A Year in the Life: Requirements, Sanity, and Being ABD

by Gillian Macdonald

While knowing what I was signing up for when I applied for the PhD program at CMU back in 2015, the scary parts (by scary parts I mean comprehensive exams mostly) seemed far off in the distance to be tackled by a more mature version of myself when the time came. After spending a glorious summer in Mount Pleasant in 2018, the third year was suddenly upon me. Just like that two years of preparation had vanished. As many of you know, the third year is usually about the time when grad students start to freak out because of comprehensive exams, prospectus writing, AND completing all of our language requirements to continue in the program. On top of that there is the graduate assistantship for the year. Sounds daunting, right?

I had heard enough stories from former grad students and those who were ABD already about exams to not only give you nightmares but also to know that there were mixed reviews.

*Piece of advice: don’t ask too much about it beforehand, it’s never going to be as bad as you make it out to be in your head.*

What studying didn’t prepare me for was the ever-looming dread that starts to hit you as the date approaches. However, your advisors will not let you sit the exams unless they think you are ready for it. Chiara Ziletti’s earlier blog post about exams (Spooked By Comps?) covers this better than I ever could.

Something I learned from this year, it’s okay to ask for help and TAKE A BREAK once in a while. Comprehensive Exams are one thing but your sanity is another, and arguably more important. I certainly spent a lot of my summer studying, and it paid off, but I am not sure I could have endured the tour de force that is third year without a few trips across Michigan or to the local watering hole to let off some steam. Thankfully, I have a wonderful cohort of friends—more like a graduate student family—that tell you when it’s time to step away from the notes and take a breather. More often than not they’re invariably right and sometimes you need some outside perspective. Or just a walk outside of the office that you will habitually be cooped up in furiously studying notes and mind maps to boot.

Looking back, I think the most stressful part of my third year was in the Spring semester. In hindsight I probably should have started writing my prospectus earlier (but that’s why hindsight is 20/20). However, having said that I might not have had my lightbulb moment about what I wanted my dissertation project to be. While this year was challenging—exams, deciding on a concrete dissertation project, passing two language requirements—it was also very rewarding. Not entirely academically so but being published for the first time is a nice bonus (even if it is a little book review).

Now onto the hard part, actually writing the dissertation. And so, I am off on my archival travels across the great Atlantic Ocean to a little bit bleary and rainy United Kingdom to scour the documents for my project. In parting, your grad school comrades are there to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and lean on them when you get tired. If your friends are anything like mine, they won’t let you fall.