk about how she relates better to men than to women, to anyone who goes on and on about how she “doesn’t trust females.” If you say fuck the patriarchy but you don’t ride for other women, then it might be more true that the patriarchy has fucked you, seducing you with the belief that men care more about your well-being than women do.

It isn’t true.

(p. 13-14)

I can say with absolute certainty that Black women friendships have given me the most out of life, from my intellectual soul sisterhood with Micah, to my coffeeshop buddy Kels, to my homie Alexis and my cousin Leah, I would not be the woman I am today without each one of them. They lift as they climb, they’re there for me, they understand me and most of all they listen with care when I come home from class after three hours of having to listen to racist, homophobic vitriol.

Brittney Cooper’s book, which touches on everything which matters to Black women, from dating to hair, as touched my life in important ways, namely by making me feel seen. Thanks to Cooper, I, as a big black girl nerd from the South, that had trouble making Black girl friends growing up and trouble dating, who grew up in a devout faith, but is, without a shadow of a doubt, a feminist, feel like part of my story has been told. A story that has only partially been exposed. From her complicated relationships with white women, to her mixed feeling about Hillary Clinton and Tevin Campbell obsession, Cooper and I might be of different generations, but her story is mine and I loved reading every second of it.

11/10 would recommend and am currently trying to figure out if I can add this to my Comps list.

But, seriously, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.