Per Aspera Ad Astra. Comp diary, week two.

The second week of my comp mode is coming to an end. This was a week of intensive writing and tearful good-byes.  Two fellow students from my cohort (who advanced to candidacy) left Vancouver, reminding me that academic and campus life is unstable and in constant state of flux. It is also coincidentally what my first comp paper is about.

11391286_10152993074031973_5771399508531586383_nThis is visual of this week.

  • Wake up and have coffee.
  • Switch to tea throughout the day to cut caffeine  but continue to stay focused.
  • Read and write.
  • Repeat.

My outcome of this week: 3500 words, creeping self doubt and lots of “wait, didn’t I just read this somewhere?” moments. Writing a theoretical comprehensive exam paper is hard. You are pulling grand theories together, simultaneously trying to add to the conversation.  It is a repetitive, circular process of trying to see how same theory was or could be applied to different fields, your field, your dissertation. 

My first struggle is structure. Prior to starting my first comp I planned it in all possible modes: I made a mind map, I took small index cards and laid my paper out, I drew a visual on a white board, I created a word doc with headings and subheadings. It all fell appart the minute I started writing. 

When I sat down to write, my thoughs scattered. Quotations that I wasn’t planning for started jumping at me, new names and books demanded to be referenced. Maybe in a way this week was an exercise in self control and focus, but maybe on the other hand it was a lesson that no matter how well you think you are prepared you can’t be ready for everything. 

No matter how much you read about the country you are immigrating to, you can’t predict all questions that am immigration officer will ask you. No matter how on task you are with your dissertation, you can’t foresee where your research will take you. No matter how much you know about ethics of working on sensitive topics, nothing can prepare you for sudden emotional challenges you will face along the way. And you can tell you all you want that academia is all about instability, but when your friends leave, you still hurt and cry and nothing helps. 

In my paper I am writing about immigrants who are “regrounding” in a new place and about the unpredictability of the outcome. This week was chaotic and in a way didn’t result in what I planned for, but maybe it is a result in itself. 

Staying alive. Comp Diary week one

photo 1 (1)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” photo 3almost 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. photo (1)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.