How I Studied for My PhD Comp Exam
A while ago I did a video talking about how I studied for my PhD comprehensive exam, but I wanted to do a blog post on the subject as well, since it’s sometimes hard to get all my thoughts to fit in a video (without it being an hour long) and also since some people read my blog but don’t watch my YouTube channel (but really, why aren’t you watching?). Anyway, read on to see how I studied for my comp exam and the lessons I learned along the way…
One big tip to start with…you want to discuss program requirements with your program director when you start, it’s honestly never to early to fully understand the whole process. Also discuss them with your chair/advisor. You want to know what all the steps of the exam process are and how important each one is. Due to a communication mistake, different people assuming other people were passing on information to grad students, I didn’t learn until just before I was going to submit my portfolio that failing the portfolio review resulted in automatic dismissal from my program. That slammed the breaks on my portfolio submission pretty fast. All went fine with that in the end, but it definitely made me ask more questions about the comp exam. I’ll get to those later in this post.
But first I want to break things up into some different sections, I’m not sure how close you are to taking your exam when you’re reading this, so you can read the whole thing or just skip to the section that applies to you. I’m going to share my tips for long term prep, short term/last few weeks, the day before/day of, the post exam thoughts and advice.
Side note: This is being written from the perspective of a PhD student in an English Department. Students in other Humanities departments or outside of the Humanities will possibly have a different exam structure, but some of these tips might still apply.
Long Term Prep
1. Start Reading Early
I started my reading over a year before I ended up taking my exam, part of this was because I ended up getting delayed so I took my exam later than I’d originally hoped/planned. So I technically started reading in the summer of 2015 (in Oxford so that was cool). But my reading definitely amped up in the summer of 2016. I read in starts and stops, I’d cross several sources off my list in a couple weeks and then read nothing for three. I had a reading list and a progress tracker (see #3 below) and a rough reading calendar, but many times life and more pressing deadlines got in the way. But the earlier you start the more cushion you have for when you get sidetracked. When I had time I would read as much as possible so that when I didn’t have time I would feel less guilty and less pressured. Starting early also allows you to really process what you’re reading and (hopefully…ideally) actually enjoy it as well. It’s very easy to get caught up in feeling stressed and anxious. But remember, this is all working towards preparing your for your dissertation, which you should be really excited about, otherwise why are you doing a graduate degree? Our work is stressful enough as it is, if you can’t get excited about the research what’s the point? Ok, I’m not saying I loved everything I read, some were easier than others or more enjoyable than others. Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour I devoured, some of the stuff on memory and politics? Yeah, not so much lol. I tried to cycle through my categories, not reading more than two books from the same category at a time and making sure that I was saving the sources I was more excited about and spacing those out. I saved the books I was most excited about to be the very last ones I read because I knew my excitement would get me over that last hurdle. The books I was less keen on but knew they were important I tried to read earlier in the process and get them crossed off my list. So start early, be strategic about what you read and when, and make sure to enjoy yourself along the way.
2. Keep a reading journal
This can be physical or digital, but keep a space where you keep all your reading notes in one place. I had bought a lovely matching Ted Baker journal and pen set from Boswell’s in Oxford that first summer I was done with coursework. It was pretty and made me want to carry it around and crack it open. I find that the more Instagrammable school supplies are the more likely I am to use them. Is that just me? Ok. Moving on. So I used a physical journal but you can easily use any of the many digital research tools. There are so many apps these days that sync across all your devices. So find a method that works for you. There were many times that I would just take a book to a coffee shop and didn’t want to have to haul my old laptop around, so a notebook was better for me. The only downside is I can’t easily search within it lol. I have to flip through the pages to find what I’m looking for. I had about 20 sources for each category so it wasn’t too bad, but if I had more than that, digital might have been better. You can also choose both. The more you’re going over your notes the more you’re going to learn them.
In the journal I kept myself to 2 pages per source, preferably 1 page. For my exam I was told to focus on the big picture and the major connections between sources. So I was mostly focused on recording 1) the main point or argument of the source, 2) 2-3 key ideas 3) any interesting features of the source or their argument and 4) when applicable if there was a significant way that source related to my dissertation, my research subjects, another source, or any other part of the larger conversation I marked that down too.
3. Visual Progress
Find some way of tracking your progress visually. I created a tracker in my bullet journal. But you could also write your source titles on post it notes and stick them to the wall, removing one when you read it. Or put a bunch of colored stones or marbles in one jar and when you read a source move a marble to another jar. Or come up with your own idea that will probably be way better than mine. There are lots of progress trackers for bullet journals out there. You can easily take a weight loss or debt pay off tracker and adapt it to the comp exam. And trust me, you’re going to want to have a visual representation of your progress. Simply crossing off titles from your overall list isn’t going to be satisfying enough. I’d get one page done but still have 3 1/2 pages of my bibliography. So having the tracker was hugely motivating. I had a little over 60 sources I think? (It’s a blur now) So being able to see my progress helped me keep going.
The Last Few Weeks Before the Exam
1. Talk to other students
If you know other grad students in your program who have already completed their comp exam, pick their brain about their experience. Ask them what their advice would be and what they wish they’d done differently or what they did that worked well. While I hope I’m giving you good advice and you can probably find other blog posts or YouTube videos on this topic, only people in your program will know what the specific experience of the comp exam you will be taking will be like. These exams vary from program to program. So get info about yours straight from people who’ve already taken it.
2. Talked to your chair/advisor
I sat down with my chair about a week before my exam. I asked her what I was allowed to bring with me, what I should expect, if she could give me an example of the questions I would be given, and basically any general advice. Let me just say, I have the best chair in the world. You think your chair is supportive and awesome but no, mine is literally the best. She’s a rock star. She totally put my mind at ease, gave me great advice and encouragement.
3. Got a copy of a previous exam to see what the questions would be like
After our meeting she sent me a copy of an old exam for a previous student. Those questions made me feel a lot better. Even though they were based on a completely different research focus they allowed me to see the structure of the exam and the structure of the questions. That was hugely helpful. So if you can get a copy of a sample exam, do it.
4. Found out what I was allowed to bring
My chair was able to tell me this information but you could also ask whoever is going to be administering the exam. For my program we’re allowed to bring a copy of our comp exam bibliography with our rationale. This was huge for me. It meant I didn’t have to worry about memorizing specific titles, full author names, or publication dates. It was such a relief to not have to worry about my brain blanking on basic information like that. We were also allowed food and drink (obviously nothing super messy) so I was able to bring an iced latte, some water, and various snacks. My exam was from 11am-3pm so right during lunch. I was too nervous to eat a meal but I brought lots of little snacks with me. I also was allowed to use my own laptop, so I also brought my charger (duh). Getting this information ahead of time will help you prepare and know what to bring with you on the day as well as allow you to get more information if there’s something you can’t bring. If you’re going to be taking your exam in a computer lab because they won’t let you use your own computer, you’ll want to check out the space ahead of time.
5. Final prep and last minute studying
In the last week before you’re exam you’re going to be doing lots of last minute reviewing of notes and studying exercises. You should be done reading by this point. I didn’t let myself start scheduling my exam until I only had a couple books left to read. I didn’t want to schedule it until I knew I would be done reading because I knew I’d being able to schedule the exam for the date I wanted (since I was doing a written exam and not an oral one, so I didn’t have to coordinate other people’s schedule, just my own). During the start of that last week I started making various mind maps and diagrams that had me identifying common themes and ideas. Most comp exams require you to identify key conversations in the field and what various scholars are saying about that conversation. Mind maps, diagrams, basically any visual aid, will help you start to put those pieces together. For one of my diagrams I took a bunch of sticky notes and on each note wrote down the author of one of my sources and the key argument or one sentence summary of their argument. As a final test I created a copy of my bibliography in a new file on my computer and created extra space between each source. Then I went through the list and tried to write a one sentence summary for each source based only on the author and title. I knew I was on the right track when a lot of information was there in my brain just by reading the citation on the list.
The Day Before
In the last couple days and the day before…stop studying!!! Seriously. Step away from the books and the mind maps. You’re done. If you don’t know it now, another 24 hours isn’t going to make much difference. Trust that you’ve done the work and you know what you’re doing. You might not feel like it but you do. The day before my exam is a bit of a blur. I’d have to rewatch my vlog from that week but honestly I’ve been avoiding doing that. I was a nervous wreck. I know I went to the movies and saw Beauty and the Beast, which had just been released. I tried to stay calm and do relaxing things. I went to bed early and tried to get a good amount of sleep. I intentionally scheduled my exam for the late morning because I knew sleep could be an issue and I was worried about waking up super early. I think I reviewed my “bibliography test” that I’d created once or twice but that was it. That day before I really just focused on distracting myself.
The Exam Itself
The morning of the exam is also a blur. I dressed in yoga pants, a t-shirt and brought a hoodie in case the room was chilly. I dressed for comfort since I was going to be in that room for 4 hours. I brought Starbucks, snacks, and then some beauty and self care stuff as well as some good luck charms and motivational post cards that I set on the table while I was working. I had lip balm and my favorite Caudalie Beauty Elixir face mist. I set everything up at the table with my laptop where I would be writing. Then I sat down on the couch with the questions and a pen. My chair had told me to spend 1 hour reading and brainstorming/outlining, 2 hours writing, and 1 hour revising/editing. I ended up spending 1 hour reading and outlining and 3 hours writing (increasingly frantically) and then used my 15 minute cushion/grace period to quickly proofread/edit. The time will go much faster than you think! I definitely started feeling more and more anxious as I went along. The closer it came to the end of the exam the worse I felt. But I got through it and as I was leaving the room I felt relatively confident. I went down to my office to calm down a little before I started to drive home and got to chatting with some of my officemates. It was while talking to them that I reread one of the questions (that wanted to know what the questions were like) and I realized I answered one of the questions wrong. I was utterly defeated and destroyed. I quickly said my goodbyes and left and was having a full blown panic attack by the time I got to my car in the garage across the street. I was a mess. I was sure that I’d failed the exam and would have to retake it. It was hell to go through at the time, but it ultimately taught me one of the biggest lessons of the whole exam process…
Post Exam & Lessons Learned
In my case I had to wait for my exam to be graded, these tips won’t apply if you get your results immediately (as I would have done if I did an oral exam). That waiting period was hell. Seriously. I would swing wildly back and forth between being positive that I’d failed because I screwed up the first question (which I’d spend the most amount of time on) to thinking surely they wouldn’t fail me, they had to give me at least a “low pass”, I still did the exam, it wasn’t like I left a question blank. In the end, I got a normal “pass”. Exactly what I was hoping for. A “low pass” would have been fine. My chair always tells me “you just have to pass”. (Have I mentioned how much I love my chair?) I caused so much unnecessary anxiety for myself. So here’s my biggest post-exam tips and lessons learned…
Read the questions very carefully. Don’t just highlight the instructions, write them out separately. It’s the simplest mistake but the easiest one to make. I think the reason I was so hard on myself was because it felt like such a rookie mistake to make. You will be so focused on the exam and remembering all this information you’ve been storing up for over a year, don’t let yourself make the simplest mistake of not reading the questions fully and understanding what you’re being asked to do.
Once you’re done with the exam though…DON’T reread the questions or your answers. You will make yourself crazy. I still haven’t reread my answers. They’re saved on my computer but I haven’t opened the file. But now that I think about it I probably should, there might be helpful stuff for my dissertation in there lol. But until you get your results, just leave everything tucked away and don’t open any of the documents or look at the questions. You’ll just start second guessing everything.
Find something to distract yourself. If you have a waiting period like I did, DON’T just sit around refreshing your email every hour hoping your results will be there. You’ll only drive yourself crazy and make your anxiety worse. Take the rest of the exam day and all of the day after off from everything. If you’re teaching, put that on hold for a day. Take that time to sleep, eat, and sleep some more. You’ll likely have a bit of an adrenaline crash, so you’re going to want to sleep anyway. After my exam it was like my body knew that I didn’t have an immediate deadline and it just crashed. So give your brain and body a break and take a day or two off. More than that if you’re able. The weekend following my exam my family and I took a fun road trip down to Tucson and up Mt. Lemmon. It was fantastic to get away. I highly recommend it if you’re able. Once you’ve taken a day or a weekend to reset your brain and rest your body, if there is a next step for your program, move on to that. I moved on to my prospectus so that I would be ready to schedule my colloquy once my exam results came in. They ended up coming in earlier than expected so I was glad I had gotten to work on the prospectus. It had been a good distraction and made sure that I was ready for the next step when my results came in.
When you pass (and you will pass) celebrate it, don’t let the moment just go by, you have to celebrate each of these milestones. I went out to treat myself to something from my favorite store, Ted Baker. But there were also fancy cupcakes, prosecco, and celebratory lunches throughout my whole exam process. Every step from the portfolio review through the colloquy and finally earning ABD there was a celebration. Whether you’re a Masters student or a PhD student, you are working very, very hard. You deserve to celebrate that hard work. Grad school is often an environment where we are led to believe that we’re not special, we’re just like every other grad student and the work we do is “normal”. It’s not normal. This is a huge reason why imposter syndrome is so prevalent among grad students, we don’t realize how hard we’re actually working and we don’t stop to think about the significance of these successes, we just put our head down and plow on to the next thing. Don’t do that. Stop. Celebrate. Pat yourself on the back. Make a big deal out of it! Because it’s a huge deal. You spent months, maybe more than a year, reading and preparing for your comp exam. You absolutely deserve to celebrate that accomplishment.
Ok, I think that’s about it lol. If you have any questions that I haven’t answered, please put them in the comments below. If you’re new here and want to follow along on my PhD journey you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.