Comprehensive Exam (and Literature Review) Writing Strategies

In April, I wrote my comprehensive exams for my PhD. In the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, our comprehensive exams involve writing two 15-page essays in the span of four-weeks. One of the essays is based upon an epistemology or methodology related question. For the second essay, you get to choose between two questions drawn from your specific research areas. As the students, you work with a committee to determine reading lists, that are used to form the question. Typically their are three reading lists consisting of 40-60 articles or books each. Students spend months reading the items on the list and preparing for the exams. Once you receive your questions, you are 4-weeks to write and submit the essays.

Having started my PhD in January rather than September, I wrote my comprehensive exams about 6-months ahead of my cohort – meaning that most of those in my cohort are now preparing to write their exams, with the intention of writing in either November or January/February. I've been asked several times for tips on how to succeed at writing the exams, and so that and the desire to participate in #Digiwrimo has inspired me to write this post. In addition, this post was also inspired by someone on the #phdchat twitter stream asking for advice on determing structure for literature reviews. I use the same process. I've divided my advice into three sections, which follow: technology advice, reading strategy, and writing strategy. Let me highlight that these are the strategies that worked for me. I do not want to suggest that they will work for everyone, but I do hope that they help someone. Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment.

Technology advice

My first and foremost bit of advice is to use Dropbox as the place to store all your working copies. It is free and may just save your butt! I have heard many horror stories form people who had their computers die on them the week or day before the paper was due – after they had completed writing their second/third/fourth draft. They were lucky if they happened to have had the latest version on a USB key, but in most cases their latest "backup" was several days old. Dropbox means you do not need to worry about it. As long as you are connected to the Internet, every time you close the file Dropbox automatically uploads it to the Cloud, so you can access from any computer, anywhere. Hint: Close the file regularly, to ensure that Dropbox always has the latest version! Also, what most people don't know is that dropbox keeps multiple versions of your file. So, if you go down a wrong path in your edits or your file becomes corrupt, and you want to revert to an old version, you can. You simply login the web version of dropbox, navigate to the file, right-click, and select "Previous versions". Dropbox then lists several previous versions, and allows you to revert to whichever one you want. If you aren't sure, make a copy of the original first (copy onto your hard drive, or save-as and give it a new name – but don't rename the file as that is equivalent to deleting and re-adding).

My next bit of technology advice is to figure out your referencing strategy in advance. There are several options for automatically generating your reference lists. This can save you hours (or days). I foolishly decided to try out a new referencing strategy on my exam papers – not taking my own advice! On day three, I discovered that the new tool I was using was flawed and didn't work (it bloated the file size and was unusable once I got to about 15 references). That flaw meant that I had to go back into what I had already written and re-add all my references using my process. This hiccup in my reference added unnecessary stress to the already stressful exam process. I was just luckily that I had a "backup" plan that I knew worked. For details on how I manage my references, see my blog post Managing References.

I should also note that I choose not to print a single document during my comprehensive exam process. Whenever possible, I used electronic versions of articles, reading them and annotating them using my iPad. I've described my process for this in a blog post: Workflows – Annotating PDF Articles on the iPad. For the books I needed to read, I tried to get either PDF versions (Project Gutenburg) or Kindle versions because Kindle makes my annotations available on the Internet (see my blog post A Comparison of eBook Ecosystems for Academics).

Reading strategy

The next big step in preparing for the exams was to figure out how to manage all the reading that I needed to do. Since I had my reading lists, I decided to organize my reference by date. I began reading the oldest articles first and read them in order (for the most part). This was useful as I found that as I got to the newer articles I had already read most of the papers the authors were citing, allowing me to gain deeper insights in the newer articles. I could also see how the ideas developed over time.

To actually get through all my readings on-time, I made reading a priority first thing in the morning (see my blog post Days to form a habit). I figured out that I needed to read on average three articles per day if I wanted to finish reading before my exams began. I should clarify that my process didn't just involve reading, it also involve processing. While reading an article I would highlight important quotes and make margin and other annotations. Once I was done reading my articles for the day (I read on my iPad), I would go back to my computer and enter my notes, reflections, and key quotes into a word document. I had one MS Word document for each topic areas (or each exam question). It occurred to me at some point during the reading process that there was a parallel between writing a comprehensive exam paper and doing qualitative research (see my blog post on Comprehensive Exams and Qualitative Research). Although I commented about using qualitative research software, I didn't actually do that. I choose instead to hand-code themes (I'll take about that more during the writing strategies section).

Writing strategy

Upon receiving my questions and choosing which I was going to answer, I began by re-reading my MS Word document with all my reading notes. I made a PDF version and annotated it with themes in the margin notes and highlighted key quotes that I thought I might find useful. I then took a large sheet of white paper and some coloured markers. I wrote the question in the middle of the page, and then started drawing out the relationship between the different themes from my notes. This process helped me figure out how to approach the structure for the first draft of my paper.

I find it particularly interesting that my creative processes needs white paper (I bought a roll of write art paper), and that I need good quality markers in a variety of colours. I can't seem to do this process digitally – I need to be able to draw out my ideas in order to see the relationships. I'm not particularly good at drawing, but it isn't the actual product that matters, rather the act of drawing it. Here I will emphasize that this is what worked for me. I firmly believe that everyone writes differently, so you need to figure out what works for you!

During the actually process of writing, I would occasionally get stuck. When this happened I'd go out for a walk. It didn't take long before ideas would start to flow, and I found myself writing paragraphs in my head as I walked. I quickly found it frustrating when I lost the ideas. The solution I came up with at the time was using the Flex9 keyboard with voice-to-text on my Android phone (see my blog post Reflections on Writing). I have since replaced my phone with an iPhone, and I now use Siri to do the same thing (see my blog post Using Siri to Take Notes on my iPhone).

Once I had a solid draft, I asked a critical friend to read the paper. My critical friend was just that, critical. She read the paper and we chatted about it. One thing that I realized as a result of our discussions was that I was making the same mistake that many subject matter experts do when they write training material. I was trying to say too much and I was staying it using language that was too technical (or full of jargon). I had a 15-page limit, I needed to focus the content. She also pointed out that academic writing was like having a conversation with someone who was intelligent but may not be familiar with your specific field (she wasn't familiar with my field, so she really helped me see when I was making assumptions). Every time she said "I don't know what that means", I knew that I was either using jargon or not explaining things clearly enough.

I began each of my papers with a "structure" that I thought would work, but as I wrote I discovered the weaknesses in the structure. I couldn't see the weaknesses until I attempted to write the document. The writing process reminds me of a quote by Sophocles (which I also used my paper as summarizing the epistemological foundations of design-based research):

One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.
(as cited by Rogers, 2003, p.168).

The writing of these papers highlighted to me that writing is an iterative process. With each iteration of the paper, it got better.

At the end of April I handed in my papers, and in May I successfully defended them in an oral defense. I've presented one of the papers at a conference and I'm awaiting peer review feedback from a journal (the presentation I gave is available in this blog post: Considerations for an iPad Professional Development Program). I'm still trying to decide where to submit the second paper (it is on the epistemological foundations of Design-Based Research). Any recommendations?

3 responses

  1. Ella Avatar

    “I have heard many horror stories form people who had their computers die on them the week or day before the paper was due..” – I don’t understand why people save their work on their laptops when there are indeed things like DropBox and Google docs. It makes so much easier. Especially if you can’t work on your laptop for some reason, you can just sign in in your Google account on another computer and continue to work.
    “Using the Flex9 keyboard with voice-to-text on my Android phone” – great idea!
    I have comprehensive exam next year and I’m terrified already. My friend told me that she’ll cheat with a help of a service like this one – – but I don’t understand how you can possibly cheat on a comprehensive exam.
    Have any students in you school cheated?
    Also, I’ve read that it is a good idea to spend a little more time on questions you know a lot about. But isn’t it better to work on your weaknesses? What do you think?
    Thanks for your time!


    1. Rebecca - @rjhogue Avatar
      Rebecca – @rjhogue

      New phones have Voice-to-text build into them (like Siri on the iPhone) – but back when I did my comps SmartPhones were still a pretty new idea. I agree with you about using something like Dropbox. Thankfully, my husband manages our household backup system, so my computer is backed up multiple times a day automatically 🙂 But for those that do have that ability, Dropbox is great.

      I personally don’t know of anyone who has cheated, and I don’t know what constitutes cheating in this space. Some advisors requires that you write your papers on your own and don’t allow anyone to proofread for you. Other advisors encourage you to get your peers to proofread your papers. Also some allow editing by language services. So, really, it is a very different experience based upon who your supervisor is. Also different schools do very different things.

      I got to choose when I wrote, and I didn’t write until I was ready. I read thoroughly on my topic areas before starting so I didn’t have a sense of one area being weaker than the other. Organizing notes was critical (I ended up putting my notes in a Word Doc – one per topic – sort of like an annotated bibliography) and used that for comps. I now use Scrivener for my academic writing because I can easily store my resources, notes, and actual text in the same document.

  2. David Avatar

    Hi Rebecca. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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