The Road to Comps Part 0.5 Getting Started


If you somehow stumble onto this series while working on your own projects, or, more likely, procrastinating on you own project, remember one important thing: Things will get in the way.

The first casualty of war is the battle plan. That being said, it is always good to have a plan for when it does. You won’t be able to plan for everything, no matter how hard you try, and everyone’s plan will be different, just like everyone’s preparation is different.

Some people working through graduate school have kids, and they, like Dr. Malcolm, know anything can and does happen. Others have lives they built before going (or returning) to graduate school, this means existing bills, possibly owning a home with a gazillion projects just waiting to fall through the attic. Still others are literally working through graduate school–at the mall, at a restaurant, or a hardware store (no an exhaustive list). Some of those work hours are in addition to any hours they have managed to snag as a teaching of research assistant. This is where time and stress management are key. Especially time management. If you have poor time management your stress management better be stellar.

Even getting started won’t go as you plan. I have been working on the “soft opening” of my comps plan for weeks.  I started earlier this year reading books I knew were going to be on the finished list. Setting out times for reading, and note taking, and even scheduling in time to write the post reviews for the readings I did that week. I read quickly and my reading comprehension has always been above average but reading for comps is not reading for a comprehension test per se. There is a lot more going on in the field than that so you have to spend more time with the content and the notes and the people who are writing the sources you (and your committee–especially your committee) have selected.


After finishing the McNair Scholars program I worked as the Gradate Mentor for two years and I have worked with McNair Scholars to help them work on their time management skills. Working at the OU Grad College we brought in speakers to lead workshops on “turbo-charging your writing” (Hugh Kearns and his IThinkWell programs also tackle Positive Procrastination and Imposter Syndrome if you feel under the yoke of either or both).  But I want to stress to a larger audience that there is no one size fits all approach. You will have to experiment and see which works for you, and you should do it before you want to get started. Don’t used time management practice to procrastinate from your reading or other project.

That being said, and still having two sources to finish before a content post I wanted to share that with a larger audience here, and try and maintain some form of scheduling with posts. This may or may not help, but as I have worked with first generation graduate students (and, really, undergrads too) I have found this more common among us: how do you make reading a priority when it was what you did in your free time?

A lot of people you know “love to read.” They read books, comics, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes, fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, plays, recipes, etc. etc. but most of them work reading into their “spare” time: after work, between classes, even at the gym. For me, that has been the hardest part of getting into a rhythm of reading for hours when I get back to the house from work. You have to see reading for comps *as* work. I am a couple weeks into working on my “Schedule” and there is still a nagging feeling deep in my brain that I should be doing something important like mowing the grass. That voice is getting quieter, although it is there when I do other things too.  You’ve got to have discipline, or plan on developing it extremely quickly under duress.

Playing video games is sort of the same for me. I have a handful, and grew up in the Nintendo age, but again it was one of those after school, after feeding all our animals (horses, chickens, etc), and then after homework so I never fell into the realms of the 457 hour to complete sandbox games. In fact my Red Dead Redemption character has been asleep in the bunkhouse for three and a half years.

I bring that up because a few weeks ago I was playing the new TMNT game for PS3 and it is like a 3D arcade game you just pick it up play a while and you can leave it. Many, MANY people hate it for that reason. But I found myself saying, oh, I can play this for an hour or so but I don’t want to waste the entire afternoon. Only to stop playing and getting on the computer for email, social media, checking Amazon for shipping updates on the books I ordered for comps–all to waste the entire afternoon online.

I do not have the rigors of only interneting in my free time like I did with reading and Nintendo, so it isn’t hardwired in my brain to get over its constant connectivity and/or unplug. Many of the students I have worked with have the same issues, and sometimes even “internet” shows up on their lists of time wasting. It usually isn’t the entire internet though, they see facebook, and tumblr as wastes, but other areas of the online world = productivity. We balance out the need to argue on social media by having a library tab open in the browser as well. They see constant connectivity to the world as necessity and a boon to educational goals instead of a hindrance. With the capabilities of being instantly connected to targets ads and “we suggest” sections just looking up an unfamiliar word or phrase online can lead to a 6 hour youtube wormhole the ends up watching a quantum physics video with a Bon Jovi soundtrack. We really haven’t had the time to develop structured approaches to using the internet, and with as fast as it changes and grows, I don’t know that we actually have anything more powerful in place than turning the wifi off or physically unplugging the ethernet cable. Again, that takes character-building discipline.

If you are into schedules and you have the discipline that Colonel Haithi yelled at you about earlier, make sure you schedule in down time. This is as important as any other part of your programming. You must find something that helps you decompress, or clenases your palette of whatever educational discipline’s theory you are subjugating yourself to in order to know whose ass to kiss and whose theories to ignore. The ones my friends use vary as widely (and wildly) as their programs of study: comics, kayaking, laser tag, hiking, cartoons, soap operas (that one was actually our retiring Graduate College Dean), anything that can help you reset.

This also includes scheduling time to be with family and/or friends. Most of them (those that you still have by the time you are in the middle of graduate school) are there for you and want to see you succeed, and won’t be in the habit of helping you blow off work, but you need to make time to hang out, you’d be surprised how recharging even a short lunch can be, and you can tell them about your work which actually helps you think through it.

You may think you can plow through something and then reward yourself, and that may be correct with the 10, 15, or 25 page papers in class, but something like a thesis, or preparing for comps, or a dissertation, or life, can’t be  plowed through in totality without destroying the plow and the plower.

It also doesn’t hurt to triple check your list once you set the order. I blew two days working through a historiographic work on American Culture that is actually on the fourth page or so of the list. But other stuff happened too. Once you can finally get over the reading as not wasting more “valuable” time, then you can work on your process of note taking, what the purpose of it all is, and whatever existential crises arise when you can’t figure any of that out.

You may also wish to plan some gym or home workout time. That can overlap with your “me” time to decompress, or if you are capable you can read while you walk on a treadmill or something similar. Standing desks are all the rage currently, and even if you don’t have one at work, you might have a hard time reconciling yourself to hours of sitting a reading while you get flabby, fat and lazy.

Flabby, fat, and lazy

Walking also helps you think, so maybe a walk after reading will help you process things.

All the planning in the world won’t get you anywhere. You have to just get started.  Don’t wait until Monday, or the first of the month, or after your dental appointment, do it now. Like Floyd Pepper tells Kermit when they get to Lew Lord’s office in Hollywood:

Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it” 


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