Staying sane and healthy during qualifying exams.
July 22, 2012 7:48 PM   Subscribe

I have two weeks of PhD qualifying exams coming up - how do I stay sane, healthy, and positive?

Starting tomorrow morning, I've got two weeks and one day of qualifying exams to get through. They come in the form of two week-long papers (open resource) and a one-day writing exam without any sort of notes, etc. The field is music education.

I understand that this isn't as daunting as some of the hard science fields, but I'm really worried about coming out of this stretch without completely blowing up. This is in terms of both passing and staying sane. When I have stressful periods like this, I tend to eat like shit, sleep like shit, and procrastinate to the last moment. I need to figure out how to avoid these pitfalls.

I have issues with anxiety, depression, and ADD, and although I'm medicated, these types of situations seem to bring out the worst. I especially have issues with writing/test-taking anxiety. My wife is willing to step up to bat with whatever I need, but I'd like to make this low stress for both of us.

What do you do in situations like this to keep yourself alive and sane? I'm afraid that these two weeks are going to completely destroy me, but I feel like there may be something I can do to keep my head above water. I just have these nightmare-ish flashes of me next Sunday evening, not having started, having fucked around on the internet or Minecraft all week long...

What are you tips and tricks? How do you get through these types of situations? How can I not completely lose my shit for 2 weeks?
posted by SNWidget to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I passed quals and candidacy by... eating like shit, sleeping like shit, and procrastinating to the last moment. YMMV.
posted by doowod at 8:02 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

What doowod said. My exams sucked really, really hard, but actually taking them beat the hell out of the misery that was studying for them. It was actually a huge relief to finally get started. It was a long, exhausting slog, but every day I was one day closer to DONE, and that was maybe the best I ever felt. It's OK to be anxious and stressed. And then in two weeks, it will be OVER. Huzzah!
posted by isogloss at 8:13 PM on July 22, 2012

I took my eight-and-a-half hour medical licensing exam earlier this month and am a considerably distractable person. That said, I managed to stay on an 8-10 hour/day study schedule for two months with very little cheating. Here's how you do it: go to google calendar, block out eight to ten hours of work time in either 1-hour or 1.5 hour portions with 30 minute breaks inbetween (1 hour for lunch and dinner). That should take you from roughly 8 AM to about 9 PM. Then follow that schedule to a T. No Gmail. No facebook. Just focused, 1-1.5 hour bursts of work, with thirty minutes of well-deserved rest in between.

Did it work? Congratulations; take the night off. Did you cheat? Stay up working past midnight to make up for lost time and don't even think about sleeping in the next morning.

There are three components to this plan that make it effective*, in my opinion: 1) carrot (taking the night off); 2) stick (forced study past midnight with no sleep allowance), and 3) a sane schedule that allows for breaks and meals. That last one is important.

*CAVEAT EMPTOR: Scores don't come back for my exam until Wednesday. I have *no* idea how truly effective that regimen is. It felt like it worked, though.
posted by The White Hat at 8:14 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got through comps by:

1. Making a strict schedule -- when to go to sleep, when to eat, when to do yoga, etc.

2. I then tried to eliminate stuff that would mess that up -- so I made little meals that I could just grab while working.

3. I made sure all the stupid shit -- bills, car repairs, etc -- were as set as I could make them.

Just remember, ain't nothing to it but to do it!
posted by spunweb at 8:23 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the idea of setting out a schedule is fantastically empowering and I wish I had done it. Instead, I ended up just flying by the seat of my pants. But when that first question popped into my email at 9 a.m. on Monday, I pretty much thought of nothing else until I was done. Like you, I have ADHD and was nervous as hell. But when reality struck, somehow I just cracked the hell down and did what had to be done. You can too.

I don't know what time zone you're in but it's getting pretty late here, so if you're in US EDT, you might want to get to bed soon. You can do this! :-)
posted by isogloss at 8:39 PM on July 22, 2012

I always kept one computer showing the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam, so I could at any time look up from work and feel calmer.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:39 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone goes through this. First, accept that you're already as well prepared as you need to be to do fine (or, worst case, if you're not, it's far too late to fix it now). Now is the time to put some finishing touches on your preparation, organize your notes and ideas, and keep yourself as fresh and rested as possible. Writing some outlines and ideas down ahead of time will help you feel more prepared going in: even if you don't know what questions you'll be asked, take some time to outline the ideas you feel emerged from your reading and the things you'd like to talk to about them, especially ideas that touch on a lot of texts rather than just one.

Managing the anxiety is by far the most important goal in the pre-exam period — you should absolutely allow yourself to take as much time as necessary to fuck around on the Internet, play Minecraft, drink, and do any other thing that helps you relax and stay sane in the run-up, because you'll want to be very well-rested and sane when the actual exam ordeal begins. Once you start into the exams themselves, there's a pattern that everyone seems to go through, with high-pressure anxiety and not sleeping for about two days followed by a crash, a lot of sleeping midweek, and then a recovery to a more sane and sustainable working schedule.
posted by RogerB at 8:42 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wrote my dissertation in 45 minute chunks. With a timer. And a timer for the 15 min breaks in between. From 8am to 6pm or so. The rule about the 45 min was that I was working. No email. No mefi. No making a fresh pot of tea. No cleaning. Oh, how tempting the cleaning was!
The rule about the the break time was that I was NOT working. Not wrapping up a thought, not doing 'just a little more'. Ideally, also not reading or doing anything with close vision. Lots of tea brewing, eating, chattering aloud to no one, calling a buddy. Throwing a few picks in the loom. Checking the (snail) mail. A real break.

And at 530 or 6, when the timer sang out, I was done for the day, without guilt.

All told this gave me a lot of time to concentrate and really focus, but also ensured that I didn't get an ergo injury or just burn out from intellectual fatigue.

(I warn you, though, by 4pm every day I was brimming with frivolous babble - the phone call to a buddy (or even to her voicemail) became known as the "4o'clock words". )
posted by janell at 9:40 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been studying for the bar, which is probably not quite the same, but similar.

1) put everything else off until later. Laundry? Dishes? Whatever. Another day.

2) do healthy things to procrastinate. (Laundry and dishes now heinously piled up? 15 minute break. Hungry? Cook self veggies).

3) reward self. "if you get through this chapter, you may play with metafilter for a while. Or have some chocolate."

4) reward self when done. I have a new handbag that I am not wearing until I've finished this exam! And I've filled it with crap paperbacks to read because I'll have time!

5) sad? Overwhelmed? Read this.

6) call at least one person who loves you for at least ten minutes a day.
posted by slateyness at 10:01 PM on July 22, 2012

Oh. And I'm eating like shit, sleeping like shit and otherwise stressed. I just decided to block out recovery time for when I'm done and look forward to it. Good luck.
posted by slateyness at 10:03 PM on July 22, 2012

I understand that this isn't as daunting as some of the hard science fields

Bullshit. A week of examination? Is this askme somehow transported from the era of Imperial Examination? The worst in the sciences is a full day. Maybe 2 working days and 1 oral day. At MAX.

You're being hazed. One of the things that these kinds of qualifying examinations try to address is how well you handle stress and deadlines. You're currently failing that aspect.

Breath. Plan. Make reasonable timetables and try to stick with them. My problem, though, was beating them and then having intermittent stretches between 100%+ ALL THE TIME and "I can be doing 0 right now."

I suggest going 86% which is good enough to get you running hard enough to do a good job at the performance (oral defense), but doesn't burn you out too much. Er, rather, it would have been beneficial if you had figured out your optimal "go" setting already, but it's a little too late now, but maybe something to keep in mind for the future. Learn from what you're going through now.
posted by porpoise at 11:26 PM on July 22, 2012

Yeah, the timer. Start with 15 minutes if you have ADD. For 15 minutes, you must be sitting in front of a word processing document. You may not change windows, get up to pee, make a snack, check your mail, dick with your phone, or anything else. If you are not writing, for that 15 minutes you are literally staring at the page you are not writing on. That's it. When the timer goes off, then you can go do whatever but again, only for 15 minutes. Extend to 45 minute chunks.

Remember: anyone can do anything for 15 minutes.

You also probably need a 3rd party to check in with. Would you consider a daily check in call with a trained ADD coach for the duration? I imagine it would be worth it, both in terms of reducing your anxiety and moving you ahead.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:41 AM on July 23, 2012

I got through my prelims using several techniques:

1. sticking to a strict but not entirely inflexible schedule
2. exercising regularly (this helped a LOT)
3. drinking lots of yerba maté
4. promising small rewards to myself after each completed step - in my case, trips to the record store.

I also had a study group with friends, which was helpful for both intellectual and moral reasons, but seems like your exams are coming up too soon to do something like that.
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:31 AM on July 23, 2012

As someone with mild ADD, I second (or is it third) the timer technique. Set the timer to intervals of 45 minutes and once that timer rings, get up and go do something else. Then come back.

I did three 45 minute sessions in the morning, then would eat, go to the gym and come back to two other 45 minutes in the afternoon. Whatever happens in that 45 minute, whether you are stuck and write two sentences of are motivated and could keep going, you stop when the timer rings. Stopping when you're in the flow of things will keep you motivated to come back. Just remember to make a quick note of where you wanted to go next (I leave myself notes such as: Next up: how the debate about agency/structure is relevant in the field of ethnicity).

I did my comprehensives and wrote my PhD dissertation using this type of schedule. It does work to keep you stimulated, and ensures you get both "focused thinking" time and lateral thinking time (when you're cooking or working out). Plus, as others have said, it ensure you don't get stuck in intellectual fatigue or what Robert Boice calls "diminishing returns". (Boice studied the habits of successful faculty. His studies have shown that faculty who break up their activities in smaller chunks actually produce more than the ones who sit at the same spot for hours on end).

Most of all, do what works for you and don't stay stuck on negative thinking. If you're stuck on something, move on to the next bit. And, like someone else said: realize that what you already know is good enough to pass these quals.
posted by Milau at 8:33 AM on July 23, 2012

It was over 20 years ago, but what got the job done for me was cocaine.

Just saying.
posted by spitbull at 2:36 AM on July 26, 2012

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