Grad School

Studying for Qualifying Exams – My Experience

January 8, 2018

It was May 2016 and I had just wrapped up the second year of my PhD program. I met up with a group of friends to commemorate the occasion with a late Sunday morning brunch. We used that time to release the stresses of a particularly challenging semester. One of the ladies would be graduating so we celebrated with her while laughing and talking for hours. On the drive back home I blasted some music thinking about how I would use some new spices I just bought. Summer was in full swing.

Sounds great, right? It was. Until the next day when the music came to a screeching halt. This summer would be like no other. By summer’s end I’d take my qualifying exams, which meant that over the summer I would be preparing for them.

The problem was I didn’t know how to prepare. This wasn’t a midterm exam covering chapters 5-10. The content and format was much less clear.

Having been in school thing for 16+ years by this point, I was frustrated with my ignorance. I’d read papers for my exams, but questioned if I’d missed others. I wondered about how to structure practice writing sessions, and what other ways I could or should be studying. Surprisingly, besides logistics there wasn’t much information available in my school’s handbook to help answer these questions. After more digging, I realized it wasn’t just my school. There seemed to be a lot of information online about how these exams were structured, but by comparison very little about how to study for them.

Since I hadn’t taken exams like these before, I couldn’t just study the way I had studied in the past. I needed a different approach.

I figured it out though. I asked questions (lots of them) and recruited help when and where needed. The result: I passed my comprehensive exams without any reservations expressed by my committee members. Even more impressive is that I went into each exam session feeling confident and left feeling the same way – the hallmark of adequate preparation.

Guys, if you’re going through this process and you’re feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or anxious, trust me when I say I get it. I was there. I remember regularly waking up at 4 am because my mind was still at work, while my body was tired. It’s a lot, and it can be difficult to explain this to other people who haven’t had to prepare for exams like these. I also know that my outcome isn’t an anomaly. People pass their qualifying exams everyday and so can you.

My path to passing my exams involved lots of research, trial and error, and a case study with myself and my study partner as the subjects. Your path can be much simpler. I created a “Crush Comps” guide and toolkit that details all of the steps I took to prepare for my qualifying exams. I created this guide with the busy graduate student in mind. Your time is precious so I made sure it was “comprehensive” but still a quick read. It covers everything from creating a study schedule to picking the right study partner and creating reading lists.  If you want to read more about it, check it out here. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be touching on different aspects of the guide, and sharing some tips along the way for preparing for these exams. You’ll definitely want to stay tuned!

But before you go, for those of you who haven’t taken these exams yet, how do you feel about them? Do you have any specific fears or anxieties? What are they?

And for those of you who have taken these exams, I’d love to hear about your experiences. How did they go? What was your study process like? Did you feel like you had enough information from your program about how to study for them?

 

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