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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.

The Art of Self Care as a Black PhD Student

If pursuing my PhD has taught me anything, it is the reality of my mortality and how important it is to take care of myself. I have never been very sickly; if anything, I have exceptional health. However, over the last five years I have dealt with health scares, acid reflux, more colds than usual, and being confronted with high anxiety and depression. No one ever tells you how deep getting a PhD is. I have seen my friends and colleagues go through similar things, as well as manage various kinds of substance dependency. Watching them use daily self-medication such as alcohol and smoking has only made me more determined to gain control of my mental and emotional health, so that I come of my program whole. This, dear reader, is no small feat. It has become almost a daily obsession to ensure that I will recognize myself once I finally earn my freedom papers.

PhD work is a beast of immeasurable size. I remember my advisor in seminary telling me more than once that if I was going to pursue a PhD, the first thing I needed to do was find a therapist. She said, “Whatever issues you have not reconciled, you will confront during the run of your PhD program.” Black woman to black woman, I believed her. As she told me this, I began to think about the things that I had buried in my mental closet and knew she was right. Six years later, I can tell you with certainty this is true. This was not the only lesson I have learned over this period of my life, especially as a black PhD student studying black folks in a predominantly white research institution. Here are my four commandments for self care in the midst of the PhD program:

Self Care Commandment #1: Thou shalt pick your battles wisely

When I first began my program, a few colleagues that were ahead of me would tell me horror stories about how the white folks (students and professors alike) would come for the African American religion students about the validity of our work, despite the reality that African American scholars always have to know “classical” theory, as well as the African American landscape of the field. I have been in situations that induced the best of side eyes. For instance, the time my professor asked me what African Americans were writing about a subject in the 19th century, after presenting a syllabus that had no people of color in the readings. These situations are the pressure cookers that are normalized for black PhD students in white spaces, but every battle is not for you to go in and fight. You are always at your leisure to deny people the dignity of responding to ignorance. You are no one’s personal Google. That’s not why you are there. However, if someone comes for you personally and you have the time, by all means, get ‘em.

Self Care Commandment #2: Thou shalt have a devotional practice

This was another bit of wisdom my seminary advisor gave me. Whether you consider yourself to be religious, spiritual, or neither, you absolutely need to carve out the first part of your day as sacred uninterrupted time to ease into the day. You’ve got to gird your loins. Every. Day. Because life comes at you fast, it is important to go out there with a full personal bucket so that when the stressors of life and the program hit you, you are not totally run over.

Too often, we wake up and reach for the phone and start our day with checking emails and social media. We start working as soon as our eyes open and bombard ourselves with endless stimulation until we close our eyes for the night. That, in and of itself, is quite stressful and unhealthy. It turns our days into a sort of vacuum and, if you are at all like me, can cause you to feel lost at sea at times.

The first 30 (or more) minutes of my day are mine to get myself together. For me this includes sitting at my desk and writing in my gratitude journal, reading a book for pleasure for 15 minutes, and meditating on both the Bible and my breath. After all of that, I pull out a physical planner and plan my day. I make goals for the week and then a to do list for the day. This helps me to not try to do it all every day, which lowers my stress because I then have a set of responsibilities for the day that I do not add to once I set them.

By setting aside dedicated time to ease into the day, you start on the right foot with your personal tank on full. I have been doing this consistently for a year and I can definitely feel the difference. I am able to be more present, more focused, and generally a little less stressed from day to day.

Self Care Commandment #3: Thou shalt lean on your tribe

I will always say, “It takes a village to raise a PhD.” I am an introvert and, admittedly, the emotional and spiritual rock for quite a few people. However, because of that I have never felt comfortable letting my friends really be present for me. Through therapy, I began opening myself up to allowing those I trusted the most to really show up when I needed them. This was a radical turning point in my self-care practice. When I allowed myself to let my friends and family really be aware of my struggles, they showed up. EVERY. TIME. I have come out of meetings with my advisor or my committee absolutely distraught and ready to quit my program (I actually ask myself why I am in the program weekly). My support system, however, is what has kept me in the program. I go to my therapist for the tools to tend to my mental wellness. I go to a small number of colleagues to commiserate and they assure me that I am not faking it, but that I belong. I go to my sister friends for wine and they promise to show up to my dissertation defense like the Dora Milaje, complete with black girl scowls for my committee so they do not say anything off the wall.

But seriously, a strong support system is the difference in feeling like you are out on a limb by yourself and actually being out on a limb by yourself. No one can be an island. We thrive when we are part of communities of care.

Self Care Commandment #4: Thou shalt put yourself first.

This might be my most important piece of advice. It is really easy to lose yourself in the waters of the PhD program. You may forget why you started. You may look up and not recognize yourself after a while. It was at the moment that I started to not know the person I was becoming that I pumped the brakes fast. My desire to achieve and astronomical (and nebulous) expectations put on me from self and advisor made me crazy. I was literally going crazy, breaking down in tears every other day. Do not do that to yourself. If this is already where you are, you have to back up a few steps.

The reality is, if you are not taking care of yourself you will end up sick, broken, or not finishing the program. One of my sister friends who was in the PhD program in another department was my partner in stress. We would sit up writing our end of term papers at two in the morning, both burping with acid reflux, stressed the hell out. After our second year she left the program for a myriad of reasons, one being the effects of the stress on her body. Her quality of life became more valuable than staying. She left and has been flourishing. I pumped the brakes and really went on a journey to figure out how to finish this program and still be whole. Part of that has been honoring my own needs. Every morning during my devotional time I ask myself, “Sharde’, what do you need to be ok today?” There are few days where I can honestly answer that. But, the fact that I ask puts my well being above checking the work off. The work will always be there, but if you are not the work won’t get done.

Taking care of yourself is just as hard, if not harder, than going through the program and it is so important. Being black and pursuing an advanced degree is absolutely no joke. At the end of the day, we owe it to ourselves to come out of this thing whole. We experience too many hoops and challenges that can totally harden our hearts and intensify cynicism. Part of my self-care strategy is meant to help me not do some of the things that I have experienced through other PhD students because I believe there is a better way. Your wellness benefits you first and foremost, to be sure, but, it also benefits your work and sphere of influence as well. It helps you to be the best person and scholar that you can be, which is what the world deserves.


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Rev. Sharde’ Chapman was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in Religion with emphasis in African American Religion. Prior to pursuing her PhD she earned a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she was also a student at Lincoln College, Oxford University in Oxford, UK. Sharde’s research interests focus on the forms and function black non-traditional religious spaces. Sharde’ is also an ordained minister in the Baptist church.

As she pursued higher education she has been a child literacy advocate and educational trainer through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program. Sharde’ also shares 31 countries worth of travel insight and her self care journey on her YouTube channel at ShardeNoDyzOff.

Digging in My Tool Kit: Navigating Identity in Academia

My first year as a PhD student has come to a close, and now after two months of much needed distance I can say that I somehow survived. I made it out with my skin still attached, I scraped past the beast and kept my teeth. I refer not to the “nightwalker” that is the looming deadline, or the paralyzing gorgon of self-doubt. I am not bemoaning the money that grad school has sucked out of my pockets like Charybdis did the sea. The hazard that I escaped is one that I had forgotten between my stints as a student: I had forgotten how it feels to be a problem.

Before I lose anyone on that point let me be clear. I am grown. I am not sitting at the cramped table of the intimate basement classroom tossing spit balls and forgetting to raise my hand. Oh no, this is PhD life honey! I am a problem in the same way all Black folks are in academia. I am an issue because I placed my body and its otherness into a space that fought so long and hard to maintain its monogamy. I hear people tell me, “You’re in the door girl! Now all you need to do is work!” To that I say, sure; if the proper symbol for the Black student’s entrance into academia were a door, then that would be an appropriate stance. But that expression isn’t fitting here. In entering the university, the Black student has not “gotten in the door,” the Black student has instead made her way through the first in a series of gates. These gates are meant to compartmentalize, to discourage, to limit and to control our experiences in the university.

The second of these gates to come crashing down in front of my feet was the gate of assumptions. The otherness of my body came with a great many numbers of expectations. My body belongs to a Black person, and with this package comes ideas about my personality, my speech, my history, my motivations, my interests and of course my abilities. My body also belongs to a Black woman. The otherness of my womanhood only tacks onto these expectations and with them comes a danger. In this body, in this skin I have to be careful. This gate, and its expectations, reappear over and over during the academic odyssey. It comes back y’all. It is battled using the greatest and most important tools in the Black student’s arsenal: The Black Performative.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’ll speak on the most essential tools in the kit that is The Black Performative; these being the successful voice, the successful body, and mindful usage. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too; y’all know what the successful voice is. It is the change in our tonality, in our speech pattern, in the use of our dialect. Some of us call it “the school voice,” but it follows us. We pull it from our pockets on the phone, at the checkout, even when someone strange bumps into us. It is a defense mechanism that is literally needed to succeed in academia and so to call this tool the successful voice is very easy and very appropriate. I am immensely guilty of indulging in my successful voice. As a Black woman with southern roots I speak a very different English at home, one of which I am proud to say I could break down the grammar rules of on a dime. My home speech is unique, it is the remnants of an old code spoken in Dothan, Alabama. It is complete with its own rules and unique vocabulary that, outside of the comfort of my home loses all of its meaning, but y’all kin come takes muh words from muh cold dead hands. Ain’t not nare ‘nough yenom on earth to pay me to divorce muhself from muh language.* And the act of requesting me to do so is pure barbarism! I feel strongly for my words and advocate for inclusion of multiple Englishes in higher learning, but I am still guilty of falling into my performance. Should I blame years of knowing that it was necessary, do I not want to make things harder on myself as I near the end?

Digging back into that tool box, we come to the successful body. In the year that flew by between completing my MA and beginning my PhD I had forgotten the stress that comes with my physical presentation. See that pesky gate of assumptions coming down again? You may say, “Now Justine calm down we all need to look professional.” Sure darling, that’s true, but what is acceptable and professional in my culture doesn’t always fly in an academic setting, nor is it always worth the aggravation. I’ve taken care to make sure my shape, you know the body I physically live in, doesn’t show too much. God forbid, I am too obviously a possessor of two “X” chromosomes. I’ve waited an extra week before changing my hair for the eighth time in a semester just to push back that “your hair is always different conversation” and I have bitten back venomous words when classmates with whom I have never had conversations with reach out to grab, stroke, and pull my hair while they shower me with foreign compliments. God, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a problem. I have to smile through all of this, attitude in check, resting bitch face buried beneath a smile that reminds me of Barbie’s friend, Christie. I grew up in the 90’s and back then Christie (the Black Barbie) didn’t have any African features aside from her brown skin.

That 90’s Christie doll is a perfect embodiment of the last tool I’ll speak on today. She looks trapped in another body, carefully presented, forced to smile 24/7: This is mindful usage. Mindful usage isn’t about the presentation of the Black student’s body, it is about how the Black student moves in a public space. Those pesky assumptions that we have to fight against just don’t stop popping up. If I don’t mind how I move my body I typically get one of two responses: I am perceived as hypersexual or more annoyingly I am slapped with the violent Black woman sticker. I have to divorce myself from my non-verbal grammars, the languages I can speak with my hands and my neck, the nonverbal cues that are common place in my house, in my hood, in my space; they get left behind, unless of course I want to wear that “Black women have such attitudes” badge. I have slipped before and cocked my neck, given a sarcastic fluttering of the eye. This has led to some uncomfortable moments, but nothing of consequence, right? Oh, certainly not so horrible in the classroom? Well that depends on which side of the classroom I’m sitting. Yeah, I’m a PhD student, but I’ve been teaching at the college level since before I began this adventure. Being a Black woman at the front of the college classroom is altogether a different experience. I could write a book on that one. Girl, Sis, lovey and my brother too, the academic odyssey is a lot like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, navigate as best you can. And I urge you, try to keep as many bits and pieces of yuhself in dat boat as yuh kin.

*Nare means “not any” but is more firm!  Yenom is an old code for “money”


nullJustine Nicole Wilson is a second-year Ph.D. student at St John’s University where she majors in English and received her MA in English from Stony Brook University (Class of 2015). Justine’s research interests span trauma literature, the graphic novel, mythology, folklore and children’s media. Justine’s recent work aims to dissect trauma as “the common language of heroism,” and explores our societal consumption of trauma as a product. She is in the beginning stages of drafting her dissertation prospectus which will focus on the portrayals of mental illness and trauma in the Superhero genre.

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