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Megan Betz

In less than 30 days, I will begin the comprehensive exam process--an open-note, at-home version that gives me one week with each question. That means for five weeks, I'll be eyes-deep in urban geography, political ecology, and pastoralism in America. The timeline took me a bit by surprise; I'd been anticipating a February start date. Instead, I'll begin just a week after the semester recommences and wrap up with time to spare before spring break--a break I fully intend to give myself for the first time ever.

Even when we went to Georgia with another couple a few years ago, I took along five books and two design projects. This time, no books. Period. Not even for leisure. These eyes are resting, unless they're turned onto my baby. It's going to be a week of home repairs, maybe hiding in the woods for a few days, and cooing to my poor daughter who sees more of the back of my laptop than I like to admit. 

When the deadline was handed down to me, I went into a bit of shock. I went through my typical stages of anxiety. Crying quietly. Erasing my whole calendar & creating a new day-to-day plan. Making a to-do list of everything else that needs done but doesn't fit into the plan. Showering to hide the sound of more crying. Telling myself I should get to work immediately, but falling asleep early instead. Waking up in the middle of the night in a panic. Stress dreaming that I failed, disappointed everyone, & got kicked out of school...

And that's all in the first 10 hours. Since then, I've been reading at least one book or three articles a day. Joe is making sure our house doesn't fall into complete disarray. He's also trying to convince me that I'm "excited" and not having a "stress-is-debilitating mindset."

I don't know that I've bought into that ideology yet. I'm still mostly finding myself clenching my jaw or fists--physical manifestations I don't usually find bursting forth from my subconscious. To ease the pain, I've found several helpful, tactile ways to prepare for exams that help me feel more productive at the end of the day. I have color-coded Post Its, matching tags for marking pages, and a new pack of Stabilo pens. I have note cards, one for each thing I read with title, date, author, author description, main points, and theoretical framework. These are eventually going to be color-coded and will play a big part in how I spend my time between written and oral exams. I'm not good at memorization, and I'm looking for any tool or process that could help. (I'm drawing a lot on my experience learning French, writing and rewriting verb conjugation boxes. The physical process of writing, of using my body to work through the information, is helpful for me.)

When it all gets to be too much, I look back at my timeline...

  • Jan-Feb: written exams
  • mid-Feb: oral exams
  • Feb-March: conference presentations
  • March-April: dissertation proposal
  • May: field work

That's not so bad, right? At least not when your field site is down the road, and it's flush with fruit in the months after you begin field work. 

Other ways I'm coping are allowing myself time to tick one project of my more general to-do list a day--just something small. Today, it's blogging. Tomorrow, it will hopefully be updating Academia.edu and LinkedIn to include forthcoming publications (#humblebrag). I've even used that to-do list to get my whole class for the spring semester planned (with the exception of a few activities and the down-to-the-minute lesson plans). Ah. Even talking about the small things I've been able to accomplish creates a bit of breathing room in my chest. Maybe a bit less tension between my shoulder blades. And now I'm back to it.