How I prepared for my PhD Comprehensive Exams

I started preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams in the March of 2021. I was in India staying with my parents. As much as I appreciated getting to spend time with family after almost two years, I had started feeling the absence of grad student community around me. I knew it was not sustainable. To complicate things more, the second wave of COVID cases in India started rising around April/May. My parents were down with COVID in the next room, numerous friends and family members were fighting the virus and volunteering many hours a day to pull together resources because the State had failed us. There was oxygen crisis; desperate calls for a hospital bed and mourning at the loss of near ones. I don’t think that I have processed those months yet, and here we are once again looking ahead at another COVID wave. I wanted to share how I prepared for my comprehensive exams, in case it’s helpful.

Creating a sense of community

As a way to feel connected with my graduate colleagues in the department, I reached out to the English Graduate Student Organization (EGSO) at Pitt pitching an idea for a panel on “Demystifying Comprehensive Examinations”. EGSO welcomed the idea and supported in the execution of the idea through creating posters and widely advertising the panel. In the meanwhile, I reached out to four colleagues in different tracks in our program (Literature, Composition and Film Studies) inviting them to be speakers for the panel and requesting them to share their experiences of navigating the process. I am grateful to them for kindly accepting the invitation for the panel. They had useful tips to offer that included how they kept track of texts that they are reading to what to expect in the oral component of the examination. While one does not have to organize a panel, I will stress on the need to speak to senior graduate students in the program about their experiences after comprehensive examinations process. This also created a shared sense of community and taught me to be an institutional citizen.

Note-taking procedures

My notetaking process was fairly eclectic. From April to nearly September, I used Scrivener to take notes and write drafts of my comprehensive examination paper. I organized my notes into keywords to allow for easy searching. For each text that I read, I had my notes divided into the following section: Bibliographic Information, Key Question, Primary Argument, Secondary Arguments, Historiography, My takeaway and Quotations. I learnt this technique of notetaking from Ida Yalzadeh’s fantastic zine on Navigating Grad School as a woman of color. I strongly recommend her note-taking strategies. I knew that I will not have so much time again in my life to just read, write and process. So, I wanted to ensure that my personal database of notes serves me well in my long-term research and teaching career in Indian Ocean Studies, Postcolonial Studies and Environmental Humanities.

An image from my Scrivener database where I created my notes
E-notecards on Scrivener

Towards the end of the process, I shifted to good old notecards for tracking main arguments and key points because I was tired of the screen and needed the long form handwriting.

Multicolored notecards where I wrote down key arguments and/or jotted down quotations

Committing to a writing schedule

When I was in India, I mostly wrote in the evenings on Zoom accompanied by my very committed writing partners and friends: Ritwika Roy, Surojit Kayal, Paramita Purakayastha and Nikhil Titus. An hour or two of writing/reading/note-taking a day went a long way. The initial days were slow but then it gained momentum. It helped me to stay on track and made me feel less alone. The evenings turned into mornings and afternoons once I was back in Pittsburgh. I promised to myself that I will write for at least an hour before I start teaching for the day. I taught from 11 am. So, I wrote from 7 am to 9 am. I owe a lot of gratitude to them for writing with me almost every day.

These writing sessions were often interspersed with gup, gossip and coffee.

Revisions

This was the most difficult part of the comprehensive writing process for me because I had conceptual changes to make. So, there was re-writing involved. Then I started making detailed lists of revisions to be made. That helped me to stay focused and grounded. In the future, I am going to dedicate substantial amount of time for revisions because they take me time.

Timed written practice tests at home

The last time I took a timed written test was early 2017. I had forgotten how to take one. So, before my timed written exams, I made my own question paper and took the exams at exactly the time when I was scheduled to take the tests. They helped me understand that I need better time management. Therefore, on the days of the exams themselves, I was relatively less stressed.

Sleep and eating schedule

I will not lie. I messed them up. The week before my exams, a number of my friends cooked and/or brought food for me (Sreemoyee, Liz, Abhishek)That helped me to concentrate on my exams instead of thinking too much about meal prep, what to buy for groceries etc. However, I did end up making two large batches of fried rice and chicken, two days before the exams to sustain me on the exam days. I got my favorite bread, tarts and baked items from my favorite bakeries in Pittsburgh for breakfast. Neelofer Qadir sent me a lot of healthy snacks and chocolates that saw me through on difficult days.

What is exercise?!!! I am not very proud of my choice of not moving my body during the preparation months. So please, if you can exercise or engage in any activity that requires you to move your body.

Rant partners

You need those friends with whom you can rant about exams, before and after. By this point, Momina Masood, Oishani Sengupta and Naveen has heard every iteration of my rant about the exams. You need these friends in your life.

Leisure time

One of the best decisions that I made was to subscribe to Sling TV and watch dance reality shows. They kept me sane. Will highly recommend.

For those navigating the examination process now, I wish you all the best!

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