Comps Preparation Tips

I will be taking comps* in about a month and so these days my full attention is on making sure I’m as prepared as I can be. Now you, hypothetical reader, can benefit from my reflection on the process. Here’s what I think a person starting to think about preparing for comps will need to know and do:

  1. Ask your peers. Before I started the process, it all seemed really opaque to me, so I informally interviewed some friends (ok, with a notebook) and realized that it was confusing because in fact it was not exactly an entirely uniform process. Along the way, I was also able to identify what elements ARE actually uniform here (but which vary from department to department, so I won’t bother mentioning here).
  2. Design your committee. Some people may not have as many choices about who to have, but I had the privilege of having a bunch of brilliant people to choose from. Things I considered included:
    • how much time/attention each professor would provide to guide me (based off of their personality type, workload, and reviews from students – it is probably not a coincidence that most of my committee is younger faculty)
    • the interpersonal dynamics of the group (things go more smoothly if everyone likes talking to each other)
    • what topical overlap we have and, more importantly, whether our theoretical orientation to the topic overlapped (while stretching myself intellectually is a good thing, I don’t want to find myself in the profoundly frustrating position of writing against my own theoretical inclinations because of a fundamental difference in approach with my comps questioner)
  3. Talk to your committee. That was a challenge for me. I think it would have helped if I had scheduled out how many conversations I wanted to have and how often. Planning a schedule of when I wanted to ask specific questions (e.g., “how do you design a comps question?” or “how many drafts of a comps statement do you usually ask for?” or “here’s where I am in the reading preparation, how does this sound to you?”) would have helped.
  4. Organize the crap out of your preparation. Figure out the last possible date for you to take comps and work backwards filling in the dates (I needed my adviser to make this calendar). Figure out how much you are going to have to read for each professor and create a syllabus for yourself – ideally you can do this as an independent study. Create internal deadlines, and include preparatory assignments. My adviser asks me to synthesize groups of books rather than simply creating an annotated bibliography and I have found this incredibly useful. I expect to take full chunks from that writing later.
  5. Read like the wind. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to read everything you want to in the detail you had hoped. But this is advice for the preparation stage, so I think it’s still valid.
  6. Take notes on everything you read. I use a notetaking rubric that helps me stay on track that I already wrote about.**

If you are reading this and you are post-comps, please leave me your advice!

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** edited to add this because Mr. Masson was totally right, it does make it a million times easier later, but it is really tempting to skip.

Worries of a Recovering Interventionist


Before I was an anthropologist, I was a service provider. I worked for a wonderful program called Identity, Inc with Spanish-speaking immigrant youth in the DC Metropolitan area. In fact, in the same amazing school system that I grew up in. Even though my college major was in Ancient Greek, I knew by the time I graduated that I wanted to be working in and for the Latino community in my hometown. I was motivated – as I think most young, non-profit workers are – by a desire to make a difference and actually be able to see the difference I made. I think I did more good than harm for the youth and their families I was able to serve, but obviously I had more to gain (given the foundations I was starting with) than they did from my work. They got referrals, counseling, a couple of fun hours of Positive Youth Development every week, and some of them got a stipend for working as peer HIV educators – but I got a regular salary, a meaningful job, and ultimately a stepping stone to the next stage of my career. When I left, making a difference was still a big part of my narrative of my own life.

Now it seems next to impossible to imagine wanting to frame myself that way.* Can it be reduced to cynicism? I used to see interventions (at least the ones I took part in) as Good Steps In The Right Direction, but my faith in my ability to identify which direction is right has been seriously shaken. Working as a sex educator at Identity seemed culturally complex but morally straightforward, but after grad school I found myself making room for many of the conservative perspectives on sex education that had once sparked righteous indignation. My Master’s research with pregnant and parenting youth so dramatically impacted my perspective that I now think most pregnancy prevention efforts are potentially more damaging than helpful. When I think about the kinds of change that interventions make, I cringe at the thought of myself as just another governmental force in the lives of the people I am most motivated to support**.

I am now in the phase of my research where I am trying to identify the broader impacts of my proposed study. But over the last five years I have been so carefully critiquing the claims to salvation that trying to write that narrative about myself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I wonder, is this just a phase or a sea change? Have others experienced this kind of alienation from a previous interventionist or advocacy identity only to later reconcile with it? And if not, in this deeply morally engaged discipline, what path is left to me?

* To be clear, this is in no way meant to be a generalized indictment of people who design and/or implement interventions. I have the utmost respect for those who have found ways to incorporate service work and advocacy into their lives, and am frankly envious of the applied-research balance some of my peers have found in their anthropological work.
** Apart from my sense of self, this is most awful because of how deeply I cared about many of the people I was working with and for – I believe this is usually, if not always, the case for people who find themselves in this type of work.

Patron Saint of Grad Students

Caravaggio - San Gerolamo

Sometimes there is a bunch of stuff you can learn to be more successful in grad school*. But there are plenty of situations when you know everything you SHOULD do, and still can’t pull it all together and all that seems to be left is divine intercession**.

That is pretty much where I am at the moment.

With this in mind, I have identified five possible Catholic saints who whose patronage might be particularly relevant to grad students (and specifically anthropology grad students in one case):

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Josse Lieferinxe

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Josse Lieferinxe

  • Saint Jude ThaddeusPatron Saint of Lost Causes and Desperate Situations
    • called the Forgotten Saint because people stopped praying to him ‘cuz they mixed him up with Judas Iscariot, some people also say he was Jesus’ brother
  • Saint Catherine of AlexandriaPatron Saint of Libraries, Scholars, and Teachers
    • a pagan Roman princess who converted to Christianity and is often depicted sitting and reading or with a quill for writing since she was most known for her exceptional knowledge of the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Incidentally, she is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, aka the Extra Helpful Saints.
  • Saint JeromePatron of Archaeologists, Scholars, and Translators
    • born with the awesome name Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, this guy is the patron of archeologists because he spent a lot of time hanging out in crypts and tombs and restoring old stuff. Apparently he pissed off the Roman establishment by attracting a lot of women to the studious monastic life.
  • Saint UrsulaPatron Saint of Students and Teachers (particularly the education of women)
    Saint Joseph Calasanctius

    Saint Joseph Calasanctius

    • like Catherine, a martyred virgin princess (along with a group of other virgins who had the misfortune to run into the Huns at Cologne and get beheaded en masse), she is the namesake for the Ursuline Order, which takes as its mission the education of girls and women
  • Saint Joseph CalasanzPatron Saint of Universities and Schools for the Poor
    • opened the first free public school in Europe and had a lot of good ideas about pedagogy (like teaching in the vernacular, emphasizing math and science, and accepting all students regardless of religious identification or class)

The time I spent learning about these saints for this post was TOTALLY a good use of my time … and on a related note:

* Like pretty much anything posted on GradHacker
** Although this post is definitely meant to be taken lightly and is in no way an attempt to convert anyone (God forbid), I am totes going to actually break out the old rosary and chat with one or two of these guys after.