My advice and tips on studying for comprehensive exams

Now that I have passed my comprehensive exams, I figured I would post some of the study methods I did that worked for me. Please note, that while these worked well for me, they might not work for  you, depending on how you deal with stress, how you manage your time, etc. So here is my advice and tips on how to study for your comprehensive exam. If you have additional things to add, please post them in a comment. I hope this helps you and good luck to those who are taking their exams in the future!

Schedule, schedule, schedule!
Get into a routine where you go to bed and eat meals at a set time; also know what you need to read books/papers etc. ahead of time and plan out when you will read what. For example – read 2-3 chapters of a book + 10 papers a day.

Read books
Papers are great and you will definitely read a lot of them, but books can provide great coverage and consolidated information many topics and save you the time of finding and filtering through hundreds of papers. Ask your committee members what books they might recommend, and if they don’t have any, try to find one on the subject and see what they think of it.

Communicate with your committee
Meet with or have email conversations with your committee members at least every other week. Ask them what to study and for feedback on your proposal, but make sure you give them time and deadlines.

Try to run errands and make appointments all around the same time
Spacing out errands/appointments might seem like it gives you more time, but even a “quick” 15 minute errand can take away 1-2 hours of study time because you lose focus. Try to make all of your meetings on the same day and back-to-back and schedule errands around those.

Plan in time to work on your proposal
You will need to give your self plenty of time to get your proposal written to send out to your committee 4-6 weeks before your exam, and then you will need 3-7 days after you get feedback to incorporate it all, before you send your final proposal the week before your comps.

Get up and walk around every once in a while
After reading a book chapter or set of papers, get up and walked – go to the bathroom, get food etc. This helps keep you focused and from getting sleepy.

Because you are spending a lot of time either sitting or laying down, it is important to exercise daily so that you don’t become lethargic or gain too much weight!

Watch your caffeine intake
You might think you have to drink coffee constantly in order to stay awake in focused, but too much coffee can throw off your sleep schedule and have other adverse heath effects. I tried to limit myself to a cup a day, and then would drink tea throughout the day – less caffeine and better for you

Take time to relax – even daily!
This can be the hardest, but most important thing to do while studying. Every day you should take some time to yourself where you are not studying – I recommend at night. For example, most nights, I chose a time to stop studying and watched a movie to help clear my mind before bed.

Do a practice comps
This is not only an alterative way to get feedback on your proposal from people who know your advisor and committee members, but its also a litmus test to see how well your studying is going. Do this two weeks before your exam, so that if you are missing something, you have time to fix it. Also you will often find questions that came up during your practice also come up during your actual comps.

Get comfortable when you study
Make sure you are comfortable when you sit down to study, or else you will get distracted. This isn’t to say get so comfortable you will fall asleep though. If noises distract you easily, put on some music – wordless music like classical, jazz, instrumental groups, and techno can all help block out extra outside noise and let you focus.

Make meals in batch
While cooking can be great, it can also take up a lot of time. I recommend making batch meals a few times a week, so that you have plenty of leftovers for lunch and dinner. You can even make something like muffins in bulk for breakfast.

Don’t socially isolate yourself
If you keep to yourself the entire time you study, you might go insane. Social contact, even it is just to discuss comps or your proposal is important. Many of your friends might have already gone through this and can offer their own advice on how to prepare and such.

Don’t study new material the last few days before your exam
At this point it would probably be better to review your notes or other material you have previously read to make sure you retain it all. I recommend not studying much at all the day before your exam and trying to do some activity that will distract you for most of the day

Take good notes
As you read through books and papers, take notes or write up summaries. This will not only ensure better memory retention and learning, but will come in handy when you want to review what you’ve read before or even after comps!

If its not important, don’t worry about it
There are a million things you might think to do or read while studying, but most of them will have little to know impact on your exam at all. If you are working on a grant or permit that is due after your exam, don’t work on it until afterwards. Same with other projects or papers. They will still be there after you finish your exam, so don’t let them distract you.

Conclusion of filming hummingbirds with documentary crew

In the end, things went very well, and the film crew seemed to have gotten all the shots they wanted. But before I get into how everything went, I wanted to give some background on the broad-tailed hummingbirds.


Broad-tailed hummingbirds are part of a subset (~36 species) of all hummingbirds (330+ species) called the bee tribe. The bee hummingbirds are unique because they are widespread across North, Central, and South America, whereas many other hummingbird tribes are only found in Central and South America. They are also typically very small, ranging from 3-4 grams. The bees are also the group I am focusing on for my dissertation. The reason for this is that most of the species in this group have both colorful throat plumage (also called a gorget) and stereotyped courtship display behaviors. Most species have two types of display behaviors: the shuttle and dive displays. The dive display is when a male flies high into the air, sometimes over 100 ft, and then plummets down towards a female, pulling up near her and flying back high into the sky to repeat the behavior. During this dive display, the male opens up  his tail, which males a sound. The other display is called the shuttle display, which is the focus of my work. During this display a male hovers back and forth in front of the female with his gorget flared and facing her. Across the species in bee hummingbirds, there is a great diversity of coloration and there is quite a bit of variation in their courtship displays, especially the shuttles:
Costa’s –
Black-chinned –
Broad-tailed –

Top - Black-chinned Bottom - Costa's Left - Rufous Right - Broad-tailed

Top – Black-chinned
Bottom – Costa’s
Left – Rufous
Right – Broad-tailed

Like I mentioned above, broad-tailed hummingbirds are part of this tribe, and thus have a colorful gorget and their own versions of the shuttle display (see link above). This species is one of my favorites, partly because they were the first I worked on, but also because they are high elevation specialists, which means I get to do my fieldwork in the mountains! I’ve typically found this species from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, but I know I’ve seen them as high as 9,000 feet. They mostly occur in Arizona, Nevada, and throughout the lower Rocky Mountains (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming), but they also have footholds in several other states like California. I’ve found them in a range of habitats from alpine meadows to piñon-juniper forests to mixed-coniferous forests, like the following pictures.



They are common visitors to feeders at high elevation towns as well. Broad-tailed hummingbird males, like some other species in the tribe, make near continuous trill noises when they fly, created by their wing feathers, which is actually quite pretty to listen to. The sound is quickened and amplified during their shuttles, as you can hear in the video. Here is another video, though not the best quality, of a male shuttling. This video is looking at the male over the female’s shoulder, but it is not focused on the male because he is moving too fast for my camera.

This video is also what the film crew was working to capture, though they have a $50,000 dollar camera that films at 4k, so it will be much much much higher quality. They also filmed the male displaying at an angle without the cage in the view. Luckily, on the last day of filming, we found a very cooperative male who shuttled many times for us and in the right spot, which allowed the film crew to get all the shots they wanted.


Overall, it was a great experience to work with this crew, and I learned a lot about the process to make a nature documentary from start to finish. I really hope to work with the Coneflower Studios again, and I will let everyone know when the documentary will be shown on PBS and out on DVD! Below are some pictures of the crew in action. Coneflower studios producer Ann Prum manned the camera, while associate producer Melanie Quinn was recording audio and helping me with the cage set up. The little camera to the side is mine.




This past Tuesday I passed my comprehensive exam! It was a huge relief! Also, this is why I haven’t been blogging as frequently lately.

To explain: at ASU for my Ph.D. program, we have to take a roughly three hour oral exam given by our dissertation committee. This exam not only tests our knowledge in our fields of study, but also is when we defend our dissertation proposal (all of our ideas/hypotheses/methods/data to date). My committee is comprised of my advisor and 4 other faculty, who are experts at various topics covered in my dissertation. For instance, I have an expert on phylogenetics, an expert on hummingbirds, an expert on iridescent coloration, and an expert on statistics. During this exam, they can ask me questions on anything related to my proposed dissertation, even if I’m not directly studying that topic. For example, I was asked questions ranging from how to build a phylogeny to the genetics of behavior.


To prepare for this exam, I have spent the past month doing nothing but studying, everyday, all-day. And before that I spent most of my free time during field work writing/editing my proposal. This is definitely one of those exams that you have to study more than just a few days before! Above is a picture of some of the material I read; I have a library of papers on my computer which I also went through.

While the entire process was fairly miserable, I did learn a ton. Not everything I read came up during my exam, but I am ok with that because that knowledge will still serve me through the rest of my academic career. This also seems to be part of the point of this exam. It forces you to study and learn a bunch of material, that will ultimately make you a better scientist.

Now that this exam is over, I can breathe free again and relax! I will post the final updates on the documentary filming in a few days, and then I will probably post my tips and advice on studying for this type of exam to hopefully help those who will take it in the future.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported me throughout this entire processes!

Hummingbird filming – updates

Things have been going very well so far. First off, we are in such a beautiful area – the Santa Catalina Mountains, near Tucson, AZ. These mountains are part of the sky islands (mentioned in a previous post) that are located throughout south-eastern Arizona. Essentially, the sky islands are a series of isolated mountain ranges that are surrounded by desert or grassland. This is one of the more northern chains, and is a smaller range than others. Due to its proximity to Tucson, it is one of the more popular ones, and Mt. Lemmon, the highest point in the range, is very famous. There is even a ski resort and tiny town called Summerhaven contained within these mountains. The Santa Catalina mountains are full of trails and campsites, which made things logistically much easier for us to find good filming locations.


The film crew has found several nests that they are watching and getting some excellent shots. These females are apparently super tolerant and allowing the cameras to get very close to them. I’ve been able to get some good pictures of females on their nests and some rare shots of fledglings and feeding behaviors. Hummingbirds make their nests out of lichen and spider webs. The spider webs not only help hold the nest together, but it also makes the nests flexible and spongy so that as the chicks grow, the nest can expand. Though, by the time the chicks are about the fledge, the nest is so full that mom can’t really sit on it anymore. These nests are also usually very hard to find, not only because they are small, but because they are well concealed within a plant.

Most hummingbirds seem to lay two eggs, that are very tiny to us, but actually quite large compared to the female. Females will incubate the eggs for 2-3 weeks, and then will feed the fledglings mostly insects. Nectar doesn’t contain the necessary proteins for development, which is why females will switch to a more insect heavy while feeding young. Hummingbirds always incorporate insects into their diet though, as this is their source of essential proteins. Males do not help with nesting or raising young at all. Depending on the length of the breeding season, females can have multiple clutches, as several of the females did at our site. Also, an interesting fact: because hummingbird legs are so small and not good for walking, when a female is perched at the edge of her nest, she can’t really hop into it; instead she has to hover into it. Here are a few pictures illustrating the nesting and raising of young in hummingbirds.


Here is a female broad-tailed hummingbird sitting on her tiny lichen-spiderweb nest.


This is a different nest, but a good example of what the eggs look like. They are about the size of tick-tacks!


Here is mommy returning to feed one of her babies. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have such a long bill shoved down their throats.

IMG_0207 - Version 2

This is a somewhat blurry shot of two fledglings hanging out near their nest. They are probably exhausted – learning to fly is a big deal!

I’ve been focusing on finding male territories and trapping females so that we can elicit and film some male courtship displays. The place we are filming is quite full of broad-tailed hummingbirds. I’ve also seen several other species here including broad-billed, black-chinned, and magnificent hummingbirds. I’m pretty sure I heard an Anna’s hummingbird at one point too. We are up about 8,000 feet, which is typically too high for Anna’s.

At this point, I’ve found several male territories, all throughout the area, and identified several males that would be good to film, such as this one:


I’ve also set up feeders so that I can trap some females and use them to get males displaying. Sometimes setting up feeders has the added bonus of creating new male territories, as males will come and claim feeders for their own. It is unclear whether males of this species select territories based on resources or form what are called leks – a spot with a single or multiple males, where females go to mate, but receive no other resources, typically. Based on my observations with this species, I would say they lek, as most males do not have any flowers on their territories and have to leave their territories to feed. However, males will guard valuable resources like feeders, as these are permanent and consistent sources of food. Overtime as the feeders attract more and more hummingbirds, these males will actually end up spending most of their time chasing away rivals, which might interrupt their ability to court females.


In my next post, I’ll have details on how the filming went and hopefully have some videos of my own to show. For now, I’ll end with a surprise I met while scouting for territories. I nearly stepped on it, and it gave me quite a fight!