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Managing Comprehensive Exams Stress: Tips and Tricks to Making the Most of Your Summer

Last year, as April came to a close and my coursework ended, the stress of planning and preparing for comprehensive exams began. Of course, that was accompanied by an undue level of stress and anxiety. Building on tips from other graduate students who had taken the exam in the years prior, I attempted to organize my life to accomplish two goals: to do well on the exams and enjoy the summer. After a brutal first year of my PhD, I wanted to create the space to recover, the edge of burnout a constant threat. Once the summer ended, and I passed those infernal exams I reflected on a few ways to manage stress.

Take a break 

Following the end of the winter semester, I had planned to take two full weeks off. I ended up taking the entire month of May and am so glad I did. To successfully study, you need to recharge – physically, mentally and emotionally. That requires logging off, taking a pause on academic readings and reclaiming rest. Consider taking a week at the end of July off as well, this will allow you to go into August recharged and ready to tackle the last few weeks.

Create a schedule – and stick to it

After my self-imposed break, I took two full days to plan out the summer. What readings did I want to reread? Which were top priority and which were supplementary? Color-coding my calendar, I outlined which weeks I would do which readings and review which courses and lined this up with practice exams and group study sessions sprinkled throughout. It provided a structure to my days when I could easily have jumped between readings with no direction.

Treat it like a job

The best piece of advice I received was to treat studying like a 9-5 job. Each morning, having already walked the dog, I sat at my desk with a cup of coffee and began the day like clockwork. By 5pm I closed my books and spent the evening doing anything but school. This also meant I took weekends completely off, up until the last couple of weeks when crunch time began. 

Change up your location

Every day in the same space might make it difficult to focus. Try new places, whether it’s a bench in the park, at the library or a local café. 

Have other goals 

An upper year PhD told me that the summer is not only about the comps, but should having other goals will help make the most of it. This can be program related, such as writing an article, or preparing grant applications, or learning a new hobby outside of academia.

Make plans outside of studying 

It’s very easy to get stuck in a cycle where the only thing you do is study or feel guilty for not studying. Making plans outside of studying (and putting them in your calendar so you have to follow through!) will allow you time to recharge. 


A little bit of movement outside every day will do wonders for your focus. Whether it is a daily walk, yoga or a full workout, movement will increase your mental health and the stamina necessary for these exams. 

Therapy: Grad school is a compilation of rejections mixed with brief moments of joy. It’s a brutal environment that is not often discussed. Therapy is a great option to begin sorting through the hardships and provide you with a tool kit to deal with everything that comes with it. 

Regardless of how you plan your summer, remember this: You have made it this far. You were accepted into the program knowing you can accomplish this step. You’ve got this.  

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