The best tips I can give about preparing for comps

This is going to be a short and relatively easy post, which are the two things studying for the comprehensive exam is not. It’s been a grueling couple of months, and I admit studying for the comprehensive exam is stressing me out. Really stressing me out. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. Grad school is stressful. There’s teaching, conferences, essays, professionalization, publishing, networking, and constant reading. There’s very little money. But, the reading year has been particularly stressful. It’s the impending pressure of having to sit in a room with five people who will quiz me about one hundred and twenty books. Five people will evaluate me at once. It’s also a discussion that will either allow me to advance in the program, or will result in a stalled few months.

The logical part of my brain knows the exam is a wonderful opportunity to discuss great texts and float ideas. Other people have written wonderful posts about how to prepare for the exam. They encourage having an organized note-taking system and talking about books to everyone. I’m going to focus on how to relax enough in order to accomplish any of that. Here are some tips that I wish someone had drilled into my head during my first few weeks:


Get off of Facebook. There are tons of studies coming out that suggest anyone on Facebook judges themselves based on what other people’s lives appear to be like. We, as English people, can understand that. People edit their lives on social media, and the story can seem more real than the editing. I’ve found Facebook stress becomes more amplified when you spend eight to ten hours a day in a chair and your arms hurt from holding large texts close to your face. Looking at pictures of someone else just being outside, where there is sun, trees, animals, and plants, is suddenly hurtful. You’re inside, you can’t go outside because you should be reading, but you’re not reading; you’re on Facebook, where it seems everyone else is outside or having fun or having fun outside.

Go outside. Go anywhere, really. One of my peers told me about a study that suggested changing physical location helps your brain see things in a new light and increases memory. Sit outside, when you can. Allow yourself to go to coffee shops or the library when the weather won’t let you be outside.

Exercise regularly. When I first started the PhD programs, one of my professors told me to exercise. I remember laughing and asking “When am I going to have time to do that?” He said I should do it anyway. He was right. Of course everyone knows exercise reduces stress. That knowledge didn’t make me do anything. But, scientific explanations about how much exercise reduces stress are motivating. According to studies published in Cell Stem Cell and Molecular Psychiatry, exercises help brain cells grow and that growth increases serotonin. Though these studies focus largely on depression, their conclusion, that Prozac and exercise have similar results on serotonin creation, is a strong endorsement to exercise. ( Even short amounts of exercise have been shown to increase cognitive functions. ( So, exercising two or three times a week increases serotonin, stimulates brain cells, strengthens memory, and makes your brain function better. The results validate setting aside a bit of time to move around.

Sleep. I’ve saved the most important for last. Sleeping around eight hours allows you to function. It’s that simple. Even taking short naps will heighten your ability to concentrate. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center, 8.4 minutes will heighten cognitive function. Sleep is what allows your brain to transfer short-term to long-term memory, and just one night of poor sleep can result in lower cognitive function. Have a ritual before bed; do the same things at the same time and your brain will shut itself down.


I’ve found doing all of these things makes me work efficiently. Beyond all the wonderful texts I’ve encountered and concerns I’ve crafted, I’ve come to know taking care of myself is not different than preparing for the exam.

To everyone out there preparing for their exam, best of luck! Remember, at some point it’s over.

6 thoughts on “The best tips I can give about preparing for comps”

  1. I’ll admit that comps being on the horizon is the single thing that causes me the most anxiety about my phd program. The thought of convincing five people that I’m prepared for candidacy is real intimidating!

    But I totally liked your distillation of a fact that I totally agree with, and yet neglect often (all too often!). That we really do our best work when we’re relaxed. And I definitely do feel most relaxed when I keep procrastination at a minimum. All the other advice is equally solid. Once I started taking up going to the Rec center, in the little time I have outside of my classes and socializing, things really did go easier. I can only imagine this becomes intensified during comps time.

    As for you, in bocca al lupo with the comps!

    1. Thanks, Jacob! I, too, am pretty amazed that the program can feel easier when I exercise even though the “things to do” list doesn’t shorten!.

  2. Kim, thanks for distilling the fact that prepping for comps is a bootcamp for learning to take care of ourselves while undergoing an important professional evaluation. While studying for comps I used my Facebook connections to help me stay positive and work hard — but that requires creating a mental filter, you’re right, that turns off all of the people who are done with work at 5pm.

    1. These are good points, Kimberly. In terms of limiting one’s tendency for procrastination, one rather extreme tool that I’ve used is a program called Self Control ( The program allows you to either totally shut off your internet connection or simply block specific websites. There is no “undo” button once you’ve started the program, which is actually great (and a little bit frightening). It has helped me create distraction-free intensive writing and reading blocks.

    2. Facebook is such a strange creature. On the one hand, I can get advice about teaching so easily. On the other, when I see pictures of people doing things like ornately decorating cakes I basically want to teleport. I can say that seeing people’s feed (like yours) that wonderfully balances excitement, work, and happiness inspires me to keep trying.

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