Does it Work?: Implementation of the PhD Student’s Simple Guide to Taking the General Exam

Life as a PhD student has led me to look at everything I do as a an experiment. Consequently, what used to be simple reflections on a task has transformed in to a semi-structured analysis of events. So after I completed my general exam I retrieved the blog post titled A PhD Student’s Simple Guide to Taking the General Exam in an attempt to assess how successful I was in applying the approach to prepare for and actually take the general exam described within.

Below you will find my findings. They can benefit anyone trying to figure out what works.  Additionally, it demonstrates areas where  the framework  can be tweaked to account for personal habits.

So, how did the framework work out for me? Let’s see:
  1. Writing: I was able to find a quite place to write. Unfortunately, I was not able to spend as much time there is I would have liked. Nonetheless, the time I spent there was very productive. I had access to a printer, a computer and my literature.
    • The Questions: I broke down each question in to several sentences to ensure I comprehended all angles that were embedded within
    • Creating and Filling in the Outline: Outlining was a very useful exercise. I actually did it on a whiteboard. Though I did not use all the headings that I created, they were available for me to glance at and helped me stay on track.  Although the model strongly advised against copying and pasting, there were places where I felt it was totally feasible and so I did
    • Use time Wisely: At the beginning of the process I told myself I would devote a total of three (3) days and as much as ten (10) hours on each of those days for each question. Unable to devote ten (10) hours each day caused my timeline to shift and so I spent more time on some questions then I would have liked. Proofreading is an iterative process for me so rather than waiting till the end as suggested in the framework, I would print what I written each afternoon, take it home and read it the next morning and edit accordingly. I found reviewing it with a pen and paper in hand helped me flesh out ideas in a way editing on the computer didn’t always allow me to.
    • Writers Block: Didn’t experience it! In fact I had things to include up to the very last second. Furthermore, every time I looked at a draft I saw something new that could be rephrased, expanded, or removed. No I am not a perfectionist, but I did not want to leave any loose ends for my committee to pounce on
  2. Food: I love food! As such there was always snacks  (ranging from cookies to almonds and fruits) an arms reach away. Since I do not eat out,  preparing home cooked meals did not require an extra effort. This being said, I fast two times a week, which meant I did not have to cook on four (4) days. Despite what some may believe, on the days that I was fasting, I was alert, able to focus and full of energy. On the days that I was eating, I made sure to keep hydrated. A big fan of loose tea leaves, I found black tea, the healthy caffeine to be very affective at keeping me alert during the day and wee hours of the night.  The thing I was not able to control was my intake of sugar. On average I was consuming half a dozen cookies, a few scoops of ice cream  and a donut or two a day. How much did this effect my performance. I couldn’t say. Although, though the framework states, “sugar is your enemy“, I believe the effects were minimal.
  3. Health: I slept an average of three (3) to five (5) hours a day on the first five days of the week and then eight (8) to ten (10) hours a day for the last two days. I repeated this pattern for both weeks. When I felt that sleep deprivation was compromising my ability to think, read or write, I stopped and did something else.
  4. People:  Marisa’s statement that people would always try to pull you away from writing was accurate. To address this I set up auto responses on all of the email services that I use, which worked very effectively. Still, people turned out to be one of the hardest variables to control. As a result, there were distractions that slowly devoured the time I could have put towards answering the questions. Although I was able to put in the time necessary to complete the written portion of my general exam, people (here representing a distraction) had an undeniable impact on the overall amount of hours I was able to devote to the endeavor.


The framework described in A PhD Student’s Simple Guide to Taking the General Exam was the result of an informal conversation with Natascha Karlova and an impromptu email response from Marisa Duarte, two colleagues at the University of Washington’s Information School. Having reviewed it shortly before and then used it during the general competency exam writing process, I can confidently say it contains the items anyone who wants to do a superb job should follow.

Though there maybe some flexibility regarding the extent to which elements (e.g. sugar vs. no sugar; the type of caffeine) can/should be implemented, the suggestions regarding writing and dealing with people should be strictly adhered to.

Hopefully, my reflection on the process can be insightful for you. If there are any specific questions you have, feel free to ask it in the comments section below or send me an email.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>