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Surviving and Thriving During Quals

Advice for self-care during comprehensive exams.

January 14, 2016

Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.


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There are many resources online about how to prepare for quals (I really like this one), and here on GradHacker we’ve also featured posts on note-taking, prepping for the written exam and surviving the oral comprehensive. Yet there’s rarely a conversation about how to manage the extreme physical (and mental) stress of exam-taking, which for me - and many of my grad school friends - was the biggest challenge.


When I took my master’s comprehensive exam a couple of years ago, I wasn’t very kind to my body, failing to nourish it properly after a hard day’s work. I thought that taking care of myself was a luxury I simply couldn’t afford. I slept an average of 4 hours a night and I didn’t exercise, while my diet consisted predominantly of Hot Pockets, instant ramen and Red Bull.


Although I did pass my exams, I felt pretty bad physically and mentally for about a month after. So when time came for my PhD qualifying exams, I knew I had to take a different approach. In my program, quals are structured as take-home research papers, which meant no memorizing (yay!) but also no structured “away time.” This meant that I’d have to put in the extra effort to create some boundaries for quals, and make sure I’d be giving my body the opportunity to refuel during this crazy time.


Below are some methods I learned through trial and error that made all the difference this second time around, and that can help you improve the qualifying exam experience:


Organize your workspace:


Before quals, invest some time making your workspace as comfortable and inviting as possible. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in that space over the next few days (or weeks, depending on your program) and you really want it to work for you, not against you.


That “deep cleaning” you’ve been meaning to do forever? Now it’s time to do it! Remove clutter from your desk. Take a hard look at what you really need within reach and remove the things that could be potential distractions. You may also wanna add a desk plant or two, to purify the air and reduce stress. Also, make sure that lighting is as good as it can be, since cheap artificial light can lead to headaches and increased stress-levels. If you don’t know where to start, check out this article on optimizing office lighting.


Oh, and if you haven’t already read Katie’s awesome post on workspace ergonomics, please do.


Plan your meals in advance:


Food is such a big part of the human condition and yet we tend to forget how truly important it is - especially when we’re under stress! Food nutrients have also been directly linked to brain function, although many still dismiss such findings as hippie-dippie, new-age nonsense. It’s not just that whole-foods, nutrient-dense diets improve cognitive performance, however, but also that junk food impairs it (after just one week, in fact).


Since you can’t really perform at the top of your game if you’re eating crap, it is worth the time (and money) to invest in food preparation. I don’t like reheated freezer meals but I also couldn’t afford to spend 1-2 hours in the kitchen every day so I made a compromise by prepping as much in advance as possible. I made a meal plan for the week (incl. breakfast and snacks), which I stuck on my freezer, buying all ingredients in advance. I washed and chopped up veggies, which I stored in glass containers in the fridge, and I stocked up on brain foods: healthy fats, blueberries, beets, dark chocolate and garlic. I prepared a large batch of bone broth, which I could quickly transform into a soup by adding leafy greens, garlic and some nutritional yeast (yum!). Knowing I’d be craving fast food sooner or later, I also made sure I had healthy snacks in my pantry: roasted seaweed, energy bombs, high-quality potato chips, chocolate-coated goji berries and toasted coconut chips. Yes, some of these treats are pricey but comps are a beast to tackle and I think the extra splurge is worth it at test time.


Allow yourself time to decompress:


As I mentioned earlier, there’s a significant psychological component to quals that is often overlooked. No matter how they are administered, your qualifying exams are likely going to be one of the most stressful events of your graduate career. So however tempted you are, don’t stay up until 1:00 a.m. finishing off that paragraph or perfecting that footnote (burnout is just around the corner). Go for a run, meditate, do some yoga, dance to your favorite tunes or go for walk around your block (walking apparently increases creative output by 60%!) – whatever it is that helps you wind down and replenish, do it.


Personally when I’m overwhelmed I like going to the movies by myself. I find it very hard to switch off after I’ve been wired up for hours writing and the movie theater really helps me let go. This is a big time investment, obviously, and I only did it once, in the middle of quals – but I did it and it helped. The other nights I either did some yoga or soaked in my bathtub with essential oils (I really like Eden’s Garden Relaxation Synergy Blend). Also, quick lunch breaks and coffee runs with friends helped keep me sane and centered when everything else seemed to be crumbling around me.


Remember to stay hydrated:


That’s something my mum always used to say when I was taking exams in school and, back then, I thought it was so silly. But it turns out that even slight dehydration impacts brain function, mood and energy. When I’m really busy I always forget to drink my 2 liters a day, so I have to use reminders. During quals I put yellow stickies on my fridge and bathroom mirror, to remind myself to drink my water. I also kept a bunch of Trader Joe’s unpasteurized coconut water on hand, because it’s delicious (so much better than Vita Coco, Zico etc.) AND loaded with potassium, which helps with brain fog.



Last and most importantly, be kind to yourself and make time (even if it’s just 15 minutes) every day to do at least one thing you enjoy. And don’t forget to reward yourself after the ordeal is over! Take a weekend trip, book a massage, go out to nice restaurant or binge-watch Netflix. Do whatever needs to be done for you to start recovering.


Do you have any tips on thriving during exams you can share? Post them in the comments below!


[Image by Flickr user Nouf Al Otaibi and used under Creative Commons license]


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