A 5-step guide to passing your comprehensive exams in grad school

Estimated reading time: 22 mins (4349 words)

One of the great joys of grad school is that exams are not just restricted to coursework.

Nope, PhD students get to go through the fun of taking an exam that determines whether they actually get to stay in grad school. Yay!

Since a few of my very close friends in grad school are preparing to go through this cruel, yet inescapable, rite of passage, I’ve decided to write up all the tips I can think of to help them out on their journey.

In my exceedingly finite wisdom, I have conjured up a list of 5-ish steps to passing comprehensive exams in grad school.

Since I just took these a year ago, the (painful) experience is still very much a recent memory, so this seems as good a time as any to pass on the knowledge I have gained to the next batch of students.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this so dramatically. If you are, you’re probably not taking these exams any time soon. Because if you were… YOU’D BE FREAKING OUT TOO!

One of the things I hate most is when I’m panicking and someone tells me to ‘calm down’

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Or, even worst, when they tell me “there’s nothing to worry about”…

With all due respect, I am perfectly able to decide what is and what is not worth worrying about. As is every other grad student.

And if you’re about to do some exam that’s going to decide whether you do or don’t get to stay in grad school, then you, my friend, have a perfectly valid reason to freak out.

So, to all my fellow grad students about to go through this ordeal:

YOU’RE FREAKING OUT!

I’M FREAKING OUT!

BUT WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER!!!!

You’ll have moments when you feel totally fine and in control of the situation.

You’ll have moments when you don’t feel okay at all.

These moments will come and go, but they are not an accurate reflection of how prepared you are, or your ability to be a good student.

Accept whatever way you feel right now, whether it is good or bad. It will pass.

The most important thing is that you keep going and keep doing whatever is best for you.

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With that pep talk out of the way, I will share with you what I think are the 5 essential steps to successfully completing your comprehensive exams.

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Small conferences are great for graduate students. Especially, when they’re in Japan.

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1289 words)

I was at a conference in Kobe, Japan.

And it was AWESOME!

Funny thing is I only found out I was going to this conference about two weeks before it started.

How did that happen? Well, I’m glad you asked…

So, at the moment, I’m in the process of putting together my doctoral committee. Basically, I’m asking a bunch of professors if they would kindly agree to evaluate my work and be the judges at my defense when I finish up this Ph.D.

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100% real genuine footage of a doctoral committee judging a Ph.D. student on the verge of tears.

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How doing outreach can teach you what you have to offer the world

Estimated reading time 6 minutes (1049 words)

Like many other grad students, I’ve been discouraged from doing outreach.

“You should be working on something you can publish”

“It’s noble but it’s not going to help your career”

“You can do that later in your career”

I never understood this attitude. If we’re not communicating our science and educating others,  who are we doing this for?

But unfortunately, a lot of people get pushback from professors when it comes to outreach.

It’s seen as a nice little activity that you do on the side when you have time and add a line to your CV.

But it can be so much more than that. It can change a kid’s life and give them inspiration to do something they would have never considered otherwise.

It can also change your life, as a grad student.

I didn’t personally have much experience with outreach until this last year of graduate school when I taught in a summer camp.  I honestly didn’t expect much from it, besides that it would be fun to talk to some kids.

But after spending a few days with these kids, I can tell you that they did more for me than I could have possibly done for them.

Finding your roots

The amazing scientists from this summer’s Finding Your Roots camp

It was the first time I felt I could make a difference, that I had something to offer. Instead of just sitting locked away in my little ivory tower, I could make these kids laugh, teach them something and inspire them to be the scientists I knew could be.

After this experience, I knew that I wanted to make this a permanent part of my academic life. I didn’t just want to do science, I wanted to share science.

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Next level science camp: teaching kids about their genetics & genealogy

Estimated reading time: 3 mins (610 words)

I’ve watched enough American TV to know that summer camp is a thing in the USA.

I was introduced to it through the classic twin movies: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap.

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These movies have given me the false expectation that you always meet your twin at summer camp, though…

And the wondrous thing about American summer camps is that they don’t just come in one flavor! There’s band camp, sports camp, adventure camp, space camp, science camp, anything-you-can-come-up-with-camp!

And this summer, I got to see kids doing a very special type of science camp – one that was about genetics and genealogy.

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3 things I learnt during the 3 years I procrastinated this blog

Reading time: 13 mins (2678 words)

What better way to introduce a blog than by telling you all the ways in which I messed up?

Kind of joking, kind of not.

I seriously have been wondering about the best way to introduce this blog (but that’s not all I’ve been doing for three years, don’t worry, there’s plenty more I worried about).

However, it’s been 3 years, and it is comical at this point so I would like to share a distillation of the most important life lessons I have learnt while procrastinating this blog for few years:

1 . My to-do list is infinitely long, it’s growing exponentially, and tasks are not exactly getting crossed off. I remember when Facebook introduced the “save” button function. I. LOVED. IT. I remember thinking “Wow, this is so useful! Now my workflow won’t get interrupted by super interesting articles because I can just save them for later! Brilliant!”

Cue reality….

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This is who I am as a person and I have to come to terms with it. It’s honestly all done with the *intention* of actually reading/watching it, but I just never find the time!

My expectation was that I would somehow magically stop going through Facebook’s endless scroll (yeah, sure…) and THEN on a regular basis check my saved posts, read them and tick them off in an organized manner.

What actually happened was that I just kept on scrolling (endless scroll will do that to you…) and saving, scrolling, saving, scrolling, saving – until I was jolted upright by some kind of reminder of an immediate deadline or the realization that 3 hours had passed and I’d done literally nothing but Facebook my life away.

Funny thing is, I started noticing this happened not just with Facebook, but with everything.

I *love* me a to-do list. Mmmmm, good stuff! Pen and paper, app-based, check boxes on Evernote/Word. Doesn’t matter – love ’em all! Once it’s on your to-do list, it’s basically already done and you can chill!

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It makes me feel so organized. Like, look at it, there is a physical representation of all my good intentions! And we all know ah-MAY-zingly that works, right? (see all previous New Year’s resolutions for reference)

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