Comprehensive Exam

This past Thursday, 4/16, was my Comprehensive Oral Exam. I haven’t posted much in the past two months because I’ve been so completely immersed in finishing up reading, preparing written documents, and studying like I’ve never studied before. It’s truly amazing just how perfectly saturated my brain felt (and still feels!): Intimate knowledge of hundreds of texts, ready to be drawn forward and converted into coherent speech and creative, synthesized ideas at any moment…. Two weeks before the exam, my primary adviser emailed me with some words of support, saying that he thought my exam would be a “rewarding experience.” I admit that I was skeptical: a three hour oral examination (“interrogation” would more aptly describe how I envisioned it unfolding at that time), on about 240 texts that I’ve read over the course of the past eleven months, in front of three committee members who are experts in their fields.

Today is Tuesday, 4/20, and it took until this morning to really feel the “rewarding” part of the whole experience. Yes, I passed the exam. But it wasn’t immediately rewarding. And I mean that in a two ways: 1) I’ve run races of all distances from 1 mile to marathon to Ironman, and at the end of each of those races the finisher receives a medal, a cheering crowd at a finish line with balloons and music and post-race food, music, and festivities, but there is no such celebration, climax, or reward for passing one’s comprehensive exams, just a shake of the hand and a congratulations; 2) It was hard to process the fact that the very thing I’d been aiming toward for eleven months was now behind me. It did not register until today that all the studying, note-taking, reviewing, and researching was real and was not a dream, and that I did well and proved my mastery of the subjects. It was not immediately rewarding because it all seemed so surreal: an eleven month crescendo that climaxed very flatly, from which I walked away exhausted, hoarse, and thinking immediately of my next two projects (a presentation in less than two weeks at NEMLA in Toronto, and my prospectus, which I have about 2 months to firmly work out).

What I can say is that I’m beginning to feel that “rewarding” feeling emerge, and it’s a good feeling. I feel a few thousand pounds lighter, I feel proud of all my hard work, and I feel released from the confines of list-reading. I can now move forward and think about other projects, like NEMLA, or like the next steps of the archaeological excavation, which turned out to be completely “square” and legal after all!

One more thing: More than any feeling of reward, I’ve felt grateful since my exam. I’ve had a tremendous support team that has helped me along through the entire process of comprehensive exam preparation. Upper-level Ph.D. candidates have shared their note-taking and scheduling strategies with me. Lower-level Ph.D. students share their notes and insights that have often had the benefit of a less microscopic focus than my own perspective. Some people have acted as cheerleaders, urging me forward with a bright, confident smile. Others have acted as referees, soberly reminding me to stay focused on the concepts that matter and to keep on track. Even the “waterboys” (to continue the sport metaphors) have been invaluable- the friends and colleagues who are always willing to take a break and walk to grab tea or a sandwich when I (or they) needed a breath of fresh air. There were coaches- the ones who pushed me through mock exams and didn’t hesitate to tell me where I needed to strengthen my game. And of course there were teammates- the other students going through the same thing as me, willing and glad to share their own experiences with one another.

Ultimately, passing my comprehensive exam was not my achievement alone, and maybe that’s why it didn’t feel so personally, individualistically rewarding. It was humbling, if anything. I realize that nobody can succeed at anything completely on their own. Nobody is an entirely self-created, self-sustaining individual. Even if I studied for this exam in an isolation chamber on the North Pole over the past eleven months, with no contact with the outside world, and passed, it would not have been only my own doing. I am the product of my parents, siblings, coaches, friends, books, inspirational heroes, movies, mentors, every one of my relationships, and of all the advice that more experienced people have given me. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

For now, it’s back to research!

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