Every student doing comps has felt like this as some point.       Image via Flickr user Jixar. Used under creative commons license.

K.D. Shives is a pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. She can be found blogging about microbes on her site kdshives.com and on Twitter at @KDShives.

The dreaded written comprehensive exam. Many graduate students will have to pass some form of comprehensive exam at some point in their program.

This can often include putting together a multi-page grant-style project proposal. Putting one of these together can be a daunting process if you are unprepared. But have no fear, there are ways to make crafting a solid document far less painful.

Now at this point I should mention that this advice will be most relevant for students preparing an exam focused on their own projects in the style of an NIH grant. Some of the specifics may not be as useful for students in the humanities or preparing other, very specific, kinds of documents .

However, this basic approach can apply to putting together any large proposal for your project and will help guide the initial stages of your work.

Write down your outline: This will be the skeleton of your whole document. What are the absolute key points that you want to address? In the case of a grant style document, pick out your three aims first so that they address your three highest priorities.

Once you get your main points set, start fleshing out your sub-aims in order of the most important questions in each aim. Do all of these different aims fit into a single theme under your main hypothesis? If something doesn’t contribute directly to the questions you are asking, cut it out now to keep your outline as focused as possible.

For students proposing experiments, use this stage to list every experiment you plan for each aim and sub-aim. This will act as a road map and show you how well your planned experiments will test your hypothesis for each individual written aim. If the proposed experiment isn’t the best way to answer your aim, take time to think of different, more suitable experiments for that particular aim.

At this point you should have a document with your major ideas, the major aims, and the minor aims with experiments designed to test each one individually. Now it’s time to start filling things in.

Find the gaps in your subject knowledge: Now that you’ve got your outline it’s time to find the holes in your knowledge of the topic. Do as much as much of a literature review as you have time for. Start early if you can so that you have plenty of time to become familiar with your subject. It’s been observed that prolonged contact with material leads to better learning than cramming at the last minute and will help you in dealing with the finer points of your material later on.

There is a limit to how much of a review is helpful for you, though. At a certain point too many citations will bog you down and will no longer add to your proposal so make sure to use citations judiciously.

Write a full first draft as fast as you can: It doesn’t have to be pretty at first, you just need something to edit. The easiest way I’ve found to write these is to sit down with a copy of your outline and start writing down your ideas as they sound in your head, no matter how far that is from formal language.  This can help find remaining gaps in the proposal which become visible as you get full ideas on paper and see how different ideas connect with one another.

The most important part is getting everything out, so don’t spend your time worrying about editing it yet. Which brings us to the next point:

Leave it alone:  Now that you’ve spent this much time thinking about, reading about, and writing out this draft you’re probably somewhat sick of it, to say the least. This is the perfect time to put it away for a day or two. Go do something else that you enjoy and take your mind off of the work.

This serves two purposes: it helps you maintain your sanity by taking some time off to recharge, and it helps you come back to edit the draft with a different perspective.

Keep editing and writing separate: Now that you have a first draft it may be tempting to edit and write in significant changes at the same time. Be careful with this, as you may get trapped in a loop where you’re spending too much time editing new material as you write instead of getting the new ideas fully on paper. Reserve your first read-through to editing only and observe any remaining gaps that you have in the proposal.  After the first full read through take some time for additional literature review if necessary. Once you’ve filled in any remaining knowledge gaps, it’s time to write in new edits.

While straightforward and fairly simple, it can be helpful to have guidelines in mind while writing something as large as a comprehensive exam proposal. This can help take some of the dread out of the process so that you can enjoy the opportunity to put your own ideas together.

If you have the time, I also highly recommend reading “The Science of Scientific Writing” by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan. This is an extremely helpful article that focuses on how readers will read your document and tips on how to make scientific writing more understandable.

Do you have any advice for the written comprehensive exam? Please share it in the comments by clicking here.

 

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