Monday, October 31, 2016

Meaghan's Tips for Taking Your Comprehensive or Qualifying Exams

In Meaghan's department, they're called comprehensive exams, or comps - in many others they're called qualifying exams or quals. These are mid-Ph.D. exams, and they are by far the most difficult and terrifying part of a Ph.D (except for trying to get a job after you're finished hahaha aaaaaaaaaaaaaah). Each department in each school does them differently, but essentially the gist is this: are you good enough to learn what you need to learn so that the department will ever feel confident in giving you a doctorate?

That might seem like a really arbitrary definition of what an exam is trying to measure, and it is - which is why each examinee is asked unique questions in a different style by their department. It's also what makes comps so absolutely, bloodcurdlingly terrifying for many graduate students: there isn't a clear rubric for success. There's no real guidelines for what your committee is going to ask, and there isn't a tried-and-true method for studying. The whole point of a Ph.D. is to make you an expert in a topic, guided on your path by other experts in similar topics, and your comps are when you have to somehow impress your committee members enough that they won't kick you out of your program.

I (Meaghan) passed my comps in February of 2014. The 5 months leading up to it were the worst of my life. I have never been so tired, so anxious, so full of self-doubt, and so convinced of my own failure. I studied hard, and tried to ask myself questions about what I was reading - how it fit into my own research, or how I could explain it to others. If I failed to immediately comprehend what I was reading (which I did, frequently) I took it incredibly poorly, convincing myself it was a sign I should just drop out and save myself the heart attack. November was for some reason the worst: I cried daily, sometimes for 2 or more hours, mostly because I was miserable but also I think it just became a weirdly convenient way of procrastinating tasks I was uninterested in doing.

I'd say tip #1 is not to worry about it that much... but frankly, if you're predisposed to that sort of all-encompassing panic, you're probably going to do that no matter what I say, so here's my real first tip:

Tip #1: Get a Therapist.
My therapist is a lovely woman who got her Ph.D. in Psychology and underwent comprehensive exams herself. She didn't know anything about the things I was studying, but she understood the stress, the requirements, and the goals for my test. I would complain that I knew nothing, and she would point out all my progress, and all the steps I had completed. She would steadily point out where my thinking was flawed, and where I was right to be concerned about my progress.

Tip #2: Get a Ton of Exercise.
It helps you sleep, it helps you focus, and when you just can't read another goddamned paper it helps you feel like you're still being productive because you're helping your body, even if you didn't finish your reading.

Tip #3: Don't Be Afraid to Skim.
You're going to read more papers than you ever thought possible. Many of them will be helpful, most of them won't. Do yourself a favor: Read the abstract, the intro, and the conclusion. If at any point during those three you think "oops, this is not the paper I was looking for," get rid of it. You already have enough to do, you're going to be furious if you wasted your time on something unnecessary.

Tip #4: Find Your Papers, All Your Papers
Here are some stupid and not so stupid paper-finding tips for getting past paywalls that I stumbled across during comps.
a. VPN client
If you are not on campus and would like to get past paywalls, download your university's VPN client via their software page. It's basically a program that magic-tricks the internet into believing you're on campus and have access to articles - a tour guide through scholarly articles.
b. Google Scholar Links
First off, live and love that citation button. It's great for creating proposals or papers. Second off, if you're logged into your VPN client Google Scholar has more than one way of accessing each article - there's the original header, yes, but on the right it will help you find the article through different PDF options, and also in your local university's library. If the original link takes you to an unpenetrable paywall, go back to scholar and check those links on the right.
c. Interlibrary Loan
Somewhere hidden in your library's online system is a way to access the Interlibrary loan. Give them all the specific details of the article you need, and some magic minion will photocopy it for you in a very short period of time and send you a PDF, hurray!
This is typically only helpful if you are looking for older articles but DAMN is it helpful. The website will also create custom PDFs for you of select pages in case you don't want the whole 600 page Geological Bulletin from 1890.
Still can't find it? Your facebook friends don't have access? Reddit can! Put in a request, and someone will help you.

Tip #5: Stay Organized With Citation Software
You're going to be reading a LOT, no matter what your topic, so you'll need to keep track of your shit to cite it later. I learned later about free software like Zotero, which can read citations directly from google scholar searches and save them for later, can retain notes pertinent to each citation, and can format citations for placement in each document. It can also interface directly with Microsoft word, so you can edit a citation in Zotero, hit refresh in Microsoft Word, and the in-line and reference section will update accordingly. Invaluable for any writing project.

Tip #6: Remember that this, too, shall pass
Regardless of what happens in your comprehensive exams, they will eventually be over. You will either be free, or you will be free - really, comprehensive exams are a win-win situation. If you fail, you get a regular life back. If you pass, then you get to become increasingly bitter about the psychological torture that your program put you through with no real discernible benefit. Congratulations?

But in all seriousness: when you pass, you will realize the utter stupidity of what you just went through. I did not feel better, or more worthy or intelligent for having passed. I felt exhausted, and frankly, pissed. I threw a marker at my advisor during my exams, and I was only 40% joking about it. It took me months to pick up the pieces of my life, and to resume normal working habits and life. I would have anxiety attacks, certain I was supposed to be doing something, studying something. Comprehensive exams are the gold standard of everything that is elitist, pretentious, and traumatic about graduate school. It is state-sanctioned psychological torture of its brightest and best. It has been over two years, and I am still furious - and I know that other departments have a much worse, much less useful systems than mine did. That does not stop me from being bitter. I have only recently stopped having an all-powerful avoidance reaction to reading scientific papers, since over the course of my comprehensive exams I convinced myself that my inability to concentrate on these papers for more than 5 minutes at a time was a result of my own stupidity, rather than the enormous strain and stress I was under.

Maybe I'm just mad because I see how much easier it could have been. If there were no comprehensive exams, I would have learned all that material more readily and it would have stuck more firmly. That's what happens now, and it's not because I primed my brain somehow through the hazing ritual of comps. It's because I'm not worried. I'm not pressured. I say this, knowing that I am also sort of insane - after all, I just got my Ph.D. in 4 years while planning my wedding, working as Vice President of Equity and Inclusion for my union and also serving on the Search Committee for one of the deans of our school (all while also working as a teaching assistant). That's a lot to balance - and I still made better progress in my program because it wasn't futile and purposeless anymore.

In conclusion: fuck comprehensive exams. They don't benefit anyone, they deliberately exclude people with mental illness whose psyche can't handle the experience, and they're a fucking dinosaur relic of the past when every PhD had to be a wealthy white man. Comprehensive exams are bullshit.

So my real advice to you is this: you are better than this bullshit system. You are smarter, stronger, and more talented than any test could ever prove. This is a stupid, time-consuming, brain-dissolving hoop you have to jump through so you can get your Ph.D. and change the system. Battle the dragon, and if you are stressed or feel like you're going insane remember that is exactly how you are supposed to feel. That's the real point, stupid as it is. Good luck, and remember that when you graduate you have a chance to get an academic job and eradicate this stupidity once and for all.


P.S. rumor is that comps are a North American torture system that aren't present in most other countries. So if this post scared you off a Ph.D., maybe just consider going to a different continent for your degree.