How to survive comps like a pro (or at least seem calm about your situation when people inquire)

I finished my comprehensive exams in November (at Santa Cruz, these are the qualifying exams that test broad content knowledge), and there were a lot of things I learned about the best way to approach them. Read on for some of these insights!


1. Make a spreadsheet with all your reading pages in it.

Use this to know exactly how many pages you need to read per day to finish on time and to record your progress. I also aggressively color-coded mine, and made a count-down until my goal date for finishing my reading.

2. Commit to concrete, achievable goals.

Don’t expect to marathon through all your reading in the month (or week!) before exams. Plan ahead and try to keep your reading to less than 50 pages a day. Then make sure you actually do read, every day.

3. Set aside blocks of time to study.

If you don’t commit a certain time slot to reading, other things will encroach upon your comps time until it disappears entirely. Do yourself a favor and block out a chunk of time in your calendar. That way, when someone tries to get you to do something else, you won’t even be lying when you say you have plans.

4. Have a specific reading place.

I was completely unable to read in the lab or in my room at home. I ended up spending a lot of time in study rooms at the library just to be in a fresh space that I didn’t associate with anything else. That meant I was less distracted thinking about all the other things I could or should have been doing.

5. Reward yourself. 

Of course, as a grad student, you probably don’t have tons of discretionary funds just lying around. However, I found that it was motivating to plan to treat myself to some fancy tea or a new eBook at certain intervals (500 pages worked well for me).

When the (written) exam comes

This is my workspace at the END of the exam, which is unbelievable considering how messily I usually work.

1. Set aside a clear “exam space.”

This really only applies if you have a written exam you do at home. However, I found it important to do absolutely none of my exam in the same room where I slept to create an obvious physical boundary between the anxiety of the exam and resting time. I made sure there were few distracting objects available in the space I chose, including my phone, other books, or notes. For the portions of the exam I was allowed to consult materials, I kept my exam items on a different table across the room. Within my exam space, I only had my computer, some water, sticky notes for sketching ideas, and a pen.

2. Externalize distracting thoughts.

I found that during my written exam, I started having all kinds of ideas about my project that completely derailed my from actually writing my answers. Awkward, right? Whenever this started to happen, I immediately wrote the idea on a sticky note, stuck it on the wall behind me, and went back to the exam question. This gave me the confidence that I wouldn’t forget my idea and allowed me to put it aside.

3. Eat and rest well.

My lab friends were kind enough to bring me food during my exam, which was an excellent strategy both for saving time and for making sure I didn’t just eat Cheerios for a week. Also, you are useless if you marathon 20-hour writing blocks for multiple days. Just don’t do it. I took short walking breaks every two hours and didn’t work on the exam for more than fourteen hours per day.

Remind yourself of the obvious things

4. Remind yourself not to panic.

Have you heard the one about the blonde who dies when someone takes her headphones off, and when they listen to her recording, it’s just someone saying, “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.”? That’s what the exam can be like.

This may seem obvious, but it is actually very important. I made signs that I put up directly in my field of vision reminding me that everything was going to be okay. One of the biggest traps is psyching yourself out, and you don’t have time to lose on that.

When the (oral) exam comes

1. Remember your committee is on your side.

Much like internalizing the idea that everything will be alright in the end, this is difficult but essential. Repeat it over and over to yourself.

2. Use boards or paper to your advantage.

If you are allowed paper or a whiteboard, use them liberally to work through answers. This shows your process to your committee, which is probably an important factor for then, and gives you time to think.

3. Be comfortable with silence.

It genuinely takes some time to think through a difficult question. Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. If you feel like you need to say something, answer the question with another clarifying question to give yourself time.

After the exam

Take a protracted break.

Looking back at my productivity post-exam, I got almost nothing of consequence done for over a month. This wasn’t for lack of trying–I was merely so drained by the experience that I wasn’t working efficiently. As soon as I embraced my need to rest, my energy levels improved dramatically and I was able to work well again.

A digression about mental health in grad school

About a week ago, I was in a car accident, which kind of threw off my studying plan for my comprehensive exams. For several days, it has been hard to think (as it often is when one’s brain has been rattled around in its casing). I can’t concentrate on much of anything–not my reading, not my data, not my students.

This frustrated me to no end. The voice in my head that I have come to think of as mini Donald Trump kept screaming, You’re on a timeline! You’re slacking! You’re a waste of space! and on into further obscenity. I was violently angry with myself, and for what? Driving in the rain on the best feasible route from my starting point to my endpoint?

As grad students, we’re trained to work all the time, with no mercy for ourselves. If we’re tired, we’re supposed to drink some coffee and power through it. If we’re too sick to come into the lab, we’re supposed to take the day to catch up on reading. There’s a culture of unwillingness to admit that we might have taken time for ourselves, and might want to KEEP taking that time to save our health and sanity.

EEB at UC Santa Cruz does a better job of this than many departments. I have been very lucky to find people I am able to speak to candidly about the need to treat my own body and mind with respect. However, it makes me anxious to imagine admitting to a student at another institution (or maybe even in another department!) that I didn’t put in my forty-plus hours last week. Certainly I would never say something so bold to a faculty member. I’m terrified of the judgement, that seemingly inevitable pronouncement of my uselessness and failure as a scientist.

Is that truly what we think science should be? A slow grind into death by exhaustion? I suspect very few scientists would say total mental collapse is what we should aspire to. We want to be creative and productive and passionate about our work, and to do this, we need space and energy for ourselves to grow and change. An exhausted mind walled in by impending obligations has neither of those things.

Even as I write this, I know that I am doing an awful job at taking my own advice. It is incredibly difficult to embrace slow solutions. I know, logically, that there is no instant fix, apply-directly-to-forehead solution to my injuries, but I want to be back at work. I want to be learning and discovering and teaching. Still, I’m trying to give myself the grace and space I know I need to do things well, and I hope you, dear reader, can find a way to walk this better path with me.