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.

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

Boo! Is this a ghost? Nah…it is just a past editor paying a quick visit! Did I scare you? Halloween is around the corner, but one of the things that probably scares graduate students the most are their comprehensive examinations. And indeed, it is quite understandable: lists of books that seem never-ending for each minor/major fields, hours and hours of reading and studying, written and/or oral components to pass… probably even the most confident of us would have at least one or two moments of insecurity, hesitation, anxiety, or even just frustration. I know it is a truism, but if you get in a graduate program, it is because you really like what you study, and that is why you are so scared of failing. There is a huge emotional investment lying behind comps, and as a consequence, sometimes it is hard to think rationally and objectively about the whole picture.

I passed my comprehensive examinations last summer. I am really glad I did it, not just because it was an important milestone for my academic career, but also because it was a significant experience from which I learned a lot as a person. And now that I see some of my colleagues getting closer to the date of their exam, I would like to share a couple of thoughts and suggestions to encourage them:

1.    Do your best; in this way will have no regrets and you will feel less anxious. Your best changes from day to day. One day you will feel at 120%, the other you might be tired and maybe sick. I had a moment when I was preparing for my exam in which I was not feeling well at all, and this really concerned me at first: how am I supposed to pass the exam if I feel so sick that I have almost zero energy and can barely study? What I decided to do at that moment was to simply approach one day at a time, doing the best I could with the little energy I had. Would that be sufficient to pass the exam? I could not be 100% sure, but in this way, I was sure that I would not have any regrets. Every day I put forward my honest work.  This might have not been much sometimes, but it was reassuring, and it really helped me to have a calmer and more objective mindset when the day of the exam approached. In fact, I was able to think that no matter the situation, I had always been working hard. This really reduced my levels of anxiety. Since I am sure you are already doing your best, you just need to realize this and see it in a more objective light.

2.    You know more than what you think. One of the most common feelings right before taking an exam, written or oral, is that you do not remember anything. I know this feeling very well, but after taking so many exams, I learned that it is just an apparent sensation. Your knowledge is all there with you, lurking in a corner of your brain just waiting for you to summon it. As soon as you will hear or read a question, everything will come back to you and you will just need to organize it to give your best answer. 

3.    Experiment and find your own method to prepare for the exam. When I started preparing, I spoke with other graduate students that had already passed it to hear how they managed their long lists of books. It was interesting to learn how they did it, and I experimented for a while until I found the best way for me. All this involved a lot of compromising, which was a huge learning lesson for me, since I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. After trying to take notes on the computer, making notecards, getting stuck reading books for too long, and so on, I saw that the best thing for me was to take hand notes for each book. This forced me to summarize, and in general I remember better the things that I write by hand. Additionally, once the date of the exam drew closer, I did mind maps for each major topic I focused on. This truly helped me to further summarize and visualize what I absolutely needed to remember. We are all different, so keep trying until you find the best method for you.

Chiara Ziletti - Image blog post comps.jpg

4.    Let’s be objective: your professors will not let you take the exam unless they think you are ready. Trust them; they might be intimidating sometimes, but they are not sadistic individuals throwing you into a kamikaze mission while secretly hoping that you will blow up. They care about you and have a lot of experience. This will help you reduce your anxiety and stress when thinking about the exam. In addition to this, each professor will privilege certain aspects over others; talk with them and see what they want you to focus on the most when preparing for your exam: this will significantly help you when going through your huge lists of books. 

I know it is not easy, but the more you try to think objectively about the exam, your knowledge, and the work you put forward to it, the less anxious you will be. This was a lifesaver for me. Probably the day of the exam you will still be a little bit scared, but do not let the anxiety freeze you. Take that jump, and as soon as you land, you will realize how dangerous it was to stay still.