Finally. . . *finally!!* my exams are over.
Here, comprehensive exams incorporate two steps, a written section and an oral section. The written section involves three four-hour test sessions, one for each of three historical fields, and the oral section is one two-hour session that must take place after the written section has been completed and assessed by the three professors representing each of the three fields.
I spent a lot of time thinking about these exams, and, at first, they felt so distant, particularly before I set the dates for the written tests. In January, I declared the written test dates, and I think reality began to truly set in at that point. I truly had spent a huge amount of time reading–I began reading in earnest for the exams last January, and I was sure to take a lot of notes on each of the books. I started reviewing material two weeks before the first test, and I set that time aside deliberately. However, I found that even with that length of time, I wasn’t able to get through everything before the first exam, and I realized that I would be reviewing right up to the last written test date.
The living room, or this portion of it, was transformed into a permanent study space, and for hours each day, I went through material and put together study guides for each section of each of three bibliographies. I tried to make time to take walks at night, just to have something to look forward to. I remember Sunday night before the first exam walking around the neighborhood, as I had done many times before, and thinking: “Two weeks from now WILL come.”
Probably the most challenging thing for me was the “unknown” element, and, at least for test one, there were many. First, I didn’t know how long four hours was going to feel once I started writing. Would I feel rushed? Not have enough to say? Second, I was apprehensive that I would get tired, my wrists might hurt from typing so much, or I might suddenly realized I was starving and be unable to do anything about it. And, applicable to every test day was one looming issue: I had (almost) no idea what the questions would be, and I was not allowed to bring into the testing space so much as the bibliographies to help structure an answer to these unknown questions.
Test day one began with my uber-supportive partner, Stephen, making me a way-too-huge-on-a-day-like-this breakfast to at least counteract the starvation possibility. I ate as much as I possibly could, which wasn’t much. I was really exhausted, having woken up in the middle of the night without falling back to sleep successfully thereafter. I left early to get in as close to on time as possible, and although Miami traffic is far from predictable or easy, I did make it in early. By that time, I just had to get in there and start–I had to get it overwith. I asked the department staff to set me up in the office to which I had been assigned. Luisa went over with me the procedure–I had to use a particular computer, I had to save the answers to both the hard drive of the computer and to a thumb drive the department supplied, and I had four hours from the moment I sat down with everything all set to go.
She handed me the questions, and I breathed a sigh of relief–I could answer these, definitely. I had a choice of one question in each of two sets of questions, so I chose my questions quickly and began right away. I typed answers for what felt like an eternity, although I will say that I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew when I had gotten through everything in order to say it effectively. I knew that the answers weren’t as eloquent as I wanted them to be, but if I couldn’t perfect the answers, I could at least throw in as much information, and as many references, as I possibly could. I wasn’t too rushed, but I was definitely conscious of time. And, when I felt like I did the best I could do, I called Luisa, a few minutes before the time was up, to pass in my answers.
Turning over the answers to Luisa, who then sent them out to me and to my committee, resulted in the dissipation of most of my remaining anxiety. I went home. I took a nap. I started reviewing for the next test.
Thus ended one of three anxiety cycles that week. According to department policy, I had to take all three written exams in the same week. I could insert a day in between tests, but I could not run into a second week. Like many, I chose the alternative test day option, so my next test day was Wednesday. Monday night was somewhat relaxing, possibly even somewhat enjoyable given one test was complete. Tuesday, however, began the anxiety rise once more, as I went through a different set of material for a different field. Before I knew it, I was back in the office again, taking another test.
By the third test, the cycle had taken a toll. I should have been thrilled to have had two tests out of the way by Thursday, but my third exam was in my primary field (Medieval History), and I knew the least about what I could expect to be asked. I felt as if I hadn’t gone through as much as I wanted to go through before the test. I was really tired after several nights of lost sleep.
And, I had a breakdown.
Thankfully, Stephen was fantastic, as were my parents, all of whom heard the same set of concerns and frustrations many times over a two hour period. I didn’t feel as if I was going to do a great job, but I did at least feel as if I had worked as had as one might be expected to work.
Fortunately, my advisor was merciful, and he was sure to inform me as quickly as possible–as in, Saturday morning following–that I had passed the written section, and I would proceed to the oral component.
For this, I had time. The oral section had been previously scheduled for the Friday of the following week, and I figured that I would likely be asked either questions about my written answers or additional questions that had appeared on the lists but I had not chosen to answer. So, I spent the week reading through material that would help me if that turned out to be the approach (after a weekend of doing absolutely nothing, of course).
Again, I was anxious, but as ready as I was going to be going into Friday. Stephen came with me, and he absented himself to a lobby to read and await the completion of the oral portion of the exam. There were three people in the room, besides myself, all professors representing my three fields. Promptly at 10:30, they started asking questions.
The “anxiety cycle” appplied to this scenario in microcosm. Each of the three professors took approximately 45 minutes or so, asking me all of his questions before moving on to the next professor. Thus, just as I was starting to get used to the questions asked by one professor, the process would move on to the next professor and the next field. There were moments that seemed to move along quickly and moments that crawled by. At one point, I was temporarily tripped up by a question from my own advisor that I wasn’t anticipating, but I think I recovered once I understood what he was looking for. Then, finally, at 12:20, they sent me out to deliberate.
I went back to my office on the same floor and I sent a text message to Stephen to come up. I sat down. I waited a few minutes. Then, I heard the seminar room door open and my advisor’s steps on the hallway. It was either going to be really good or really bad news. My advisor appeared in the doorway just as Stephen also came around the corner.
“You passed with distinction.”
I think all I could managed to say at that moment was “Are you serious?”
It was over, and I could now move on to the next step in the program. Such a relief I could not describe. The rest of the day was a bit of a logistical challenge–my advisor had proposed that we all go out to lunch after the oral exam was over, but Stephen and I didn’t make it. As we pulled out from the parking space in the garage, the tire came loose from the axle of the car, and we ended up spending the rest of the day waiting for a tow truck.
Nothing, however, at that moment could have made me miserable. It was over, and I could finally sleep again.