\#StudyingForComps Tips and Suggestions
Since I’m now on the other side of comps I’ve had a few people ask me for suggestions on how to prepare for their own. Here’s a few thoughts.
Talk to your committee early and often. Here at UA my committee are the ones who evaluated my comprehensive exams, it might be different for you, so whomever it is going to be, talk to them early. Try and get an understanding of what they expect you to do (especially if you have a written component) and what kind of subjects they want you to study. I have four committee members and they each picked a slightly different topic for me to study for my orals. Also see if they can recommend study resources, a particular book they think is well written or some journal articles to get you started.
My first load of books from the library
Go beyond the materials your committee gives you. Treat them as a starting point, but not in anyway an ending point. Go to the library, spend an afternoon in the stacks and see what is out there. Spend a few days on your favorite journal article database (I’m a heavy Web of Science user myself) and get together a wide variety of materials. Reach out to your network for suggestions on reading material (Twitter is great for this)
Find a way to organize all your notes. I used a combination of Mendeley and Evernote to keep everything together. Maybe a big notebook or a word document or something else works better for you, I really don’t care. Just find some way of writing things down so you can come back them to later. Write down your questions, your ideas, connections between things you’ve read, they will all help you in your writing and in answering questions for your orals.
Pace yourself. Once you’ve got together some materials and you know roughly when your exam will be start working backwards and set up a schedule. My comps were a NSF style grant proposal and two weeks later orals. So I worked backwards and set deadlines for myself, when I wanted to have my lit review done for my proposal, when I wanted a draft of it done, etc. etc. Make sure you take into account your non-comps obligations. I took classes while studying, so I scheduled my proposal draft deadlines around when big assignments were due. This will help make it all more manageable.
Clear out distractions however you need to. This might mean studying in a new place, or in a new way. I studied most days in my shared office, but with a good pair of headphones and some brown noise I was able to ignore the chaos around me. If you need to start working from home, or from the coffee shop or wherever do it!
Be sure to clarify with your committee what kind of assistance is appropriate for you to receive. Within my department this varies a lot. Many of my friends have written proposals for their comps and have been allowed to have other students look over them and give input. My committee choose not to have me do that, and told me I wasn’t allowed to discuss my ideas with anyone. They just wanted to see me on the page. This made the way I went about my proposal very different then if they had left it wide open. Figure out these expectations early so you don’t do something wrong for lack of clarification.
Talk to students who have already passed their comps, especially if you share committee members. They can help ease your fears and give you advice on how to tackle the process, especially orals. If possible have a few of them get together and go through some mock questions to get you in the practice of pausing for a few seconds and getting an answer together in your head. Also good practice in saying ‘I don’t know’.
Realize this is a process that is suppose to push your boundaries and discover your ‘soft white underbelly’. It sure found mine, and it was painful and I hated having it exposed to the four people who decide my fate for the next few years, but it was a good experience. Everything about this process will feel totally personal, but try and retain some perspective (fellow students are good for this). While the feedback you get might sting, write it down and come back to it the next day, often it looks less harsh after some sleep.
Take care of yourself. Comps are suppose to be hard, but they aren’t suppose to destroy your body and mind along with it. Take time to keep yourself happy and healthy, engage in things you love, and make sure to keep engaging with the people around you that keep you going, it’s easy to become a recluse.
Take the day or two before your orals off from studying. Let your brain relax, get lots of sleep, eat well, and try to spend some time with people who make you feel good. If you have a folder of positive emails, take some time to read them over these days.
It’s fairly anti-climatic. You will be exhausted afterwards, your brain will hurt, but unlike defending, life doesn’t change much after and your responsibilities are much the same. Despite this it is still worth celebrating, even if it’s just getting some great grilled cheese with friends like I did. It’s a milestone, and when it’s over, you’ll be so glad it’s in the past. Plus you can change your email signature to say ‘PhD Candidate’ which is pretty cool :)