Monday, November 7, 2011

The Comps Victory Lap

I just got through my most challenging academic week of my graduate career so far.  In July 2010, I took my master's comprehensive exams, which was the final part of my master's degree.  The fields were very general: early medieval, Byzantine, late medieval, and early modern.  The reading list for the 4 fields totaled 60 books. I got through those exams (2 days of written) just fine, and was more excited for the PhD comps because the reading lists would be more tailored to my own research interests (particularly sanctity, piety, and pilgrimage) in early medieval, early modern, and late medieval (primary chronological field) history.  And the PhD lists grew to include over 110 books (I stopped counting).  The masters lists were preset by the department, the PhD ones I set with my professors in the spring.  When the spring semester ended in May, I jumped into my reading and did a major push to read a ton before I went to California for 7 weeks.  I got almost halfway through the lists before California, read a little in Santa Cruz, and then when I returned in August, I jumped right back in and took on comps prep in full blast.  It meant taking a lot of notes from each book, and then assessed the author's major contributions to the field.  When I finished the reading, I then worked to commit the books to memory, their arguments, their sources, and how the books related to one another.  That meant sitting with a huge stack of flashcards, trying to rattle off info from each one.  I also wrote some practice essays on some of the major issues that I thought my professors would ask me to discuss.  And all the while, I tried to keep my head on straight and stay calm.  A lot of times, looking at all of the books on my bookcase, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed from all of the information and the big exam that loomed ahead: 2 days of written exams, followed by an oral exam.  I couldn't have been more nervous.  While I knew I was prepared, while I knew that I had a lot of people behind me who believed in me, I was terrified.
And I was also sick.  I had an awful cold that I was terrified was turning into laryngitis.  So much couching and I was very hoarse (thankfully this was during the written part).  Not the best way to walk into a big day.  But, I was prepared either way.  I was fortunate enough that a good friend of mine was taking the exam too, so we were able to chat a lot in the weeks leading up to it.  On the morning of the first day, Brian and I met to grab coffee and to walk to the exam together.  So nice to walk in with a friend.  For the exam, they put you in an office with a computer (thankfully, you type the exam - my handwriting is the worst).  And they gave me the envelope, which had the questions for my minor fields.  I knew that once I opened the envelope, I would know right away how the day would go.  I breathed in a sigh of relief - these were good questions and I had anticipated that such themes would show up on the exam.  I set to work, and the four hours went by very fast.  Hooray! - part one over!  The majors were the following day.  It is very hard to put in so much intense time into an exam and have to have such a quick turnaround.  And that night was when Jenny arrived, which certainly alleviated some of the stress, at least temporarily.  It was so hard to fall asleep though: the majors awaited - the big fields and the ones I had put the most energy into preparing for.  On the morning of both days, I went for a short 3 mile run, just to clear my head and get a little blood flowing.  And that helped, at least temporarily.  Brian and I met again, and walking into the majors was nerve-wracking.  I had worked so hard, and I just wanted to show that this really was the field that I was meant to study and qualified to be my primary area.  And again, I was handed the envelope, and there was relief when I felt prepared to answer the questions.  I had a lot of thinking and planning to do (I was even writing footnotes in - I had so much to say that I couldn't even fit in the body of my essay), but I was doing it.  I was so glad to be in a closed exam - kept coughing throughout it, but I was not going to be deterred.  I just kept writing and writing, and was happy with the essays I chose (we had options of which ones to answer...although the ones omitted are not forgotten forever...).  So relieved when I was done and walk out the door.
Jenny and I went out to celebrate, and then I crashed so hard.  I slept about 9 hours, which was much more than a few nights of sleep combined.  Even though the orals still awaited, I still had a few days to gear up and get ready for those.
Of course, Jenny was here for the weekend, and that was a good thing for a few reasons.  One, it was so good to have one of my best friends here during one of the most stressful academic weeks of my career.  Two, it meant that I actually took a little time off from studying and just gave myself time to recuperate.  And she ran her big BQ, and being a part of helping her get to the finish was such an incredible moment.
When she left on Monday, I had 2 days to prepare for my orals.  The oral exam was Wednesday: and my committee (4 professors) were going to ask me questions for an hour.  This meant they could ask me to clarify things I wrote in the written part, as well as to verbally answer some of the questions I had chosen to omit.  This was the part I was most terrified about - having to sit before my entire committee and show that I could almost instantly answer their questions.  I have worked with these professors since I started grad school in 2008, and wanted to show that I had grown up a lot in terms of my analysis and response.  Which meant just trying to prepare very thorough responses - I had mined a lot of my old notes and rewrote some outlines of these big issues.
Tuesday night, it was so hard for me to sleep, and I awoke way too early Wednesday morning from sheer anticipation of the big day.  I did another 3 mile run, which again alleviated the nerves for a little while.  I even was talking to myself a little, in an attempt to psych myself up.  I reminded myself that I had prepared so much and for so long, and that I was ready for this.  I also told myself "You are finally becoming the person you wanted to be" - getting to this point was a long-awaited goal, and I had made it this far.  I got dressed and ready in one of my academic outfits, and while I knew that I was going to be nervous, that was an understatement.  I sat at school before the exam, praying, reviewing, just trying to breathe.  One of my committee members bumped into me and said "There's no need to be terrified, your written exams were fine, this will be a breeze."  Okay, while I am glad they are going into the exam rooting for me, I still don't think it will be a breeze.
My 3 professors finally arrived, and it was time for one of the most important academic hours of my life so far to begin.  They asked if I was nervous and slept the night before - yes to the former, no to the latter.  They each had 15 minutes of my time to ask one or two questions (but all 3 were there for the whole time).  One of them even read back to me the last sentence of one of my answers and had me respond with some ideas based on that one claim.  This is why they say choose your words wisely!  It was going well, but it was really tough.  This was certainly a day when they wanted to test my mental flexibility and endurance!  One of my professors is on a fellowship in Europe, and since she couldn't be there, she emailed her questions to be asked, and this was the one when I needed a moment to pause and collect my thoughts (with the other questions, I could pretty much just take a breath and start talking).  But this time, I asked for a moment to organize my thoughts, which was fine.  After that, they also asked me to tie the four fields together (which, chronologically spanned roughly the years 300-1800) - not an easy task.  And then they asked me to go in the hall so they could consult with each other.
Waiting outside brought the nerves to the surface again.  I just sat and prayed while they discussed who knows what.  And then the door opened, and my advisor had a big smile on her face,
"Congratulations, you passed!"
So happy, so relieved!  They all had big smiles on their faces and said I did a good job.  We walked out chatting about the exam, but my mind was elsewhere.  My advisor told me to go out and celebrate - believe me, that was already on the agenda.  It had all paid off.  I could not regret my preparation at all over the last few months, because it worked.  I called my parents and some other friends, to spread the good news - they knew how much it meant to me.  I even had a small glass of wine with a friend at lunch to toast the exam.  So, while it is not official until January 2012 (the start of the new semester), I am a PhD candidate in medieval history.
This is me right before I went into the exam.  And those are all of the books I read in preparation for it - I am not exaggerating.  I got them all up into my brain, and hopefully they'll stay in there for a while!
I cannot describe the sense of relief I felt, and that I still do almost a week later.  It was a very moving experience, in part because it was the culmination of so much work and thought.  I went out to dinner with some friends in my department, all who had taken the exams previously (they started ahead of me in the program), and now I finally get to join their ranks.  I crashed almost immediately after dinner, and  on Thursday, it was like it finally hit me.  I think there was still so much adrenaline on the day of the exam, and the sense of reality of the situation didn't really kick in until the following day.  I knew I had invested so much into this, that the pure relief was astounding - it was a huge burden that was finally gone.  And while it was my name on the line, I was not the only one who went into the exam.  I was a conglomerate of so many people: my professors who helped me, my family and friends who supported me, and I am so grateful for all of the help and care I received during the preparation and execution.
It was ultimately a victory lap of the hard work, and I'll be grinning from ear to ear for a while.

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