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Photo of notes on pegboard with message "Be Yourself"Katy Meyers is a PhD graduate student specializing in Mortuary Archaeology at Michigan State University in the Department of Anthropology, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @BonesDoNotLie.

Last semester I took my comprehensive exams for my PhD. This involved 18 months of reading, creating two 30-page annotated bibliographies about my region and topic, 4 special independent study courses, and culminated in two 8-hour essay exams that were supposed to demonstrate my knowledge of those bibliographies and the discipline. I can honestly say that the whole process is one of the most difficult things I've faced in grad school. But that's the whole point of this type of exam: it is a test of one's makeup as an academic, and it is a task that is meant to challenge you. Of course, as you are facing this seemingly insurmountable exam, there are dozens of people handing out advice. There is advice from your committee, advice from your peers who have taken the exam already, and advice from family and friends outside of academia.

I was told by my committee that I should use my bibliographies to outline potential essays and get used to coming up with a coherent essay in a short period of time. It was suggested by my peers that I take a break the weekend before the exam to give my brain a rest so that I would be refreshed for the actual test. My parents suggested having caffeine and mint during the test to stimulate my brain. What I learned from this experience was that while all this advice and support was great, what was most important to my success was listening to myself.

Literally following your gut: The truth is that undergoing any major stress test, like a comprehensive exam or a dissertation proposal defense or any other challenge, your body is probably going to suffer a little. Due to this, it is helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • Listen to your body: When I get stressed, I tend to clench my teeth at night, which causes searing pain in my neck and mouth despite the highly attractive mouth guard I get to wear. Whenever I start to feel that pain, I know I need to start focusing more on calming down and relaxing before bed. Try reading a fun book in bed or listening to some light classical music. Eva offers some tips on making sleep easier and relaxing yourself before bed in her post on the topic.
  • Keep exercising: Due to a lack of time, I also decreased my exercise—this was a bad choice. My body was really wanting that physical release of endorphins, and exercising probably would have been a good, healthy break. For inspiration, check out Kayla’s post on exercising in grad school.
  • Eat healthy: And speaking of your gut, it is important to keep eating healthy even on stressful nights, or during the exam. I was lucky enough to have friends and a fiance who were willing to cook me healthy dinners and bring me a good lunch during the exam. Listen to your body to keep yourself in peak condition and prevent yourself from getting sick.


Metaphorically following your gut:By this I mean listen to your inner voice.

  • Listen to advice, but tailor it to fit your experience: While it is a great idea to practice writing out an entire exam essay to get used to the 8-hour timing and get used to the format, I knew that this was just going to stress me out more. Instead I did 2-hour segments where I wrote out a fairly complete outline of potential questions.
  • Ignore the negatives: A lot of things I heard about the comprehensive exam were negative, such as how awful it was and how it made someone cry. Focusing on the positive was important to me. I had to go into the exam thinking I would rock. Check out Kaitlin's post on changing negative thoughts into positive ones to aid in managing stress!
  • Manage your expectations: I have a perfectionist tendency, and this was not the time to let this tendency take control. This was an exam where I needed to pass. I didn't need to change the world or blow my committee away. I just needed to pass. Try to go into these challenges with realistic expectations and goals. (And if you haven't read the brilliant article by Julie on perfectionism, now is a good time).

In the end, I went into my exams with a combination of good advice from others, such as bringing mint gum and Dr. Pepper into the test, but followed my gut regardless. I am happy to say I passed my exams. What worked for me, though, may not work for you, and that is why listening to yourself is so important. Good luck!

What is your advice for students taking major exams? How did you survive a major grad school obstacle?

[Image by Flickr Chase Elliot Clark and used under creative commons licensing.]