“Comps and Defending Your Proposal: Secrets and Unexpected Benefits of the Initiated” with Jane Ebot and Christine Wheatley

Fifth-year student Jane Ebot and fourth-year student Christine Wheatley in the Sociology PhD program shared experiences and some cogent advice for fellow comprehensive exam takers and dissertation proposal defenders in our Thursday Brown Bag Session.

Jane took her exams in demography and is conducting research on maternal and infant mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. A PowerPoint version of her presentation can be found here. Below is a summary of her invaluable advice to students preparing for comps:

  1. In the semester before the one in which you plan to take your exams, check with your advisor and program coordinator on your degree progress and coursework checklist. With your advisor, decide if you are ready and when you should actually take your exams, in what area/s and sub-area/s you should take them, and who your exam chair and committee should be. Faculty often have colleagues in mind with whom they feel comfortable in working, and having committee members who can offer different perspectives but also get along personally can help you immensely, for comps and dissertation.
  2. After your meeting, create a reading list. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Build on past lists. Talk with other students in your area/s and sub-area/s, and remember, since your committee will invariably add a substantial chunk of materials to your list after review, that ‘less is more’. The list you propose to your committee need not be exhaustive. EndNote is also a great organizing tool.
  3. Organize. Put together a calendar (comps take place in mid-October and mid-April), and make a binder for your articles if your list is article-heavy. Make an outline/lit review template, and apply that template to each of your readings.
  4. Spend at least the two to three months preceding the exam reading. Divide and conquer. It is a good idea to save the hardest materials for last so you can remember them better before the exam.
  5. Be prepared for life still happening during all this. Prioritize and figure out what can wait, and discuss this with your mentors and colleagues particularly if you are collaborating on projects. Don’t neglect your health.
  6. Two weeks prior to the exam, review. This is the time to really synthesize your readings and suss out the relations among the items on your list. Try to find an overarching idea, and diagram it down to more specifics, to see if you truly understand your topic/s.
  7. Practice with past exams and/or imagined, anticipated questions. Many exams are written by the same faculty members. If you can, do so in the room where you will actually be taking the exam, even in the spot in the room – simulate the experience to prepare yourself and help yourself remember better. Do it first with notes, then without notes. Review afterward to see where you can improve. Talk to a friend, even a non-sociologist, and ask them to pose any questions to you about your area/s and topic/s.
  8. The day before the exam, relax. Sleep well.
  9. Show up early to your exam. Bring some quiet snacks and water (but not too much) if you’d like. You get one official short break on each of the two days of the exam; any other breaks you take will be on your own exam time. If your exam is in demography, you can also bring a calculator or use Excel on the computer.
  10. Outline and write your answers in essay form – major thesis-minor theses-evidence-restatement of thesis-significance.

After comps, it is a good idea to take a well-deserved break before you begin preparing for your dissertation proposal and proposal defense. To prepare:

  1. Discuss with your advisor about ideas, potential topics, directions, and methods for your dissertation.
  2. Write a five-page pre-proposal, and get feedback from your advisor.
  3. For the proposal itself, write a bit at a time. Make a calendar, and set deadlines for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for periodic feedback. Your advisor and you need to be on the same page regarding your readiness. Depending on your topic, your proposal may be 20 – 60+ pages. Again, work with your advisor closely through the process and clarify expectations.
  4. With your advisor, determine who should be (or should not be) on your dissertation committee. Remember you need one out-of-department faculty member.
  5. Email these potential members to request a meeting individually.
  6. Once they agree to be on your committee and you have your committee set, figure out a date, time and place for your proposal defense. Book a room right away, and confirm with your committee.
  7. It is a good idea to both email and give a paper copy of your proposal to all your committee members.
  8. Practice your presentation.
  9. Arrive early to set up the room and any equipment you need. Dress professionally. During the defense you will most likely present your proposal only for five minutes, followed by Q&A, discussion among the faculty, their decision, and further discussion with you.

Remember your proposal is just that – a proposal. Your dissertation may end up being more or less different.

While Jane focused mostly on the logistics of comps and and proposal defense, Christine Wheatley shared some excellent tips on managing yourself mentally and emotionally through these times, and through graduate school in general. Christine’s own research explores migrant experiences of deportation from the U.S. and return to Mexico. She suggests:

  • Don’t see comps as simply another ‘hoop’ to jump through. Take it as an opportunity to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the fundamentals of your field and sub-field/s, in your own development as an expert and a scholar.
  • Don’t rush through grad school. Competitiveness and perfectionism from fear and insecurity hinder more than they propel. Each person and each field are different; do what is right for you.
  • Be self-aware about your own habits and disposition, and make them work for you rather than against you.
  • Be prepared for your own emotional reactions. Almost everyone has thought about quitting or dropping out at one time or another. Reflect on whether these reactions are simply situational, and temporary.
  • All your faculty mentors are here to help you. Your success is their success. Work with them and don’t be afraid to seek their advice and guidance.
  • Overcome the Fear of the Unknown: practice, practice, practice.
  • Read for the ‘big ideas.’ If some finer points do jump out at you, remember them and critique them. Understanding is the ability to differentiate between and to synthesize the big and the small. Session participant and graduate student Nicholas Reith also pointed out the importance of recognizing different perspectives, and it is a good idea to read more than one book review to get a balanced summary of a work.
  • Remember to actually answer the questions on the comp exams. Restate the question if necessary in your answer. Don’t worry too much about ‘polish’ (but spelling and general intelligibility are still good ideas).
  • Celebrate your successes! Make this into a cycle of positive, not negative, reinforcement.

A big Thank You to Jane, Christine, and all the participants at this brown bag for making it such a lively, informative and useful session!

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