Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 3: The Craziness of Comps


The first opportunity to really prove to the professors in the department how smart I may be, and that I am as smart as the other first-year students, is fast approaching.

Let me explain ...

In my department we have cumulative exams every 2 months or so, each with six questions covering three different subject areas. We have 2 hours to answer four of the six questions. Fail four or five exams in a row and you're outta there like Barry Bonds hitting a homer way into left field.

Pass four in a row or five total and you're on to the next stage of the Ph.D. Call it a comprehensive exam, call it a cumulative exam, or call it a qualifying exam, if you like. But personally, I call it a nuisance, a straitjacket on my life, and/or the root of all evil (depending on my mood).

The major differences between undergrad course exams and the psychosis I'm currently experiencing are threefold. First, the professors can ask you ANYTHING they taught you (or more likely didn't teach you), so success is dependent on knowing the lion's share of the material and hoping that what you know shows up on the exam. Second, the scoring of these exams is mysterious. Once you turn it in you never see it again, and all you receive is a note saying you passed or failed. Exams when I was an undergraduate were not as murky. Finally, as an undergraduate, there was the famous curve for grading with a cut-off below a certain score. Back then your future in the department did not hang in the balance.

I thought I had a month to prepare--so where did it go? Most of it was mysteriously siphoned away in the lab, and then there were the occasional movies and social moments. Playing with chemicals has put a slightly rosier tinge on my gray days, but I'm feeling overwhelmed and underprepared amidst the coming insanity.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, and I know I had a choice in how I spent my time. I chose to work in the lab part of the time, and I hope it's not for the worse. The funny thing is, there seems to be a myriad of attitudes around me about this wretched exam:

Playing the Game: Prepare for Your Doom (a.k.a. "Those Pesky Exams")

Most graduate school exams are entirely different (and more overtly stressful) than those we took as undergraduates. How do you prepare without wasting away for 12 hours a day in the library?

  • Start Planning Early: Be a well-informed graduate student, invest in a planner and use it. Whether it is a little book, a hand-held device, or a program on your computer--use it. Staying ahead of deadlines makes life much happier.

  • Consult other students in your department: Get old exams, problem sets, old comprehensive exams, get tutored (there is NO shame in wanting to understand). A willingness to seek help is essential to graduate school survival--no one does it alone so stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

  • Form a study group: Constant isolation is not helpful. Different viewpoints and explanations broaden your understanding, and being able to explain things to others ensures that you know what you're talking about. It'll also help you think on your feet.

  • Get it together: Gather all of your study materials in one notebook. Make summaries of your notes, reference texts that you find helpful, techniques, problems, or questions relevant to the exam.

  • Concepts: Understand how things work, connect ideas and themes from topics to see how the puzzle fits together. Don't just do problems.

  • Take a break: When your eyes start burning and you're nodding off over your study materials, don't just reach for the caffeine. Take a walk, call a friend, read a (fun) book, exercise! Do something to reconnect to the world that is still out there--exam or not.

  • Sleep: Sleep is your friend. The more well rested you are, the more coherent you are, and therefore the more effective you will be with your precious time.

  • It's not the end of the world: If at first you don't succeed ... that should in no way indicate that you are not where you should be. Don't let professors or other students intimidate you into letting go of your dreams if it doesn't go right the first time. Successful people aren't always successful; they just keep trying until it works.

  • When it's over, do something for you: Establish hurdles and benchmarks and then reward yourself for your hard work in achieving them. Go on a little trip, buy something you've been putting off (don't go overboard ... we are broke grad students, after all), go see a play, get a massage. Do something more productive than drinking please?

  • Type A (the calm, cool, collected, annoyed, and/or oblivious): Study? What for? Either: They don't care; it's not THAT deep; research is SO much more important; or they are confident they'll eventually pass.

  • Type B (the frazzled, frustrated, hyper, and overly anxious): STUDY! I can't do anything else! Either: Their professor made them; they didn't do well in class so they don't have the confidence to do well on the exam; they know nothing (therefore they are nothing); and my favorite, can we just get this over with and pass NOW!

So where am I in the range of attitudes and postures? I think I'm somewhere between type A and B. My "new" advisor (you'll meet him later) has a "who cares" mindset and says, "research is more important, don't bother studying for the first one and get in the lab." I, on the other hand, know that the sooner I get this mess over with, the sooner I get out of here (Ph.D. world) and the more time I'll have to have a "life."

In order to best prepare for the madness, I thought about how I studied for tests in the past (what worked and what didn't) and talked to the older graduate students. I came up with the following hints for this month's Playing the Game.

It's easy to give these helpful hints, but the real question is, how well am I following my own advice? Well, I actually am doing pretty well, although I wish I had more time. I'm trying my best to maintain some balance. I've put in quite a few 14+ hour days and my laundry is screaming my name (a good reason to invest in additional pairs of socks and unmentionables). Cable, and TV in general, are just bad, so I've cut my cable service. The best advice I've gotten is to give up the TV or to cancel the cable subscription--come on people, there's nothing on anyway! Now all I have to do is stop going to the video store. ...

I sleep at least 6 hours per night so that I'm not too cranky. I've amassed 5 years worth of exams (some people have 10) and I've talked to many people who did well on these exams (and a few who didn't). I've been studying with others (without getting too distracted) and I know when to go out on my own. My "Notebook of Deliverance" is well on its way to being finished. I've spent a lot of time reading and conceptualizing and connecting the things that I've been taught (and some I wasn't) and then I've worked out problems on recent exams. I'll call friends for breaks, but it's hard not to gripe about the exam (I'm working on that) and when it's all over, guess who's going snowboarding (if there's enough snow on the ground)? Wish me luck!

You can send email to Micella at

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers