With the exception of a few days here and there, the whole process wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot, not only about how to take comps, but about myself and what I’m capable of. My process was pretty different from most of my friends’ experiences with comps (they span a wide range of fields, all with different levels of rigor), but there are some universals, I think.
1. From your first day of grad school, SAVE EVERYTHING. Syllabi, articles, books, electronic files…all of it. Additionally, these things should be organized. If you want to keep them in a file box organized by class or by subject matter, fine. If you like to keep everything in digital format, fine. But you need to be able to know pretty quickly what is where because there’s a good chance you’ll need it at some point. My system involved a series of file boxes in my home office that had folders by class and by subject matter (stuff I’d referenced in conference papers or just articles of random interest that were marginally related to my field) along with PDF copies of articles organized on my computer. Even if you don’t think something will be of direct use to you, keep it, because it may serve to point you in the right direction later on. Nothing is worthless!
2. Once you get your comps questions or know generally what you will be asked, hit the ground running. Create outlines, draft a bibliography, and get your sources together. Even if you’re taking comps in the “come in two consecutive Saturdays and write like a bat out of Hades” format, knowing where you want to go with something is most valuable. When you start writing, it’s so easy to start wandering until you have no idea how to get back to where you started. Don’t wait a few weeks to begin working. It’s so easy to keep putting it off, and you’ll want that cushion when you can’t resist the urge to procrastinate later on.
2a. Having said that, know that you’re definitely going to be needing and wanting more sources, and that you may end up taking an entirely different direction when it’s all said and done. Structure=good, but inflexibility=bad. (I think that’s a good life lesson, too.)
3. Create a schedule for yourself, outlining goals and due dates for yourself. Many people believe in this sort of approach (calling it “baby steps” or “chunking” or whatever), and that’s because it works. Trying to process the thought of all your work at once is scary as hell, but if you say, “By three weeks from today, I want to have 2 pages written/30 sources collected/all of my outlines constructed,” that’s all you have to worry about right then. First things first! Additionally, you can feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment by crossing stuff off your list/schedule or marking it DONE in big, bold letters.
4. Know when to say when. Some days you have to go that extra mile, and that’s fine. However, you can only do so much within a certain period of time, and if you push yourself too hard, you’ll see diminishing returns on your work. If you need a day or two off, or if you need to quit working earlier than you’d planned, that’s OK. If you overdo it, you’ll be just that much less productive on the following days, and that sets you up for a cycle of frustration and disappointment that’s hard to break.
5. Realize that sometimes things are outside of your control. Sometimes, you just can’t find that one article you really want, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes your network goes out and you can’t access the resources you need. Life gets in the way, as they say. Acknowledge it, accept it, but don’t use it as a crutch. If you start making excuses for yourself, you begin the descent down the slippery slope. Suddenly, you’re paralyzed by your circumstances. When something happens, breathe, think, then do. No big deal.
6. Learn to compartmentalize. When you’re working, really work. Don’t check Google Reader, Facebook, etc. Just work. When you’re not working, don’t think about your work or what you haven’t done yet. If you let your work time bleed into your play time (or vice versa), you’ll never feel a sense of completion or closure. Boundaries: Learn them, use them, love them!
7. Say no. It’s ok to admit your limitations, and if you let yourself get spread too thin, you’ll suffer the consequences the most. You have to take care of your own business first and foremost. Everything else can wait.
Some of these things were already habit for me, but most were learned the hard way. Luckily I learned these principles in time to put them to use. I won’t pretend this is all one would need, but it’s certainly a starting point.