‘Tis the season…for comprehensive exams

It seems the Spring of 2013 is the season of comprehensive exams for a core group of history grad students at UNL, including yours truly. I can’t recall another semester during my grad school stint that witnessed so many people I knew comping at once. But it’s a good thing. We comp buddies have to stick together. Because being a grad student is one thing, and being a comping grad student is another.

If you’re a grad student who hasn’t comped, you likely view the compers with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and nervous anticipation. If you’re a grad student who has comped, a.k.a. a comp mentor, you probably experience a little shiver of schadenfreude when you encounter a comper — just before you quell your internal naughtiness and offer some helpful advice of course. I’ve received plenty of helpful tips from comp mentors and comp buddies alike. Below is a summary of the primary methodologies I’ve developed for preparing for comps, as well as pdfs of my three comp lists. I hope this pays forward some of the help others have provided me (and explains what’s going on if I miss a post or two in the coming weeks).

Summary of methodology for my comp prep:

  • Take notes on every reading using the following categories as an outline: main arguments, aim/goal/purpose of the work, methodology and sources, historiography, major criticisms/praise of the work.
    • Keep these notes as specific and succinct as possible. Strive for a one-page maximum.
    • Save these notes as searchable text documents in OpenOffice, in Google Drive, and (perhaps most importantly) as tagged entries in Zotero.
      • Apply tags in Zotero carefully and deliberately from a pre-established list. Tags on my list range from the generic, such as “pedagogy” or “transnational,” to very specific tags for subject categories and time periods. Be brutally consistent and do NOT over-tag. If you’ve never used Zotero before, I highly recommend giving it a try. Whether you use it for comp preparation or for organizing and storing your research, it’s one of the best research tools out there and will save you oodles of time in the long run. If you are hesitant, watch one or two of the demonstration videos, download Zotero, and play around with it for a couple of days before letting yourself bail. Remember: don’t be afraid to explore and poke around. You won’t break it – I promise!
  • Clearly label every reading at the top of each page of notes, in bibliographical formatting.
  • Place all notes in carefully and deliberately arranged folders on a usb for OpenOffice text documents, on Google Drive, and Zotero. The point here is to promote not just organization, but searchability as well. Use your comp lists as guides to help delineate categories for folders and subfolders. Again, be brutally consistent.
  • Set a goal for a set number of readings per day and hold yourself to it. Do what you need to do to arrange your schedule and balance your life so that preparing for comps comes first.

My comp lists:

(You can see the way the UNL History Department breaks down the comprehensive fields here, under “Degree Requirements.”)

North American Comps List

Urban and Social Comps List

  • Compiled and brought to you courtesy of my friend and colleague, Brian Sarnacki.

Transnational 19th Century Comps List

  • Please note that this list is still undergoing some reorganization.

2 thoughts on “‘Tis the season…for comprehensive exams

  1. Svetlana Rasmussen

    You sound better prepared than I am, Michelle. 🙂 As for schadenfreude (thanks for the new word, too), I did not see anything like that from Chris 🙂 Good luck!

  2. Trevor Burrows

    I agree that using something searchable for storing your notes is key. I use Google Docs for just about everything academic-related – except formal essays or papers, but even then I’ll usually start drafting them in Docs first – but I’m pretty terrible at putting them in folders. I use the title of the document to essentially create a tag. Example: all my book notes start with “Notes,” research notes start with “Research,” various lists start with “List,” and so on. It’s just functional enough to help me a narrow a search if I’m trying to find something but only have a vague idea of what that something might be…

    I haven’t decided how I want to approach more content-driven tagging (i.e., “transnational” or “pedagogy”). I think that, for me, that part of the process may still involve a binder, paper, and little colored post-it tabs, and will materialize when I have a good portion of the reading done and am on to reviewing and explicitly connecting texts (rather than as part of the initial reading).

    Do keep posting on your progress. It is good to see how others who are in the same boat are working through the exams process.

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