This summer I am writing my comprehensive exams. In our department, doctoral students have 3-4 months to complete either one comprehensive paper on theoretical framework, three related papers on theory, method and context of research, or one research portfolio that could include, for example, a published article.
Most often referred to as comps these exams not only measure student’s ability to communicate their research, but also to survive cognitive and emotional intensity of trying to make sense of research and of one’s purpose in academia on 30 pages of text. This journey is supposed to be challenging and enlightening and you are supposed to be undertaking it alone. A rite of passage.
Being in comp mode feels like putting on an invisibility cloak. You become invisible, an academic hermit. No party invitations “she is in comp mode” … No dinner chats “she is in comp mode” … No judgement if you don’t leave your room for days “she is in comp mode” … Don’t bother her, she is in comp mode Do not distract, she is in comp mode
This is daunting to say the least, so what can you do to make this “comp mode” work for you, not against you? After week one of my comps and seeing how my friends have been dealing with their exams so far, I have these five suggestions.
1. Leave your room. My friend Anna went on “happy walks” almost every day of her comprehensive exams. Ten minutes of walking in the park, by the river or even up and down the road will do miracles. Just walk about and clear your thoughts, make it a routine and unwind. I am lucky to live right by the ocean, so evening sunset walks are my choice, but anything would do, really.
2. Get a writing buddy. In our department we have writing groups that are started and run by graduate students. My writing group meets once a month, so I decided to plan my writing to have something to bring to each meeting. This keeps me on track and gives me some structure. If you need more reasons to get a writing group/writing buddy, here you go.
3. Get a venting buddy. One thing that I learned after I moved to Canada is the truth of this Russian proverb “Better have a 100 friends than a 100 roubles“. I am blessed to have friends here in UBC who went through comps, are going through comps or just understand what it means to be a graduate student. It can be daunting trying to explain angst of staring at the blank screen to anyone but, as graduate students, my friends just get it, we are in this boat together and we support each other.
4. Craft. I have a colouring book that I got on my last conference trip. Every evening, around dinner time, I take my tiny markers and colour in these intricate designs and patterns. Yesterday I finished this beautiful arch. At first it was frustrating and I wanted to throw this book across the room, but since it required a lot of focus and attention to detail, it took my mind off writing papers and looming deadlines. So in the end colouring actually got very relaxing. Crafting is good for the brain too, so knit/quilt/colour away!
5. Stay active. My friend Ava gave me this tip. During her comp time she went to yoga devotedly “This is church” she would say, and to me that means dedication. Last week, I signed up for yoga and zumba classes to see what would work better: new agey chimes or fiery Latin tunes. So far zumba is winning because I can’t sit still in yoga classes. However, I was told that yoga helps to manage anxiety so I am not giving up just yet.
The journey continues.