A PhD Student’s Simple Guide to Taking the General Exam

A few weeks ago, I was busy reading in preparation for my general competency exam. At the University of Washington, the general exam consists of two parts–written & oral. In the written portion students are (usually) given two weeks to answer three questions. The questions usually ask students to a: demonstrate competency in the area they wish to considered an expert in, b: familiarity with relevant theories and c: knowledge of appropriate research designs and methodological considerations. Somewhere along the way I realized that I had not planned what I would do during the two weeks I would be taking the exam. So, I reached out to two (2) well-respected colleagues Marisa Duarte (via email) and Natascha Karlova (in person). From their feedback emerged the list below. Thanks to them (especially Marisa), I present to you four (4) things every PhD student should consider related to taking the actual exam. Let’s get started.

  1. Writing: Find a quiet place where you and the resources (e.g. books, articles, citations, computer) you will need can camp out. If you listen to music while writing, make your playlists ahead of time. Aim for songs without lyrics. Also, make sure your headphones work.
    • The Questions: Read each question and divide it into parts. Use these parts to form your outline
    • Outline: Set up a .doc and type out section headings and subheadings
    • Filling in the Outline: Enter content under the appropriate headings and subheadings (does not necessary have to be in sequential order). Unless absolutely necessary, stay away from cutting and pasting content from old papers. If you do, instead of writing to the questions, you may spend more time patching stuff together
    • Use time Wisely: Do not write to the deadline. Divide your time so you have at least 2-3 days for revisions, formatting citations, and proofreading.
    • Writers Block: If you run out of things to write, switch from using the computer to writing with a pen on a pad. It will force you to slow your thinking down, and the problems will slowly work out. Constructing a diagram can also help.
  2. Food:  Eating well during this period will help ensure you are mentally and physically alert. As a result you can devote your focus to writing.
    • Snacks: Have plenty of snacks an arm’s length away (granola bar, trail mix, yogurt).
    • Homecooked Meals: If you have someone to cook for you great! If not prepare a few healthy meals ahead of time and store them in the fridge.
    • The Healthy Caffeine: Refrain from coffee. Instead try black tea or yerba mate. They will provide you with the energy you need without making you crash.
    • Sugar is your enemy: Avoid sugar.
    • Hydration: Don’t forget to drink water.
  3. Health: Try to get a lot of sleep 48 hours prior to the written exam. During the exam aim for eight (8) hours a day. If you get neck or shoulder cramps while writing, stop and stretch. Getting a warm pack may help as well. Lastly, exercise regularly.
  4. People: People will always try to contact you. Inform them you will not be accessible for at least two (2) weeks.   In other words, get ready for NO DISTRACTIONS. Avoid friends and family who depend on you to help them sort our their problems. Configure your Outlook, Gmail,  and/or Yahoo automatic responses. No matter how hard people try to draw you away from your writing, stay focused.
Well, there you have it! A nice and simple guide to help you get through the actual writing process. You can thank my colleagues later. Enjoy!
By the way, let us know if we missed anything and how useful you find this guide.

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