Friday, September 27, 2013

General Tips For Passing Comps and Saving Your Sanity

So, I passed my comps.  I did so with surprisingly little fanfare on behalf of my bipolar disorder or OCD - two things that have, typically, made me feel shitty for every finals week in history minus the last two.  Comps is the juncture when most of my friends have ended up seeing a therapist and shrink and/or getting put on meds.  I fared ok, though, thanks to their advice.  Had I not had an immense amount of support from my family, friends, and therapist, I would have been fucked.

I think our department, historically, is pretty open with advice and support of those of us suffering through this exercise.  It's not seen as a competition between members of cohort or a cutthroat situation.  We all help one another.

But, not every department is similar.  And not every situation works out this way.  The cohorts before mine were rather large and studied together.  My cohort has 4 people - only 2 of which were taking comps this time around.  So, we were really too small to do anything together.  It felt lonely but I made my own support network and worked it.

Here are some general tips that may be helpful...

1. It's a marathon and not a sprint.  There is a good reason for this.  I had all summer to study.  In reality, you can probably take a month off of everything and study your ass off and pass but you will lose your life and mind in the process.  Make it easy on yourself, give yourself time to adjust, give yourself time to get confident and feel comfortable rather than cram.

2. You can't read everything or prepare everything.  You just can't.  You will feel like, even on the last day of studying, that you still have SO much to do but you can't do anymore.  It is time-dependent and, yes, you could study for all eternity.  While it is tempting to study for another semester, you are better off just to take your exam.  It's key that you do as much as you can and then let it go.  This was excellent advice I was given by friends.

3. Making comps a "job" is much better than freaking out and trying to cram it into every hour of every day.  I'm a sucker for a schedule and when I go into "work" to get things done, I generally do them.  If I stay at home, nothing gets done.  I took a summer class mainly to ensure I was in the office every day.  It was the best decision I made.  I went into class in the AM, did a bit of work for that, and then studied from 1-5 PM for comps daily while doing that scheduled.  Then, it was a 9-5.  It worked.

4. You need days off - plenty of them.  This a million times over.  Again, if you make it into a marathon pace, you can afford to take the time.  Take your time and finish strong.  I told friends and family that their job was to distract me when I was off the clock.  Yes, you will still wake up and have a full on conversation about Street Level Bureaucrats at 3 AM with your SO but, for the most part, you can get them to help you ignore comps and start fresh the next time you pick up a book.  Weekends were KEY for me.

5. Talk to your advisor - he or she will most likely be helpful.  My advisor was awesome during the entire process and so were other committee members.  Everyone gave me good advice and I was talked off the ledge a couple of times by faculty members.  It was good.  Don't be afraid to reach out.  They have all been through this and talked a number of students through it before.

6. Talk to friends that did it before you and take their advice seriously.  My friends were really helpful.  I found an officemate and friend who was much like myself in terms of stress behavior, OCD, and past experiences with school to be particularly helpful.  Even if they have no clue what you are preparing, how much they are preparing, etc. even a strong word of encouragement will help you keep pushing.  Hang out with these people, listen to their stories, it will help.

7. Ask for past comps notes.  Either study with your cohort and trade notes or ask for them from the people that have come before you.  I just handed my stash of notes off to the people in my cohort taking comps next semester. I am sure some of what I did will be useless to them but a lot of what I was given was helpful so use it!  People aren't generally shy about sharing.  After all, you just took a shit ton of notes that you won't use again until you need to make a syllabus, right?

8. Read over past questions before you get too involved in studying to help you figure out what matters and what doesn't.  Before you freak out, it may be helpful to look at past questions just so you can say "yes I can answer this".  When my roommate was taking comps the semester before I did, I read over past questions with her and found that I felt a lot better about my own chances of passing after reading them.  She said they helped her as well.  We have very different approaches to studying but that was one thing that worked for us both.

9. Stop studying well ahead of when you need to take your comps or defend them.  I stopped almost a week before I took my writtens to go swim in a pool.  I couldn't feasibly do anymore.  I didn't do any prepping after that point.  I focused on getting sleep, hung out with my boyfriend, and didn't do a whole lot more.  It was good.  I went away the weekend before my defense and brewed beer.  Believe it or not, there isn't much you can do but take them.  About 2-3 weeks before you take your comps, you will feel like there isn't much more you can REALLY do. You are probably ready at that point to take them even though you would like to prep indefinitely.

10. Get mental health support and get it often if you need it.  Almost every department has a stress or panic attack nightmare to do with comps in recent history.  My advisor told me REPEATEDLY over the course of comps that the only real fear she had about me was my stress derailing me about 4 weeks before my written exams.  I took 4 days off, started fresh, and calmed the fuck down.  I also upped my dosage of valium, something I take for sleep.  My shrink and therapist were there every step of the way.  I impressed them in the end with my ability to stay on target but it really was just doing all of the things I'd been doing before.  If you are feeling completely out of control, go see someone!  Honestly, I slept 8 hours before my writtens AND orals because of life-saving meds that kept me from being manic.  I felt like I was cheating in one way but the reality was, I would have failed without regular behavioral modification and medication.

I didn't experience true hypomania at ANY point on my comps journey past the initial stress of trying to study while taking care of a very sick roommate.  This is the longest I've been stable.  I didn't let that first experience color my ability to pass, either.  I listened to my gut, went home for a couple days, studied there, and then got back on track.  Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself (as my therapist tells me).

Feel free to include your rec's in the comments....


Bette said...

Thanks for this. As someone who suffers from mental health problems, I can truly appreciate your advice in regards to seeking out professional help while going through this majorly stressful period of a grad student's life. I've made sure to do plenty of that!

overworked_ta said...

Thanks for that :) I think since so many of us have encountered SOME rocky situations on this journey, I should be more direct about it. Most people I know have seen a therapist regularly and a lot of them started during the comps process. It's nothing to be ashamed of and requires more open dialogue. I am glad that you are speaking out about it yourself. It's something I wish more people would do!

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