Forward in all directions, or, Life after comps

Life doesn’t slow down after comps. Sorry to disappoint you if you aren’t there yet and anticipated otherwise. But there’s much to look forward to. Comps is a major hurdle to overcome and it will be a huge relief to get it over with. One can only take so much hazing after all, and it’s good to return to a healthy lifestyle after all that sitting and sleep deprivation that we know is terrible for your long-term well-being as a member of the genus Homo. And life after comps comes with greater freedom and flexibility.

Advancing to your comps means no more classes – ever. Unless you finally get the courage to sign up for that ballroom dancing class you’ve always wanted to take. (Good luck finding a partner for that by the way.) Passing your comps means you’ll probably never have to take an exam again, you’ll be that much closer to being done (hooray!), and you’ll be on more equal footing with your academic mentors. Life after comps means you’re much closer to being done (wait – yipes!), you can concentrate on your work, and you can look forward to getting on with the rest of your life. Maybe you can even hope to return to a balanced, more well-rounded lifestyle where you don’t have to self-violate federal labor laws on a regular basis. Or maybe not. In any case, before you can get to life after comps you have to pass comps, so below I’ve incorporated some of the major lessons I learned from my comps experience into recommendations for approaching comp-dom. Hopefully you find them useful.

Get started on those reading lists. Pronto. The sooner you can get your reading lists together and start knocking out some useful notes, the better. Some departments and members of your examination committee will have pre-existing lists they’ll just hand you, while others much prefer to have you come up with a draft and add to it over time. Everyone is different. Find out your examiners’ preferences and move forward. Don’t wait until the final few months before your exams.

Give up the idea of reading every word of every item on your lists. That’s a fool’s game. Much as you had to adjust your expectations after finding out what grad school is really like, you’ll need to be prepared to let go of some of your idealism about mastering every single argument in every single work you read. You are human and perfectionism in your comp prep will only bog you down. Concentrate your notes on the major arguments, sources used, methodology, contribution(s) to the field, historiography, and criticism. When in doubt about how in-depth you need to go, talk to your advisor.

Go digital. I have plenty of comrades who went the way of hand-written notes organized in binders and made it work for them. But I took all my notes in OpenOffice, saved them to a usb (or two), pasted them as individual documents in Google Drive, and uploaded and tagged them in Zotero. (See my previous post where I discussed all of this in more detail here.) While it turned out I didn’t use my tagging as much as I anticipated, and instead usually searched by the subject categories on my reading lists, being able to search the text of my notes via Google Drive and grab quick footnotes from Zotero was AWESOME. Searchability and importable footnotes proved to be enormous time-saving strategies that provided a much-welcome bit of ease, especially whenever exhaustion set in. So do yourself a favor and begin experimenting with such techniques now.

Budget your prep time so that you have at least three days off before you begin your exams. You really won’t add much to your knowledge bank in these final days anyway and will already have worked so hard that your mind and body will appreciate the downtime. This is particularly true if you have an exam schedule similar to UNL’s: 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, then you’re done with writing but still have a 2-hour oral exam. In addition, be sure you take care of yourself during your exams. When you have a day off commit to really taking time away from all things academic. Sleep in, take a hot shower, eat tons of junk food (mine was cookie dough paired with red wine), and watch junk television (here I recommend the 1990 cult classic Tremors. Make your way through Tremors 2 and 3 at your own peril).

Be confident. If they’re worth their salt as mentors your comp committee would never let you begin exams unless they believed you could pass. So be confident in the prep work you’ve done, focus on what’s in front of you, and forget the rest. You’ll do great. Then you can move on to life after comps: forward in all directions.

*Shout out to Dr. Douglas Seefeldt for the “forward in all directions” phrase. I’m not quite sure where it comes from but I’ll credit him for putting it in my brain.

‘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.

Break? What break? Don’t you know I’m a grad student?

It’s hard to believe Winter Break is nearly at an end. Like most graduate students I use the term “break”  rather loosely. Contrary to popular perception, the life of a graduate student is a far cry from the life of an undergraduate. Graduate students have a much larger workload, never really have nights and weekends “off,” and are forced to constantly assess and reassess the value of their endeavors to their field of choice. Throw in the heart palpitation-inducing issue of the current job market and the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding funding, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty stressful lifestyle — unless, that is, one learns the importance of balance and adopts habits that serve as healthy stress valves. Readers familiar with my blog know I personally look to regular exercise, meditation, and family time to center myself, but I’ve also discovered that work itself can exert a calming influence.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shifted into full-time comprehensive exam preparation mode and it’s been a relief to do so. It was difficult to establish a regular routine of comp preparation in the Fall semester since I was (1) gone nearly the entire month of September on a whirlwind of back-to-back travel that included the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, (2) was working as a teaching assistant in an area outside my discipline, and (3) was responsible for teaching three recitation sections each week on top of the standard t.a. grading responsibilities. Winter Break, while not a genuine “break,” has nonetheless allowed me to realign my history mojo and return my focus to my personal goals. Spending time out of one’s regular routine (and particularly away from campus life every now and again) can be very beneficial to re-recognizing the importance of long-term goals over day-to-day responsibilities.

Daily life will always bring interruptions and distractions. Meetings will demand your time, grading will demand your attention, students will need your help, the kitchen floor must still be mopped every now and then, your spouse might wreck the car, family members could pass away, friends may encounter crisis. But, as you enter the New Year, take some time once in a while to “do you.” Remember why you do what you do and center yourself around what you need to do to accomplish your goals. Be a little more selfish with your time when you can, visit your family, don’t overcommit, take care of yourself, be kind, don’t worry so much about what others think, don’t let the unkindness of others ruin your day, and recognize that imbalance will always come back to bite you eventually.

Next week, I’ll post on some of my strategies for preparing for comps. Have a happy and healthy New Year.