12 Pieces of Advice for Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Preparing for and taking comprehensive exams can be one of the most stressful parts of graduate school. Over the last two months, there were quite a few days of studying when I wanted to follow this advice, “Study tip: Stand up. Stretch. Take a walk. Go to the airport. Get on a plane. Never return.” But now I am glad I stuck with it and passed my exam two weeks ago. Throughout the process, I found it helpful to think about the exam as an exercise in learning, a rite of passage in which everyone wants you to succeed. Now as I reflect on the process, I would like to offer you 12 pieces of advice.

  1. Discuss study topics with your committee members. After I held a committee meeting where I presented my dissertation proposal, I met separately with each committee member to discuss the focal questions or topics they wanted me to study. Some of my committee members asked me what topics I wanted to study, reiterating the value of the exam as an exercise in learning. When committee members suggested broad study topics, I asked them for example questions or recommended citations for me to start with to help keep me on track with what they think is important within that topic. I went away from these meetings with a variety of suggested text books, journal articles, class notes, and ecology blog recommendations to study.
  2. Start studying early, set up a study plan but be prepared for it to change. I started studying eight weeks before my exam. The benefits of having such a long time to study were that I was really able to solidify my knowledge of complex topics; I was able to keep up with ongoing coursework and fieldwork; and I was able to take a few short breaks to attend a conference and to maintain my sanity. My original study plan was to take a week for each committee member’s suggested topics, then take the last few weeks to put it all together. This was a good start, but ultimately my technique molded to working through suggested text books, taking breaks to read journal articles as desired, and taking time to practice discussing topics my committee members had mentioned.
  3. Establish a few ideal study locations. Find a few different places that work well for you. I rotated between a home office, coffee shop, and library. My home office worked great for me when I had a full day to commit to studying because I could spread my books and papers across the room and move from one book to another with different questions. I also greatly appreciate the ease of replenishing drinks and snacks when studying at home. The coffee shop and library shop worked well for me for shorter stints of studying, when I was working through a few specific papers or chapters.
  4. Don’t forget to eat and drink. In my daily life I basically need a snack and drink available constantly. This is especially true when I am studying or writing. Having a snack and drink nearby helps me stay focused. Some great study snack options that you can munch away on all day include carrots, celery, popcorn, and fruit. I also drank A LOT of tea as it offers a relatively low, steady source of caffeine.
  5. Exercise and sleep are important too! When you are trying to take in new information all day, it is mentally exhausting. If I would get to the point when I was having trouble processing what I was reading, I knew it was time for a break. Sometimes this means taking a run, working through some yoga poses, taking a walk, taking a moment to get out into the sunlight, etc. Other times, I would take a nap. I am not normally a napper, but found it worked wonders – instead of continuing low grade material assimilation (i.e. re-reading every paragraph and still feeling unsure what you are reading about), I would get the rest I needed and return ready for high quality studying.
  6. Be honest with yourself: Rotate between study topics when you need to. Some days I would be reading through my Diversity of Fish text book and find that I just didn’t want to keep reading about fish physiology. The best thing for me was to mark where I was and switch to a different textbook, set of journal articles, or blog posts. On a few occasions I would turn to Wikipedia or ecology related youtube videos to mix things up. Or, when I really just didn’t want to keep studying, I would take some time to practice explaining the topics I had already studied (another perk of studying at home – you can talk to yourself and not look crazy).
  7. Set time restraints. I found it very helpful to set a clear short term goals, for example “no breaks until I finish a set of readings or it is 12:30.” Somewhat similar to the Pomodoro technique, this helps me stay focused knowing I can take a break at a certain time. When I feel the urge to check my email or look something up, I check the clock and if it is not time for the break, I go back to studying. For this to work effectively, it can help to have a notepad so that when things pop into your mind you have a place to quickly write them down and then forget about them and get back to studying.
  8. Take notes. Studying for your comps will likely involve studying a broad range of topics. Taking notes will help the concepts you are studying to stick and will give you a condensed version of topics to refer back to. As I reviewed old coursework and text books, I kept a running set of notes on things that I found the most interesting or relevant. This was time consuming, but extremely helpful to make sure I was processing what I was reading. Also, as the weeks went by and I felt I had forgotten what I studied the previous week, these notes were a great way to quickly refresh my memory.
  9. Practice explaining the material you are studying. For better or for worse, I told my roommates about ocean currents while cooking dinner, I told my husband about the phylogeny of extant fishes while on evening walks, I shared random biology facts on the phone with family and friends, and I wrote equations and drew graphs on a small whiteboard at home for my dogs. This was extremely helpful to practice explaining complicated topics without any notes or ppt slides.
  10. Have a practice exam one or two weeks before the real exam. Having a practice exam was the worst part of studying for me and also one of the most important. It was awful because as my colleagues asked me question after question, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed with how often I felt like I didn’t know the answer. But it was extremely important because it helped me understand what the oral exam process would be like and identify the topics I needed to focus on. Additionally, the participants gave me notes on specific papers or graphs that had come up during their comps and seemed relevant for mine.
  11. When the day is finally here, try to relax. At this point you have worked hard to learn a lot and you are as ready as you are going to be. I glanced over my notes one last time, I stretched, I made myself eat something. I brought in a pad and pen in case I wanted to write down a few things to gather my thoughts before answering a question. I was very prepared to use the white board; I even brought in my own dry erase makers and eraser. Note that if you draw a graph, it is very important that you can clearly label and explain the axes. I was prepared to be asked questions I did not practice and that I did not know the answers to. For these questions, it is important to be honest in your answer (it is ok to say I do not know or I am not sure), but also do your best to think critically and either offer an educated guess or connect to a quasi-related topic you are more familiar with. I tried to stay calm and think about it as a long conversation with my committee members instead of an exam.
  12. Once it is over, celebrate and relax. The week after my exam, I had a pile of work I felt I needed to get to but my brain was still exhausted. I made time to go for a few hikes, to snorkel, and to look at the stars. Then I started working on tasks that were not too mentally draining, e.g. data entry, field surveys, etc. Now, two weeks after my exam, I am ready to again work on the tasks that require mental clarity and focus: applying for grants, analyzing data, and writing up results. Also I am a doctoral candidate, and for the most part, it feels like it was all worth it.