Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation

I am currently wading neck deep in the quagmire that is comprehensive exam preparation. Countless fellow students warned me ahead of time that this would be the most challenging aspect of my pursuit for a doctoral degree. While that remains to be seen, I can admit that the last few months have been exhausting to say the least. Below, I will narrate some of the realities I have thus far experienced, both good and bad, with as much honesty as possible. Whether you can relate, commiserate, or completely disagree with me, I hope that my transparency will help prepare others for their own exams.

You will have an “oh, sh*t” moment.

There will come a point where you think you have a handle on your list, that you are on top of your reading and this whole thing will be a piece of cake. It’s not. Despite my best efforts and a hypothetical monthly plan, my moment occurred a few weeks ago when I actually counted the days I had left to finish reading my list—and it was not even close to enough time. My list was solidified and approved at the end of April this year with my exam date scheduled for September. Given roughly four months to study, I though I was golden. Guess what? Life got in the way. Every summer I volunteer at a local wildlife rehabilitation center and education facility taking care of orphaned and abandoned baby birds. Even with only one shift a week, that’s 20 hours of lost reading time a month. In May, a family emergency took me out of town for a week. I had a weekend of wedding festivities to attend. An annual family vacation is coming up, not to mention a trip to Canada (the NASSR conference of course!), and syllabus and daily plan construction for the two courses I am teaching this fall. In short, all those little things become big exhausters of your time when every minute seems precious.

My advice? Don’t forget there is a world outside of academia. As much as I still feel pangs of regret every time I go out to dinner with friends, or watch a movie with my family, I couldn’t give any of it up. And we shouldn’t have to. The work-school-life balance is a constant struggle for graduate students, and not just during comps time. As important as this examination is to me, I still need to enjoy the relationships in my life and the world around me. So take time for yourself. Maybe the trade-off is getting up an extra hour early the next day, or forgoing happy hour that week, but there needs to be a give and take.

Every day will become part of a countdown.

Honestly, I’ve forgotten what day of the week it was but known the exact number of days I have left until my comps. I am a highly visual person, which led to a late-night moment of panic where I found myself ripping my regular calendar from the wall to replace it with a handwritten sheet of the days left until my exam. Every night I cross off one number in red ink, reminding myself that time is not on my side.

My advice? That piece of paper feels like it controls my life sometimes. However, it did force me to get a solid plan for the remainder of the time I have left. I now have a daily page count I force myself to make, and I know exactly what texts must be completed every week. It doesn’t matter what planning tool works for you, just choose one and stick to it.

You will not leave the house for days.

I’ll be the first to admit I already have hermit like tendencies, so going a day or two without stepping outside isn’t that far of a reach. But this summer has been ridiculous. My record so far is four days. I literally did not go outside, or change out of pajamas, for four solid days. The armchair in my room has a permanent indentation now.

My advice? Get outside even if it’s just to walk your dog or check the mail. Talk to someone about anything other than your reading list. Try and buy fresh produce. Or just remember to eat in general. And shower. Those people you see when you do finally venture out will thank you.

Say goodbye to sleep

I will stay up as late as long as I need to in order to get my page count done and cross one more day off my sheet. Then I’ll wake up at sunrise to start all over again. As grad students, I’m sure you all know what its like to be sleep-deprived, so this will come as no big shock.

My advice? Take a nap if you need to. Seriously, a 45-minute snooze will keep you awake and alert for the next five hours of reading. I can speak from experience having fallen asleep sitting up with all the lights on and the book still open in my hand—you will end up having to reread entire chapters you only glanced at while your eyes were glazing over. Listen to your body.

Have any health problems exacerbated by stress? Get ready for those to become worse.

I suffer from migraines and eczema. While neither is caused by stress, my body will definitely start panicking along with my mind. That eczema? I haven’t had it since I was 14, but hey, it’s only skin right? Both of these conditions have become more common and more severe in recent weeks, but at least there is an end date in sight (fingers crossed).

My advice? Again, listen to your body and get help if you need it whether it’s from a doctor or just a really good listener. Take some time to relax and do whatever makes you feel better. I am now a strong advocate for herbal teas and aromatherapy. I’m going to try acupuncture. Hey, if there’s chance it will help me de-stress and stay healthy I’m going to try it.

Wine will be your new best friend. And coffee. So much coffee.

My advice? Do what you need to relax and try to buy the good stuff. But more importantly, don’t subsist on a liquid diet.

You will drive your loved ones crazy.

My family, friends, and significant other have been forced to deal with my comprehensive exam too. They might not be taking the test, but they are around me enough to be affected by my mood, and I’ve had to turn down spending time with them in order to get my work done. However, they are handling it beautifully. They might roll their eyes when I turn down dinner in favor of a protein bar and Wordsworth, but they know how important this is for my degree.

My advice? Just give them a heads up so they know you might be a little more sensitive, grow distant for a few days, or spend every spare moment either talking about your reading list or sleeping. You will find vast amounts of support and encouragement from the most unlikely places and at the strangest times, and it will keep you going.

You will remember why you started the program in the first place.

Despite everything, I am truly enjoying just reading. I am finding new favorite authors and making connections between texts I never would have dreamed of had I not been devouring so many works in such a short period of time. This whole process has reminded me why I became a Ph.D. literature student in the first place, and for that I am eternally grateful…let’s just hope I pass!


5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation”

  1. I’m in the same boat right now, and I really appreciate your advice about self care. One thing that’s helped me cope has been meeting with my director or other grads on a fairly regular basis to discuss a book I’ve read – especially when I’ve been in my apartment for days on end and feeling trapped in my brain.

    Anyway, sounds like you’re doing it right. Let’s get drinks at NASSR in the spirit of comps solidarity!

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. It’s really nice to know that someone else can commiserate. I would love to grab a drink Deven. I’ll see you in Canada!

  2. Hey Emily, hang in there! All of the advice you’re giving yourself–and fortunately, as well, all of us–is right on, based on my recent qualifying exams experience. Wish I had had it before March!

    The best part I’ve found–but did not expect with exams–is that once you’ve acquainted yourself with working at this level of intensity, you can imagine yourself doing much more expansive projects than before.

    The checklist over the hours, days, and months will add up to awesomeness.

    1. Hearing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is very encouraging. Thanks for the support!

  3. Emily, your comments are spot on! I passed my second and final exam in May, and I would add that it’s really important to exercise. I spent too many days reading in an armchair and ended up with a slipped disk in my back. Ack! Good luck on your exams!

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