Comprehensive Exams II: Reflections & Helpful Strategies

Comps Blog Pic

I passed exams! Excitement and relief are the emotions I feel when asked, “How does it feel?” Thankfully, I will never have to do that again. Even though I passed, it was a brutal week. It was as much about managing my own thoughts and feelings as it was about answering the questions. So relieved to be done and move from PhD student to PhD candidate. Now I obtain the green light from the university to begin my dissertation.

A few months ago, I wrote an entry here about preparing for comps after I talked to others who had recently passed them. However, I wanted to go back and reflect on what was helpful for me leading up to exams, as well as what was most important during the middle of this exhausting week. I kept a journal of my thoughts and feelings during comps week, and much of this post is a result of those journal entries. Here are some helpful strategies as I look back to that week:

Select, clear, and organize your writing space.

I transferred my writing space to the sunroom that overlooked the woods behind our home. The new location felt more serene than staring at the blank white wall in my normal workstation area. The desk space was much larger than my typical space so I could spread out my references and notes when answering a specific question. Since the sunroom tends to be significantly cooler than other rooms in the house, my wife purchased a space heater for me in preparation.

Remind yourself why you deserve to be here.

This week was emotionally and physically exhausting at times, and it was easy to question everything I had ever done in the doctoral program. It was very easy to think of myself as an imposter during those moments! So I created a small sheet of paper with statements reminding me of why I deserve to be here and placed it next to my computer. Here are some of the statements that served as reminders:

“I deserve to be here!”

“One step and question at a time.”

“This week is only a snapshot of what I have already accomplished in over 2 years.”

“I will survive.”

“I am a champion.” (a nod to another cohort who was also taking comps)

These statements helped keep me centered when I felt inadequate while struggling to answer a certain question.

Create APA style paper templates with seminal references in advance.

This might have been the activity that made me feel more prepared that anything. I created individual APA paper templates for ethics, counseling theory, cognate, and research (categories for comps). These templates also included a partially completed reference list of seminal works that I was fairly certain I would use. This step required considerable time in advance, but it was well worth it.  My list ended up being far from exhaustive once I was answering the questions, but probably covered more than 50% of my references used. This is a must for comps preparation!

Outline a plan in advance for answering each question.

Creating an outline of how I would answer each question helped me organize my thoughts and rationale before I answered the question. This is how I write papers under normal circumstances, but this technique proved critical for moving forward and tackling a process that seems overwhelming at times. Breaking down multiple questions into small steps via individual outlines was pivotal to me mitigating the feeling of being stuck in a question.

Focus on one question at a time.

In my earlier comps blog, I wrote about the value of answering the easiest question first in order to build momentum. However, I did not find that to be necessarily true for my process. There were variables within each question that determined the specific order for me. The most important thing was to focus on one question at a time. Doing this was difficult at times because I would think about other questions I had not answered yet before I was finished with the question in front of me. I kept a small notebook that I would write down thoughts about the other questions, and that practice helped me “empty” that thought while I refocused on the question at hand. This technique helped me manage my pinging thoughts and concentrate on what was most important in the moment without becoming too distracted.

Back up your work regularly.

A friend of mine who has an engineering PhD told me a story about how he lost over 23 pages when he was answering his comps several years ago. He failed to back up his work in a second location and lost almost all of one paper that he had written. While I felt fairly confident that wouldn’t happen to me since I was using Dropbox, I started to question what would happen if my computer lost internet connection during my writing and I didn’t realize it. Therefore, I made sure that I backed up my work periodically via Dropbox and a separate flash drive.

Practice self-care.

During comps, I did not leave my neighborhood for the entire week. There were days when I felt like scaling the walls in my home. The most powerful activity that relieved this urge was taking brisk walks outside. Breathing in the fresh air on a mindful walk helped center myself. Connecting to nature helped reset my thoughts and only then could I reengage the particular question. One day I did not get outside at all, and I could feel the difference. I resolved after that day of non-walking activity that I would not let it happen again. Other self-care activities included going to bed at a decent time (though two nights of sleep were horrible), stretching my body every hour or two, eating balanced meals, and treating myself to special food and drink treats.

Adequately plan the last day to make final edits.

I completely underestimated the time it would require to make final edits on my papers. 76 total written pages require significant time for editing. I assumed it would only take a couple of hours to accomplish this. However, some papers were better than others. For example, one of my rough drafts had something like 23 errors that had to be corrected. Another paper only had a small handful of mistakes. Another paper needed to be reworked for clarity of content. This editing process took me several hours before I was ready to submit them to my committee. My editing process included me printing out my rough drafts, reading all of them aloud, and correcting the mistakes while enhancing clarity. Do not underestimate this process!

Don’t forget to celebrate.

Celebrate with someone once you have answered the questions! 95% of comps is now complete. Once I answered all the questions, made final edits, and submitted them to my committee, it was time to celebrate. My wife and I enjoyed a special dinner that week as I made final preparation for the verbal defense of my answers.

Create a rationale summary in preparation of verbal defense.

This might have been the most important thing that prepped me and boosted my confidence during the actual verbal defense. By creating a 1-2 page summary of my thinking about the answers, I felt equipped and confident in defending my answers. Once I was in the middle of answering questions from my committee, this rationale provided a structure for my thoughts in the moment and enhanced my confidence in talking about my answers. This is a highly recommended practice in preparation of the verbal defense.

Final thoughts

Answering my comps was a grueling process, one that required me to manage myself as much as it required me to answer the questions. I found the above activities to be the most helpful strategies for me in my process. Maybe some of these can also assist you in preparing for comprehensive exams as you continue your PhD journey.



7 thoughts on “Comprehensive Exams II: Reflections & Helpful Strategies

  1. Congratulations and thanks for sharing! I have blocked thinking about COMPS but know it is just around the corner. This is very helpful.


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