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.
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.