From the Science Student Council

Comps are over, now what?

Tips on getting back to work after exams.

By Evgeniya Pavlova

Comps, quals, prelims, generals, orals… Every graduate student has heard of these exams and the cloud of lore that hangs over them. Exam format varies across programs, but one element is always present – students don’t just pass comps, they survive them (and hopefully pass).

Preparation for comps usually takes numerous weeks of research, writing and memorization. Once comps are over, students expect to resume their normal grad school activities. However, many are surprised that getting back is harder than anticipated, a realization sometimes referred to as the “post-comps letdown.” For many graduate students, getting back in the swing of things can be hard and take several weeks. Here are some tips and tricks that could help you get back on track:

Reward yourself

Passing comprehensive exams is quite an accomplishment so acknowledge it as such. You have worked hard and now it is time to reward yourself. Maybe you’ve been meaning to take a vacation, visit a friend from college, get a massage or finally figure out what’s the big fuss about the Hunger Games trilogy. Your reward can be as big as you want it to be. Rewarding yourself for a job well done forces you to internalize your recent success and receive the praise that you deserve for this milestone accomplishment. This, in turn, will make your transition back to regular work easier and perhaps more meaningful.


Though the excitement of discovery and learning should serve as students’ internal motivation to dive back into their research, sometimes this motivation is depleted following the completion of a major project. When this is the case, planning and establishing external motivators can be helpful to keep you on track with your goals. Break your “to do” list down into small goals that can be completed somewhat quickly. Accomplishing these small goals helps you make progress without feeling like you are already taking on another major project. You could enlist your adviser’s help early on by creating deadlines that can help you get back on track. For instance, you can set up a timeline on getting started with your dissertation and schedule meetings to discuss progress. Though you may still be enjoying your reward for completing comps, you could also begin brainstorming rewards for accomplishing your next series of goals.

External pressures and obligations

It is amazing how while you were focusing on comps, the world kept turning and all of a sudden all those deadlines that seemed so far away are now just around the corner. If you are presenting your research at a conference shortly after comps, you’ll need to quickly put your materials together. Then there may be conference submission deadlines, journal deadlines, classes to teach, grant applications, data collection and so on and so forth. Set your sights on taking advantages of some of these opportunities. Knowing why you have to do something right away can help you find the motivation to re-start your regular activities. For instance, applying for the grant that is due next month, could secure your summer funding, allowing you to focus on your research and get closer to your ultimate goal: graduation.

There are many other tricks for getting yourself back on track. Talk to your colleagues to see what worked for them. Many of them probably felt the same way you did after they completed comps. And don’t forget, you survived. Congratulations.

Evgeniya Pavlova is the industrial-organizational psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral student in the I/O psychology program at University of South Florida.