Surviving doctoral exams

A friend of mine is taking her doctoral exams soon and asked for advice. I told her I’d write a blog post with what worked for me. The truth is, all you need is to put yourself in turbo like you have every finals week since beginning graduate school. But there are a few things that worked for me (note: some of these depend on the program and advisory committee!)

Organize your thoughts in advance

The best thing I did for myself was to write a summary of each entry in my bibliographies, each section (organized by defined literatures such as “Feminist archaeology” and “Indigenous archaeology”), and each exam topic. When you are asked to summarize broad issues underlying your dissertation research, you should focus on tying bodies of literature together and thinking critically rather than re-summarizing every work on your bibliography. Do yourself a favor and summarize them in advance. If you are able to use notes during your exams, it’s invaluable. If you aren’t, it’s even more important that you have digested all of the publications in advance.

Know your committee

My exam questions were each primarily written by one of my committee members, and when I read my questions, I could tell which one wrote each question. If this happens to you, it’s a good sign. Know your committee and their work backwards and forwards! I also met with each of them multiple times before my exams to make sure I understood their concerns with my prior work (especially the text I wrote to accompany the bibliographies). This kind of preparation was key to my success. To pass the exams, you must answer the questions in a way that shows you understand the literature AND your committee’s ideas about it. For example, if one of your examiners has been thinking about drawing a particular set of ideas from another discipline to supplement the core literature, it would behoove you to mention its potential yourself. The reason your committee tells you their perspectives on your work is so you can grow as a scholar; comprehensive exam responses are an opportunity to write with a specific audience in mind, like you would in a journal article. You are not meant to write down everything you know, but rather craft a response carefully.

Wear a bra

This is the advice an alumnus of my department gave me and she was right. In my department, archaeology students get to do our exams from home if we choose, and many are elated to do them in their pajamas. Instead of wearing a nightshirt and a robe the whole time, treat your exam like a day at work. Get up, get fully dressed, take a real lunch break. Have you ever done an entire paper in your pajamas? When I’ve done it, it made me feel simultaneously gross, lazy, AND mentally exhausted. Performing your work-mode in a tangible way and then ending with your normal bedtime routine is a good way to retain sanity under pressure.

Negotiate a humane schedule

In my program, each student’s exams are a bit different, depending upon the terms agreed to by the committee and student. My advisor insisted that I have 24 hours to complete exams and then a day off between them. I took my exams Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I highly recommend this schedule. Having 24 hours means you can edit your work, and having a day between exams gives you much needed separation between topics. There is no doubt that we all can turn turbo mode on and suppress our immune systems, personal lives, and mental health challenges; don’t do it to yourself if you can help it. You want to do your best work, not your fastest, and produce writing worthy of inclusion in your dissertation. Give your brain a rest.

Turn on Finals Mode

Like I said, many of us are able to complete Herculean tasks when finals week (or other deadlines) puts the screws to us. Comprehensive exams are like a slightly more intense version of that familiar finals push. Gather things that calm and comfort you quickly for easy access during your exams. I keep calmer if I have a clean house and employ strategic tea, cheese and crackers, and hot showers. Prepare these resources, not just your reading notes, before you begin.

Stock up on energy snacks

I tend to get stressed out and stop eating, only to eat something unhealthy to turn off the annoying hunger pangs. For my exams I prepared some comforting foods and some protein/carb snacks that I could easily reach for at those moments. I tend to crave cheeseburgers every finals week so I had one the night before I began my first exam.


What other advice do you all have to add?

UPDATE! Here are some responses I’ve received so far:

“Have a post-submission fun thing plan to rest the brain and rejuvenate – too many PhD milestones are followed by let down” (@AprilMBeisaw via Twitter)

“Be clear on what’s ok to discuss with colleagues? For my comps we weren’t allowed to talk about responses, but could commiserate” (@alixgmartin via Twitter)

“I think the best thing to do is to anticipate the questions and begin writing weeks before the exam. Since the committee drafts questions based on your bibliography you should be able to anticipate what they’ll ask. Then you can write the answers ahead of time and cut and paste with some editing.” (James H. via FB)

“Summarizing like you said though is the most important aspect. And review those summaries prior to taking the test so you can quickly recall what was said by who.” (Hayley M. via FB)

“Remind people to hydrate maybe. I had to write mine by hand then could retype later, if thats the case, some ben gay for the writing hand helped alot.” (Todd K. via FB)

“Can’t agree with ‘Organize thought in advance’ enough! I actually made myself an index (with citation info), so that I was sure I didn’t overlook any research.” (Tanya C. via FB)

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