Five Things I’m Doing to Make Comps Prep More Manageable

It’s the great paradox: you finally get to spend “all your time” doing nothing but “reading all of those great books you haven’t had time to read.” You know how you are “supposed” to feel about this period in your path to the doctorate: Fellow grad students now in the throes of dissertating “wish they could go back and read for comps again.” Faculty members in your department fondly reminisce about how “reading for comps was the best <insert time frame here> of their life.” When you meet professors at conferences and they find that you are reading for comps they launch into their own fond memories of that halcyon period in their professional development. But….but…..but… you are staring down the hardest and most arduous tests of your academic career–and the potential roadblock to your advancement to candidacy and ability to begin writing your dissertation. If, like me, you are not a single twenty-something with enough money to see you through without external or additional employment, then this seems like anything BUT the “best time of your life.” You have these long lists of works you would like nothing better to read, honestly–but you also have bills to pay, family to care for, possibly health issues to deal with–sadly, the Real World does not go on “pause” while you dig into those comps reading lists. If anything, the fleeting nature of time may seem more evident now than ever before– I only have <insert relevant time frame here> until I take these exams and I have SO MUCH TO READ!

Many, many people take a full calendar year to prepare for these exams, and there are good reasons to do so–if you are just starting out in a field, or switching fields, or you find that your preparation in a given field has not been strong, for instance. Or, maybe you have had a hard time and felt overwhelmed, or are still learning how to juggle your responsibilities and time management as both a student and teaching assistant, or struggled with health or family issues, so that taking it slower is the better option for you. However, there are also very good reasons not to delay sitting for the comprehensive exams. First, there’s the obvious issue of economics to contend with. Some of us coming into doctoral work with prior lives, including debts to pay and/or families to support, simply can’t afford to take that extra time to degree; we need to get on the job market and try to land that tenure-track position or other viable full-time employment as soon as possible. Secondly, in the instance that you fail part or all of the comprehensive exams, most programs require that you wait at least one semester before re-sitting them, which then slows down your time to degree by another six months or more; taking the exams sooner gives you some cushion towards this (statistically unlikely) potentiality. More importantly, the time you take prepping for comps is time you are not spending on your dissertation. The number-one stumbling-block graduate students in the humanities face after comps is “post-comps slump”–the period between successful completion of the qualifying exams, and the approval of the dissertation prospectus and beginning of the research and writing of the dissertation. The number-two stumbling block is completing the dissertation in a timely fashion. If we look at the comprehensive examinations as a degree requirement–one of the things on the checklist that we need to complete on our way to the PhD–then it becomes clear that getting through the comps and on to the dissertation as soon as it is possible for us to successfully do so is a crucial choice. I decided early on, in consultation with my adviser, that it was a better choice for me to condense the comps studying to six months and sit comps in the Fall, freeing up the winter to work on my prospectus and beginning the dissertation in the spring. This will give me a full year and a half to work on my dissertation if I maintain my goal pace of finishing in 4 years (Spring 2016).

This decision, does, however, have its drawbacks–chief of which is that I am doing a full years’ worth (at least!) of reading between now and October (I have a major field list of approximately 70 works and two minor field lists of 50 texts, each). SO–170 texts in 6 months. That requires a lot of discipline and dedication, a good support system, and a Game Plan. Here are the five things I’m currently doing to try to maximize my work and minimize my stress over the next several months:

1. Have a schedule, and stick to it. But don’t be stupid about it.

I have shared my personal calendar with you before–I am a hard-copy kind of gal, and I need to see everything in writing. My husband can laugh at me as much as he likes, but Google calendar just doesn’t cut it, so I began writing out my summer reading schedule, a week at a time. I started out being Very Specific about what I was doing, when:


Now, if I were the type of person who could make and stick to a tight reading schedule without falling off the wagon, this would be fine. I know, for instance, that one of my colleagues is already several books into his carefully-plotted reading schedule, and happily on-track, finishing this work on this day, that work on that day, and so forth. I’d love to be that kind of reader, I really would.

But, I’m not.

After the first day, I was already behind. By the second day, this week’s schedule was completely obsolete. I soooooo did not finish Boethius in 3 days, because I was also taking the opportunity afforded by re-reading the Consolation of Philosophy to review my medieval Latin and looking at his sources and skimming through A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. In short– I am a Rabbit Hole kind of scholar–if there is something interesting that I want to know more about, then I drop everything and go after that bit of knowledge. In the long run, that’s going to stand me in good stead; but for the short term, by the end of this first week of reading for comps I was already pulling my hair out and crying: “I’ll NEVER get it all done! I can’t even get one week’s worth of reading done, and I don’t have time to do anything else, and I’m sooooooo screeeeeeewed!”

But there’s something I utterly failed to take into consideration that first week, which is that there’s no way that anyone can read for 8-10 + hours a day, every day, for the entire summer–a schedule like this is not only punishing and unrealistic, it is also a guarantee of failure to adhere to the schedule, if not right away then certainly by the end of the first few weeks. It’s a recipe for self-flagellation. Even if I were a single gal with no responsibilities, the simple fact of the matter is that human beings have to be human. We have to sleep and eat and spend a little time with other human beings, and we need a variety of activities to keep us lively and alert. So, I decided that I needed a schedule that was more manageable and more reasonable. This week, for instance, looks like this:


There are two key changes made to this schedule in comparison to the other that I believe contributed to a skyrocketed degree of productivity this past week. first, instead of scheduling for specific texts on given days, I simply scheduled time during which I was working on comps. That time could be spent reading anything–my own notes, primary or secondary sources, whatever I need to be working on or want to be working on. This gave me the flexibility to spend more time on some texts than others, without feeling like a loser who couldn’t stick to her own schedule. And second, I pared down the amount of time I expected to spend working on comps preparation on any given day. Scheduling a few good chunks of time each day, not adding up to more than 6-8 hours, total, keeps me from feeling like it’s “all comps, all the time” and allows me to “have a life.” Speaking of…..

2. Make sure you have a few non-comps related activities to look forward to each week.

Remember when before I said that human beings need to be human beings? Well, we do. My initial idea for tackling an abbreviated schedule of comps prep was, “I’ll suck it up, marathon-read, cut out everything else, and go into hermit mode for a few months. I can do that.

Yeah, right.

Even if I could do NOTHING but read for comps for the next several months–which I can’t, since I’m not the only being I’m responsible for–there’s no way I actually would. Let’s be a little realistic–even the most motivated person on the planet isn’t ONLY going to read for comps, to the exclusion of everything else–and there’s no point or good in feeling guilty because you’re not working on comps when you do “fall of the wagon.” So I decided “fine, then, I’ll fall off the wagon on purpose, doing things I actually like and want to do.” I scheduled down time, and in that down time, I’m doing things that I think are fun–I run several times a week; we like to go to First Friday and check out the new art exhibits downtown; we might cook an involved meal, “Iron Chef” style; we might go to the pool in the early evening when everyone’s home; we take stage combat lessons once weekly from a friend of mine; and I might play a little Skyrim or catch up on some of the television I haven’t had time to watch (I’m finally up to the current episode of “Game of Thrones” after being several episodes behind all season; we’re on the third episode of “Penny Dreadful”, and someday I’ll catch up on “Once Upon a Time” as well…..)

3. But also, say “no” more often than you say “yes”.

For me, at least, it can seem hard to justify turning down invitations to cook outs, barbeques, dinners, nights out with friends, parties, and other gatherings and get-togethers during the summer, since I’ve essentially said “no” to everything during the academic term and am feeling like a bad friend. But I imagine that making up for lost time and considering “hey, I have all summer, after all,” can be a slippery slope to hitting August nowhere near as prepared as you need to be for October/November. I have a rule of thumb that if an event is kid-related, we’ll almost certainly go; if it’s husband-related, we’ll probably go; and if it’s just me, I’m probably not going to go. Further, if I already have a major event scheduled during any given week–and I define “major” as requiring me to change clothes, put in my contacts, and toss some makeup in the general direction of my face–I’m not likely to add another one, no matter what it is. I have to put my own health and sanity, and the needs of my family, first. Fortunately, we have really great friends who understand and support what I’m trying to accomplish, and they know that if I turn down an invitation this week, it doesn’t mean “not at all”–we can certainly get together another time. If you don’t understand, then that makes it all the easier–we just won’t be getting together at all.

4. Get outside a little. Every day.

The first week I was studying for comps, I spent the majority of every day inside, and in fact I scheduled all of my runs to coincide with the days when I needed to go to campus. This enabled me to spend whole days home, in my jammies, reading and writing and stressing myself out until I a.) ate what seemed like my weight in nachos, b.) nodded off over Boethius, and c.) then woke up in time to get the girls from after school activities and start dinner, cursing myself for being weak and falling behind on my reading schedule. I found myself on those days feeling utterly lethargic and worn out at the end of the day. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything. I was putzy and crabby and tired and worn out, and all I’d done all day was read and write, so I didn’t feel justified in being tired and crabby and putzy, which just made me irritated at everyone and everything because I was upset for no good reason at all.

Not exactly the optimal working experience.

Finally, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of doing all of my reading inside, I moved outside during the morning before it got too hot, parking myself in the grass behind our apartment with a cuppa and my book. Blisssssssssssssss. How could I forget how much I love being outside? It’s fine to spend a couple of days a week indoors, but really and truly, if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, or overly tired, or just lethargic and “blah” try taking the reading outside–to a park, to the pool, to a cafe with an outside table. I have found myself much more alert and refreshed at the end of the day on days when I take the effort to get out of my jammies (although, I fully endorse the occasional jammies-only day, as well!)

and 5. (I like to) Move it, move it!

No matter what it is–walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, swimming, calisthenics, running, roller skating, dancing–I get some body movement in every, single day. In addition to running or going for a long walk several times a week, I’ve taken to reading for a while, then pausing and doing 5 minutes of something–dancing, jumping jacks, sit-ups, weight-lifting, stretching–I change it up, but generally I divide the day into chunks of reading, writing, and thinking, interspersed with activity of some kind or another, and I find that doing so is making a huge difference in how I feel physically overall. It’s really not great to be inactive and sedentary all day, every day, but academia requires you to devote large stretches of time to reading and thinking. You can think while walking, and you can read while riding a stationary bike. We also have gotten to where our non-comps activities often involve some physical movement–swimming, for instance, or a birthday party at the skating rink (I don’t care if I’m the only Mom out there on skates; that’s great exercise!) I am a huge advocate for healthy living, and I don’t think it is good for anyone to spend the entire day sitting in a chair or in front of a computer screen. Since as scholars we have to devote so much time to seated activities, we owe it to ourselves to make sure we are meeting our own physical needs as well. 20-30 minutes a day, interspersed throughout the day, is not that much time to take away from reading and writing and thinking All The Things–but it can help prevent serious health issues down the road.

So–that’s my saner approach to reading for comps this summer, and we’ll see how it goes. In future posts, I’ll share my comps lists and talk about how I developed them, and write about how I’m actually studying–strategies for reading, what I’m reading for, and how I’m taking notes.

What about you–how are you maintaining a work-life balance in grad school?



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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