From the APA Science Student Council

Keeping It Together During Comps!

Although the qualifying exam requires and demands intense focus, with some conscious effort it is possible to live a balanced life during this process. Here are some tips on how to regain your sanity, conquer self-doubt, and make this time-tested graduate student rite of passage a pleasant experience.

The Science Student Council is a group of nine graduate students who spend a couple of weekends a year with the Science staff, advising on programs and activities that would benefit graduate students in psychological science. In this column, the students will present useful information that other graduate students need to know! Visit the Science Student Council to learn more about the activities of the SSC.

Keeping It Together During Comps!
by Stanley King

For most graduate students, whether their qualifying exam is behind them or it is forthcoming, just thinking about the experience is enough to lose a good night’s rest. So why do students, who have ample experience in taking tests, dread this exam?

Known as Quals, Generals, Prelims or Comps depending on your university, the exam is a significant milestone for a graduate student signifying that they may proceed to doctoral candidacy and begin working on their dissertation. Consequently, the time spent preparing for and taking the exam tends to be one of the most stressful periods of graduate training. Fortunately, unlike coursework, increased anxiety and infrequent smiles are not requirements for taking and passing this exam. In fact, research indicates that cognitive abilities decline during times of extreme or chronic stress. Thus, for once it’s not your advisor making your life more difficult -- it’s you! However, all is not lost. Although the qualifying exam requires and demands intense focus, with some conscious effort it is possible to live a balanced life during this process. Here are some tips on how to regain your sanity, conquer self-doubt, and make this time-tested graduate student rite of passage a pleasant experience.

Regain perspective: Stay positive! Just because the qualifying exam is a significant requirement for progressing to doctoral candidacy does not mean it has to be an unpleasant experience. It is possible to have fun during challenging times. Also, don't forget about the positive side of all of your hard work - you will gain a huge amount of knowledge about a range of topics in your field!

Monitor your health: This is crucial! Drink plenty of water, exercise often, and get lots of sleep. Depending on the format of your exam you may need to remain focused for weeks; thus, optimal mind and body function is critical.

Time management: Create a schedule and develop a routine! This will help you on the days when you are exhausted and lack motivation. Additionally, seeing what you have completed will provide a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day or week.

Create a support network: Find time for people! This may be a significant other, family, fellow students taking the exam with whom you can commiserate, or friends that are clueless about what you are going through. Take at least a couple nights out of the week and have fun. Play intramural sports, go bowling, watch a movie, check out the local music scene; engage in activities with people that allow you to clear your mind.

Mentally regress: Think back to the moment when you decided that you wanted to go to graduate school for psychology. Maybe it was a class or professor that ignited your passion for the study of behavior. Whatever it was, tap into that excitement and enthusiasm. It will get you through the difficult days.

Focus: Make this your primary obligation, and give it your best! The qualifying exam is a good excuse to clear everything from your schedule except for those things you have to do and want to do. Use this rare opportunity wisely.

Ultimately, any discomfort caused by your qualifying exam is temporary. Try some of the aforementioned tips and hopefully your qualifying experience will be nothing more than an intellectually stimulating opportunity to showcase your scholarship. So relax, stay optimistic, and put forth your best effort.