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Diaries of a Comprehensive Exam

“In June, we commemorate National Indigenous History Month. During this month, take time to recognize the rich history, heritage, resilience and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples across Canada.” Government of Canada, 2022

Yesterday was National Indigenous Peoples Day, so it’s important now more than ever to acknowledge the traditional territory on which we reside. Queen’s University is situated on the unceded territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Peoples. As a local Kingstonian, I am so very grateful for these lands on which I live, learn, work, and play. As we reflect during this important month, consider how you bring Indigenous perspectives into your own research (even if your work doesn’t involve Indigenous Peoples). I’ve recently spent a lot of time reflecting on and researching Indigenous perspectives on disability. Being in the field of inclusive and special education, it’s important to consider how school and social cultures affect the inclusion of students with exceptionalities. Although my research does not involve Indigenous Peoples, many Indigenous communities view disability as a gift rather than a problem that needs fixing. I am currently working toward incorporating this knowledge and cultural understanding into my literature review, which will be presented in my second comp exam.

Speaking of comprehensive exams, I just finished my first one! Three weeks is a very long time to focus on one thing. I am the type of person who gets bored of repetitive things, so this exercise really challenged my perseverance.

I must say that life REALLY tested me during this exam. My car broke down on the 401 the weekend before my exam started and cost me $1400 to repair during my first week of writing – YIKES! The day I picked my car up and paid the big bills, I received an unexpected call from Sit With Me Rescue (who I adopted my doggo from) and a spay appointment FINALLY became available. The little lady got spayed in Gananoque during week two of writing. During week three, we had a storm rolling in and that’s always an anxious time for someone living with a chronic migraine condition. Sure enough, I had severe vertigo for two days and became well acquainted with my garbage can. Needless to say, I lost two whole days of writing time and was scrambling to put it all together at the end.

Tip #1: Don’t forget that life still happens while writing these treacherous papers. Set priorities beforehand and remember that if it’s not higher on your priority list than your exam, there’s no need to stress about it… until after. 

In terms of the exam itself, there were definitely some hiccups, but also some really proud, “yay me” moments. From the get-go, it made more sense for me to respond to my three questions in a different order than they were posed. This alternative approach allowed me to narrow the number of studies I was analyzing as I worked through the questions. While I began with 50 studies, only nine were relevant for the next question, and three for the third. Essentially, reordering the questions gave my paper better organization. I found a way to respond to an entire question using a table. Turns out, the table ended up being over 4500 words, putting me WAY over my word limit! Fun fact: APA formatting allows appendices and they do NOT count toward the word limit. So, this very large, very thorough table occupied an entire appendix. Do loopholes count as cheating? My grad friends decided they do not. I then ran into a problem where this table required the pages to be in landscape mode to work, so I bribed my mom with the “h” in my future “Ph.D.” to figure out how to do this. Why I didn’t give up on this table idea I still do not know, but I can say that it was worth it in the end.

Tip #2: Use your resources, bribe your mothers, talk to your friends! Bouncing ideas off others will only make your work better.

Another obstacle that I had to overcome was understanding when I did my best work. I am NOT a morning person. On day one, I was so anxious that I was sitting down with my questions at 8:48am. That was absolutely NOT sustainable for me. Finding the motivation to get back into my rhythm each morning was a challenge on its own, but it was an added struggle when I was trying to work hours that weren’t manageable for me. I found that waking up at 8am and taking my time in the morning was the most effective for my brain capacity. I embraced the “east coast lifestyle” mindset, making coffee and breakfast without haste and walking my doggo for however long felt good that morning. There were many days that I didn’t start writing until noon. This is just what worked well for me. I was able to continue my flow until 9pm regularly and, on occasion, 10 or 11pm. Winding down at night with a glass of wine was important for me to get a good sleep and manage my stress. When I hit a brain block midday, colouring in my Harry Potter colouring book, walking my dog by the water, or going to the gym were all activities that helped me hit the reset button so that I was able to get back to work with a fresh mind. 

Tip #3: Drink the wine, make use of your colouring books, hit the gym. All in the name of short-term stress management.

When this dreadful process came to a close, I shut my laptop for five days and went on a camping trip to help myself recover. The recovery time and process is different for everyone. I can confirm that I am still exhausted and working shorter hours than I normally would. One friend told me that it took her three weeks to feel “normal” again, while another claimed he has been recovering all year. Regardless of how quickly you might be able to return to your routine, I do recommend taking some time off to do the things you enjoy for mental health purposes.

Have you written any of your comp exams yet? How did you cope with exam stress? With life stress? Did you have any big “aha!” moments? What did you do to celebrate when it was over?

Written by: Kianna Mau

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