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.