Early this week, I completed the written portion of my comprehensive exams. In the PhD in Health at Dalhousie University, this process involved taking exactly 6 weeks to write three 15-20 page essays (plus references) on three questions that are directly relevant to my proposed study. In about two weeks, I will meet with my comps committee for the oral defence of my essays.

Before starting my comps, I found pretty much zero tips to guide me in getting through it. So I fumbled around and, guess what?, I made it happen. As will you! But, in case you like to have ideas in advance, below are four tips that I figured out along the way.

Tip 1. Get a reference manager and fill it

Collect articles in a reference manager that will let you cite in-text and automatically generate a reference list. I used zotero because I really like the Chrome extension that lets me easily clip any article I find online directly to zotero. I know that other PhDers are using Mendeley and loving it. Some labs use RefWorks with Write-n-Cite.

The only downfall I’ve seen with using a reference manager to automatically generate your reference list is that you really need to make sure that your references are properly entered into the ref manager in the first place. The biggest issue that I had to keep fussing with was the title needing to be all in lower case except the very first word, the first word after the colon, and proper nouns (APA style).

Another issue was that the author’s full name needs to be consistently entered. For example, you couldn’t enter my name as Squires, B.J. and Squires, Bonita for two separate publications, or it will cite the author in text with the first name or initials to show that it thinks they are two different people.

Tip 2. Use a time tracker app

I knew that I needed something to motivate me to write every day. I also knew that I love looking at pretty data (what researcher doesn’t!). So I realized that I wanted a visual representation showing me how much time I spent on my comps every day.

I ended up using a simple, free online time tracker called Toggl. It’s designed for businesses to have employees track the time they spend on different projects but it was perfect for my purposes.

Toggl_bar graph.jpg

So motivating! I even did some of my own calculations and figured out my mean number of hours per day and the standard deviation…

It also spits out how much time I spent on different tasks if I’ve been diligent about identifying them (I was). So now I can look at how much time I spent on each essay doing the readings versus writing the paper itself and compare across all three essays! Doesn’t that sound exciting! Below you can see my breakdown for the last week of my comps:

Toggl_task breakdown.png

Maybe you don’t want to use a time tracker app? Fine, but find something that motivates you that taps into the tried-and-true motivators that game theorists have known for decades: we like to see progress. We love it. Even the littlest accomplishment can be motivating. Maybe you would prefer to stick a star on your wall for each half hour you spend working on your writing. Or perhaps you plan to report to a friend every day on what you’ve accomplished. Whatever it is, commit to it.

Tip 3. Give yourself time to think

On my first day after I received my comps questions, I hacked out a simple outline for each paper based on what I knew already. In the end, I didn’t use any of those outlines.

As I delved into readings and tried to write, I would constantly realize how certain ideas tied in to other ideas, or how the literature lent itself to a certain storyline that I hadn’t thought about.

Sometimes I would pace my apartment, thinking, “Does that argument really make sense?“. Or wake up and lie there, thinking, “How come no one’s studied that yet? How will I argue my point now?”. Or walk my dog, thinking, “Somehow I need to tie in that other idea, where should it go?”.

The important thing that I realized was that I couldn’t stress out while I was thinking. I couldn’t let anxiety build up over not being in the midst of adding words to the page. I can’t even tell you how much I wrote that I ended up erasing… it was probably equivalent to the amount of writing that I ended up submitting. Some of that could have been avoided if I had let myself think more first.

4. Own your writing time

Find the best and most productive times for you to write and stick to them. I happen to be most lucid and productive late at night. By the time 10:30pm rolls around, suddenly I get a razor-sharp focus and tappity-tap goes my keyboard. But of course, that means I’m writing until at least 2am. Clearly, I was not getting up at 7:30am to be ready to write again at 9am.

I found it really hard to try to justify to people why I wasn’t getting up early in the morning (edit: in the morning, period) to “be productive” because “that’s the best time of the day to get things done” and “by the afternoon you already have so much under your belt“… No.

I won’t be shamed. There are plenty of personal and brain-based reasons as to why I go to bed so late and would really prefer to get up late too. Early mornings are just not how my brain or my life works. I finally decided to just own it.

If you’re an early morning person then kudos to you. Own that. If that’s when you’re most productive and that means people try to shame you about why you need to go to bed so early (“but the night is young!“, “live a little!“), don’t listen. Find your sweet writing time and own it.

All in all, I managed to submit my essays on time without undue stress and I feel proud of what I pulled together. I also learned a lot. My writing improved, my writing process became more efficient, and I feel so much more comfortable with the literature in my field.

It was a dynamic and rewarding process and I can honestly say that (assuming I pass the written portion…) I truly am looking forward to the oral defence!



2 thoughts on “4 Tips for Getting Through Your Comprehensive Exams

  1. Thanks, Bonita! I really like what you said about owning the time of day that works best for you to work! I am not a morning person and I am feeling the wrath of getting up early and going to bed late (because I do my best work after 9 pm). Any tips on how to stay focused?


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