Saturday, March 28, 2009

10 Tips for Acing Comprehensive Exams

It’s time to reiterate everything you’ve learned, and you have to do it straight from memory in an organized, well-written fashion.

That’s right, it’s time for your comprehensive exams, known by most as comps or prelims. Depending on your graduate program, you may or may not have to take comps. Some programs require all graduate students to take comps, while others waive the testing in lieu of a thesis defense. The exact format of a degree candidate’s comps will likely vary by department and university, but the testing generally consists of the student writing an essay response to questions based on a reading list or area of literature specified by the student’s graduate committee and overseen by the committee chair.

My own comps were based on the core courses of study I had during my two years of study in communication, most specifically in the area of public relations. I was given questions about crisis communication, research methods, communication theory, PR theory and mass media theory, for example. I was timed writing a response to each question for either 30 minutes or one hour each. The comps requirement is part of my M.A. degree plan in conjunction with an internship (completed last summer) and an internship paper and presentation (completed last fall). Through this plan of study, I was able to gain work experience, along with the research and writing experience gained during a thesis project, in addition to the demonstration of proficiency with the literature in the field through my comps.

I originally planned to write a blog post about how to succeed at comps and what to expect only if I felt confident about my results (don’t want to lead anyone astray). Luckily, my adviser said my responses were among the best my committee had seen before, so I am of course very glad that I put as much hard work into preparing as I did, and I feel I should pass along the techniques I used. Of course, what works for one student might not work as well for everyone else, but here are my tips for you future takers of comps out there if you so desire to use them:

1) Start the process early. Most graduate programs will require you to have a committee formed well before you begin thinking about comps, so that part is likely out of the way already. However, find out when the latest date you can schedule your comps is from the graduate school or other governing body, then schedule the exam well before that date. There is likely paperwork that needs to be filled out and signed by your committee members, so find out and get the process started. You should also schedule individual meetings with your committee members to get an idea of what to study. Some professors will outright give you the questions you need to be prepared to answer, while others will at least specify an area of literature upon which to focus. Of course, some will be prepared the second you meet with them, while others will be unprepared for your initial meeting and want to finalize the details with you later. That’s fine, but make sure you get a date set in stone by which to have everything down you need to study, and don’t feel bad about pestering professors who are slow — this is your future, after all! Try to make sure you have everything you need to sit down and start the studying process at least one month prior to your exam date. I personally had about three weeks by the time I got all of my questions and would have liked one more. Burnout is really easy when studying this much information and doing so much memorization, so the more time you have to take a day off here and there the better.

2) Make a packet. You’ll want to have all of this information you’re gathering in one easily accessible place. I recommend making a Word document with an official-looking cover page. Then, copy/paste one question per page. If you don’t have exact questions from your committee members, make up a question for each area you’ve been told to study that is broad enough that you’ll be able to apply the answer to more specific questions in that area. (For example, if you’re told you are going to have a question on crisis communication, you would make sure to include literature about issues management, legitimacy, image restoration, etc.) In between each question, allow pages on which to type responses. Then make a reference page at the end of each question to list all of the sources that you wish to cite in the response. I recommend also putting a blank outlining page at the end of each response to draw relevant diagrams and outline responses. You want a concise, well-organized response prepared because time is going to go much faster than you think during the actual exam. Once your packet is complete, you can formulate your answers to questions.

3) Answer the questions. Take it one question at a time. There’s really no order to worry about here, but I liked going easiest to most difficult. For some questions, I already knew where my cited sources were going to come from without having to do much new research, and I knew how I would answer those questions. I got these out of the way first so I could have a sense of accomplishment on paper before starting the larger project of researching for the more difficult questions. (Note: finding a single book that covers the topic of a question is usually easy to do and a big time saver. For example, if you have a question on research methods in your field, it's likely there is a book that lists pros and cons and how to implement various methods in a step-by-step, easy-to-read and easy-to-remember format.) Now, it’s likely that if you pay close attention, the questions aren’t as difficult as you think. In fact, you should have saved all of the PDFs of journal articles and the returned exams and papers you’ve received during your time in graduate school. If not, this might be tougher and shame on you. If so, go back and take a look. Professors need to save time out of their busy days, so it’s likely you’ll get an eerily similar question to one you’ve already had on a mid-term or final exam for a class. Or, maybe you’ll get a question that covers an area that you spent a week on in a class, so go back and see what readings you had that week in the class. Remember, there should be a page of references at the end of each question in your packet, so use bold type or parenthetical citations in your answer pages so you know what journal articles, etc., to refer to on your reference page for each question.

4) Read and edit your answers. This sounds like a logical next step, but people write stuff all the time that they don’t edit before using. No one is likely to see your study packet other than you, so the stuff in it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, but just read your answers to make sure they make sense and that you didn’t leave out any important concepts that might make your answer better. As you read through, you’ll likely come to the realization that you want to arrange the sources on your reference page a little differently. Most students probably will not get to use anything but a list of sources with no text on their comps, so the order that the sources appear in on your reference sheet could help you remember how you wanted to organize your answer. In some cases, you may not be allowed even a reference page and have to memorize all of your sources for questions from a professor, which was the case with two of my questions. If this happens, don’t sweat it, just place the citations within your answer in the packet and use mnemonics or whatever method works best for you to start memorizing them. Once you have your answers and sources properly arranged and edited, the difficult part is finished.

5) Practice. I recommend practicing the old-fashioned way with pen and notebook paper. I know, it sounds like a pain, especially if you’re going to be allowed to take your comps on a computer, but I promise you’ll be glad you went the handwritten route in the long run. You really process what you’re writing and learn the answer more thoroughly this way. Actually use a stopwatch to time yourself and test yourself on each question just as if it were the real deal. For your first practice round with the questions, feel free to make yourself an outline ahead of time to follow, perhaps even pairing keywords with references. You’re just working the bugs out in your answers at this point and trying to memorize the order of your arguments and citations.

6) Practice again. I know, it seems tedious, but this is the biggest test of your life, y’know! You do want that degree, right? By this point, you should be able to read your question and make an outline from memory to work with. You should know where your citations go. You might still need some keywords on your reference list (or your outline if the question doesn’t allow a reference list) to help you remember what you wanted to quote from that source. Just run through the entire comps exam now, making it as realistic and as much from memory as possible.

7) Polish. Do any final polishing at this point that you need for your answers and sources. Hopefully by this point you are very comfortable with your responses and sources, perhaps just needing some final touches on your source memorization. If you know your committee members well, you might know of something special you can include to make the responses better. For example, my adviser is much like myself and likes visual learning such as charts, diagrams, graphs, models, etc. So, I made sure to come up with at least one original figure to draw as time allowed to attach to my responses. Being able to visually create models of how steps within a concept work or how concepts are interrelated demonstrates a stronger understanding of the material, so keep that in mind. Make sure everything is exactly as you’d want it to be on the actual exam before going any further.

8) Memorization. You’d probably be really lucky if your committee allows anything more than a page of citations only (that’s author name, article name, etc., with no text). Some won’t even allow that. So here’s where you need to be able to either pull directly from memory or look at your reference list and know what you want to quote from that source. Paraphrasing is probably OK, so don’t worry about direct quotes. Just make sure you are able to convey what the source said well enough that it doesn’t sound like you just attributed something to a source for the sake of having another citation. This will take a little bit of work, but it’s worth it because the writing will flow much more quickly for you if the source usage comes naturally during the exam.

9) Talk through it. Either with a friend or just to yourself, talk through each question. Just say it out loud. Answer the question as if your comps were oral (in some departments they might be) and you had to describe your answer in detail to your professor(s). Be sure to include your citations. The more you can do from memory the better. Keep talking through until what’s in your head and coming out of your mouth very closely matches what you have on paper in your packet.

10) Be mentally and physically prepared. Now that you can cite your sources backward and forward, write and converse about your responses quickly and coherently, and you are fully confident, there doesn’t seem to be much left to do. There isn’t! You’ve made it! Sure, comps seem big and scary, but overcoming it is part of the test. Don’t get stressed out. This is nothing more than a really long series of small written exams that you’ve taken before. You’ve had the classes, you’ve done the reading, you’ve done the writing and speaking through your responses — you’ve prepared in every way. So, there’s absolutely no reason to doubt yourself or worry at this point. So, relax, and mentally prepare yourself for a few hours of tedious, but what will now be easy, work. However, you need to physically prepare as well. The day before your exams, review your sources and skim through your responses in just a few quick seconds in your mind. See? You know it. Now put it down and spend the whole day relaxing. Try not to read or study anything else. You don’t want overlapping information. Do something mindless. Watch TV. Play video games. Just chill out. Go to bed early, and wake up relatively early. I recommend scheduling your comps for 9 a.m. or so. Get up by 6:30 a.m. and eat a balanced, but not heavy, breakfast. Drink some coffee if you want, but be sure to take plenty of plain, refreshing water with you to the exam and stay hydrated. Don’t chew gum, just go in hydrated and refreshed, and keep at it until you’re finished. You might want a healthful snack in between a set of questions, but I actually kept at them (once I get in a writing groove I find it best not to stop) and used lunch as a reward at the end.

Hopefully these 10 tips will help you attack your comprehensive exams in an effective and less-stressed manner. Just stay organized, and schedule specific times and dates to work on your comps. Don’t get distracted and let the exam date come up and bite you when you least expect it. Make a plan and stick to it. Also, I recommend scheduling a testing room for you alone if possible, and it’s even better if it’s a room with which you are already familiar. Best of luck!

If you'd like more tips in this area or have questions, feel free to let me know in the comments section for this post!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Student Blogging While I Still Can

I had hoped my next blog post would be something related to my comprehensive exams that I took Monday, but I have yet to hear a peep about how I did on those. I suppose my graduate committee decided to make patience and anxiety elements of the test.

However, I studied for hours on end, and I remembered when and how I wanted to cite all of my sources and wrote as many quality answers as I could in the short amount of time allowed for each one. Therefore, I am guessing that my time as a Master's student and subsequently a college student at all will finally come to an end in less than two months. I might return to academia and pursue a Ph.D. someday, but it definitely will not be in the next year or so, as I hope to make my full-time professional debut.

I say all of that to say this — I soon will just be a blogger and not a stublogger. Because of this realization, I know that I must blog as a student while I still can. After all, though I've been able to find my niche and blog mostly about PR and media in recent months, I have still strayed enough to do some comedy and blog warring from time to time. Of course, once I'm no longer a student, some of these posts not related to my professional career might be seen as unacceptable. Maybe I won't care and will blog freely anyway, but somehow I can't help but think my style will evolve once again throughout the next year.

Now what better way to go out with a bang as I make the transition from stublogger to alumnus than to be featured on the one-and-only Student Bloggers Web site? So, I decided to set out on a quest to have this post featured there because (A) it might be the last time Relatively Journalizing gets featured on a site for students and (B) I haven't been featured on there in a little more than a month and am always trying to get publicity.

Now, I can't say that Student Bloggers hasn't shown me some love, as I've been featured on there numerous times, including for this post and this one. But I can't help but think the founder and lead editor (who was the only editor at the site for much of its existence), Alex, who also happens to be a friend and colleague at Virginia Tech, had something to do with that. Now, I know it would be unethical for Alex to feature my blog each time I post, and he probably wouldn't ask the new editors who have come along (one of whom has linked to my posts before) to do such a thing either. Regardless, getting coverage from the site has been more difficult as the number of student blogs increases and so does the number of editors who don't know me and who probably don't actually read every blog on the list (or even the actual featured post?) each time they update (as was evidenced by this post being featured one day).

So, I thought, how can I put my research skills to use in one last attempt to be affirmed a stublogger before becoming an alumblogger? The answer is simple: the tried-and-true method that every graduate student has come to love — the content analysis. Of course, I'm too lazy to actually count much, so I decided to do more of a rhetorical analysis and keep it qualitative (the academic equivalent to keeping it in the family for some).

By crafting a blog post that mirrors other featured posts, I should theoretically be able to become a featured post on Student Bloggers! It's genius! Let's take a look at the most-recent featured posts from the site:
  1. Prophase? or Anaphase? from A post about the author's realizing that movies don't always portray real life realistically (and as a bonus, the author is suckered into joining a Greekish organization).
  2. A thought about college identity from generic-looking LiveJournal site: The author suffers an identity crisis about which of his alma maters to be more a part of (when really, the answer is simple — whoever is doing better at football that year).
  3. The first of many "I graduate SOON!" freak outs from LFar Blog: The author discusses how good she is with fluids.
  4. Tip links were also provided with ways to save you time and take the class you always wanted.
So in order to be featured as a stublogger, I need to (A) have an epiphany about something obvious, (B) be dramatic, (C) say something that could be taken out of context and (D) write something that will help people better themselves as students. And I think by now I have done all of those things by (A) figuring out what it takes to be a featured stublogger, (B) making a much bigger deal about it than could ever be warranted and (D) providing a template future stubloggers can use to write featurable blog posts. That just leaves (C), but I've always been a fan of leaving a hole in things to touch on later when I have a few free seconds.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gremlins in Chinatown

I have finally achieved fame (but not fortune) by guest blogging on the JohnsoNation comedy blog, operated by Andrew, an old friend I had "Comics as Literature" and "Creative Writing" with during my time at Marshall University.

Check out the blog post, "Gremlins in Chinatown," here.

I take my comprehensive exam for my Master's degree Monday, so I might be AWOL for a few days. Wish me luck, and expect a post about the experience!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thundering Hokies

I put together this little video sampling some photos and songs that will be familiar to both Marshall and Virginia Tech fans. Hopefully I didn't use enough of anything to warrant YouTube asking me to take the video down, especially considering I'm not using it to make money and this stuff is played at every game, so it makes sense to take these great things and pump up the fans. Guess we'll see. At any rate, as an alumnus of both Marshall University and Virginia Tech (OK, well, by May 16, 2009, I'll be an alumnus of Virginia Tech barring anything crazy going down), I felt I should do something for the upcoming college football game Sept. 12, 2009.

I really did not realize all of the connections my two schools had until I did a little research. Most notably, they both lost dear lives in the 1970 Marshall plane crash (see the video for more information on that). The two schools really are united by tragedy, not only because of the plane crash, but also because the Marshall community that lost 75 felt Virginia Tech's pain in a way when they lost 32 in the April 16, 2007, tragedy in Blacksburg. Only being three hours apart, these two schools have a connection through many of the people in the areas that surround them. The Roanoke Valley chapter of the Marshall Alumni Association just outside Virginia Tech is thriving.

In addition, both schools have legendary football programs. Marshall of course has the film We Are Marshall and has seen two national championships (D I-AA in 1992 and 1996). Players such as Troy Brown, Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Byron Leftwich and Ahmad Bradshaw have graced the gridiron at Marshall. In contrast to the Thundering Herd, the Virginia Tech Hokies also have an impressive history. They have the third-winningest head coach in college football, Frank Beamer, just behind Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden. Only Florida and Florida State have more consecutive bowl game appearances. In the 2000 Sugar Bowl, following a highly successful 1999 season, VT played for the national championship. Players such as Michael Vick and Eddie Royal have played on Worsham Field in Lane Stadium where the Hokies will meet the Herd in September.

VT has had about five straight 10-win seasons, matched only by USC and Texas, and looks to have another right around the corner. Could Marshall pull off the upset in September? If last season was any indication, it is not likely — but the Herd have been counted out plenty of times, and they love rising to the occasion! This should be a fun feat to watch, especially for those of us with a stake in both schools.

Fun fact: Marshall was almost called the Green Gobblers instead of the Thundering Herd. Virginia Tech's sports teams were known as the Gobblers and then the Fighting Gobblers before they were the Hokies.

Fun fact #2: Marshall plays West Virginia University each year for the Governor's Cup, a trophy with a football-shaped piece of coal enclosed in glass. Virginia Tech used to play in WVU's Big East conference before leaving for more competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the trophy awarded in each of those games was a similar trophy called the Black Diamond Trophy, which Virginia Tech still retains.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Interlude in the Key of D

Recently, the Great Blog War has been waged across the posts of No Use for a Headline, Relatively Journalizing and Blog! The most recent part, with links to the previous parts, is available here. However, it seems that the blogless Daron feels a guest post is in order to put this war into perspective.


The following post is by guest blogger Daron, a.k.a., The Ref.

Hold on now, kids. There's no way to determine a winner to this argument without a referee coming in to break up the fights, send offenders to the penalty sandbox, and screw up a few calls.

First, let's discuss Alex's (Insert Nickname Other Than Treehugger) good and bad points. He scores two points with his discovery of a truly useless topic, yet one that will attract the masses. He then loses those two points by failing to answer the question he asks in his title, a rookie mistake that only a Marist grad would make. He scores one back by referencing Will Shortz as the crossword guru, however, as this referee has a Sudoku book edited by the same Will Shortz, Alex once again loses two points, as well as any credibility, manliness and respect that he may have previously had. That leaves Alex at negative one points.

Next, let's look at the Thundering Turd (Josh). He is awarded an astounding five points for his creative referencing of the Bible, causing the ref to spit his drink onto his computer screen. Unfortunately, as he is clearly incorrect in the argument, he cancels out his prior awesomeness. I can summarize my thoughts about TT with a line from 1995's low-budget, made-for-TV movie Billy Madison: "What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

Third, MasturGator (Evan) mouth-farts his way into the discussion with his astute-yet-holier-than-thou-yet-still-Gumpesque-in-its-retardedness assertion that nobody plays games with pencils and paper anymore. At least that's what I heard — I never learned to read. I'm too pore. But my cholesterol did shoot up 60 points just reading his suggestion that we should all become computer geeks like him. Three points awarded for introducing a new twist to the conversation, but negative six for being Evan. For those who don't understand numbers, that's a total of negative three.

Alex then introduces us to his tech-iness by referencing the iPhone and its newfangled applications, which costs him two points. Down negative three at this point, he comes on strong by formulating his own words, "Sudukites" and "Sudokize," worth three points each. He loses one for the weak ending, but that leaves him up two at this point.

Finally, Josh chimes in again. I won't even grant him the effort of describing his rant, as his assertion that Alex is officially old because of the presence of a Sudoku book on his toilet hits this ref (Alex plus four years) awfully close to home. Die, Josh. Negative five points.

So to recap, at this point in the game, Alex is winning with two points, Josh is dying with negative five, and Evan, who has yet to take his second turn, sits at negative three. And with this ref's anti-Evan bias — I mean uber-fairness — I doubt he'll improve his standing by using words other than, "OK, you're right, I guess I should jump off this cliff."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Alliance

The Great Blog War, Part V (Parts I, II, III and IV)

It appears that both Paddles (Alex) and Harry Potter (Evan) have decided to bring war to the blogosphere by ignoring facts and making unfounded accusations about how people smell as opposed to actually proving a point.

I'll start by addressing recent claims made at Blog! regarding the topic of games, as were Evan paying attention, he would realize that he has actually allied with me, therefore meaning NUFAH is doomed to fail in its attempt to spread the mind-robbing disease known as sudokulisarrea.

Evan writes that, "Relatively Journalizing seems to think crosswords are superior (to sudoku puzzles)." However, never did my original post say this. In fact, I wrote that Alex "fails to acknowledge the hundreds of other games available for play" therefore advocating for neither sudoku nor crossword puzzles. I call them mediocre games akin to each other, both played primarily by old people, in fact. (Note: because Alex admits to having a sudoku puzzle book on the back of his toilet, he is officially old.) So, thank you, Evan, for making my argument for me in your own post that posits video games as the best kind of games. Though your point is vague and broad (considering video games come in many genres), you are indeed correct. Had you paid attention to what I actually said, we could have formed an alliance much sooner.

As for Alex, he asked for the wrath of such an alliance of awesomeness to be brought upon him by lumping Evan and I into a category of not-smelling-goodness together. I sniffed myself just now. I, actually, smell very good — a mixture of honey and the springs of Ireland, I do believe. I sniffed Evan last night at a basketball game while he wasn't paying attention (because I pre-emptively am able to predict Alex's lame attacks), and he in fact smells nice as well. Funny that the treehugger is criticizing smellyness. His recent post is mostly jibberish anyway, as he admits to blatantly making up most of the facts within it.

Sudoku and cutesy copyrighted terms about sudoku won't save you, NUFAH. The Great Blog War shall soon come to a triumphant end — but not for you.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Media Bias: A Quick Look

So, I've written about media bias before, but what I'd like to do in this post is take a quick look at the framing of news right now as I'm writing this on the Web sites of the Clinton News Network (CNN) and Faux News (FOX News), arguably the most left-and-right-leaning, so-called mainstream outlets, respectively.

CNN has a story on its front page about Rush Limbaugh, the arrogant, angrier-than-McCain-could-ever-be talking head for the GOP. In the story, Limbaugh is shown in a Hitler-esque photo and quoted for his saying that he hopes the Obama administration fails. Another Republican (Eric Cantor) is quoted saying he disagrees with Rush. (One of the few, I'm sure, so did CNN selectively interview here?) In addition, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is given the largest amount of quoted material in the story. Now, is CNN lying? No, of course not. But the story is obviously framed from a certain perspective (one that I agree with personally, but I do not necessarily think there is a lack of bias with CNN).

FOX News' front page is completely void of Limbaugh. Instead, featured in the center of their site is a story titled "Obama to Sign Pork-Filled Spending Bill." Though the bill was business that originated from the last administration and does include some unnecessary spending, the story does not seem to recognize the necessary spending that is included in the bill and the time it would take to pass a new bill — a bill that includes some money that is needed to keep our government running. However, CNN's entire Web site seems void of a similar story as this one, which is very interesting. Even the lede in the FOX story has a tone that is full of conservative slant saying that Obama will "break a campaign pledge" by signing the bill (the specific pledge to which the author is referring is not quoted however). FOX also quotes Cantor, and it is almost as though FOX interviewed an entirely different man than CNN did for their story. "...we ought to stand up and draw the line right now..." Cantor is quoted as saying, opposing the signing of a bill that the Congress of which he is a member sent to the president. There is, of course, no mention of under what administration the bill's formulation began or about the government waste in spending during the last eight years that has sent the U.S. into an economic crisis.

Again, people say the don't trust the media, but people need to realize that the media will be called out by bloggers, politicians and others if they lie. So, you can trust your media — you just need to know that they are framing the stories by giving salience to some issues or attributes over others. What is left out? To truly understand issues in the news, you need to be well-versed and take in different news sources. After all, these two stories weren't even present on the opposite outlets' site, so by viewing only one source there is so much about the issues you might never know! Is FOX "Fair and Balanced" as purported? No way! Is CNN especially friendly to conservatives? Not on your life. So watch them both and everything in between... if you can stand it.