My advice for writing scientific grants

This is actually a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now. But before I get started on giving my advice on writing grants, I want to give a little bit about my experience in grant writing, to give a little more substance and context to the advice. While I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of grant applications, and by a lot I mean 71 different grants over those six years. Of those 71 grants, I had 42 of them successfully funded (59%), which totaled to over $100,000 USD. These grants ranged from small $500 grants to large, $20,000 multi-year project proposals, like the now defunct NSF DDIG (sadness). I also took a grant writing course during my first year of grad school and have received feedback on my grants from many different professors, post-docs, and grad-students. However, I will say that my grant writing experiences could still be very different from yours, especially if you are outside of the United States or in a very different field than me. So, disclaimer: these are my thoughts and opinions and they do not guarantee grant success, though these writing practices did work very well for me.

Now to get down to it. How does one write a successful grant? Well the first thing to do is carefully and thoroughly read the grant call or ad. This might sound obvious, but I have found many people do not do this, and often get their grant applications quickly rejected for various reasons related to this. Why is it so important to read the call? First of all, the grant call will describe what the grant is for – the specific scientific discipline or the type of work (for example – field work) – and who the grant will be reviewed by, which is of critical importance! If the grant is going to be reviewed by a general science audience (I am still assuming an academic audience here) then be sure to avoid discipline specific terms and narrow viewpoints. If the grant will be reviewed by specific sub-disciplines, for example if you are writing a taxa-specific grant, then make sure to mold your grant into something related to and important within that sub-topic or taxa. Also, some grants will request or require specific sections within your materials, such as a conservation impact statement or statement of ethical consideration, which you would do well to include if you want to be seriously considered. Finally, the grant call will often lay out the specifics of the budget or funding uses, which are also very important (see below).

Read everything carefully!

Next is actually writing the body of the grant – the introduction, purpose, proposed methods etc. I have sat on several different grant reviewing committees and have read a wide array of grants in terms of writing quality. One of the first things I notice is how well the grantee introduces their subject and why I (or the reviewer should care). A grant that starts out with something like “For this study, we will test how the iridescent feathers in black-chinned hummingbirds interact during male courtship displays which alters how those feathers appear to females to better understand how these traits evolved” is a terrible way to start a grant. There is no broader picture painted or lead up to the complex idea that is being tested and this is a very specific, out of context, research question that might interest one person out there, which is typically the person writing the grant. Instead, a grant on this topic should start out much broader, such as “Animals exhibit an incredible diversity of exaggerated traits that they use for communication, such as colorful peacock tails or the roars of lions, leading to the question of why this diversity evolved?” This introduction puts forth a much broader concept that is typically interesting to a wider audience: understanding the diversity of traits animal use to communicate. Additionally, it uses more widely known examples – pretty much everyone knows what a peacock looks like or what a lion sounds like, whereas fewer people might know the specific color patterns and courtship behaviors of a black-chinned hummingbird (though if you check out these videos you will now know!). My point in all of this is that you need to start broad with your grant introduction and then narrow down on your particular project. You have to hook the grant reviewer to get them interested, and then draw them in slowly to keep ahold of that interest. And you also must absolutely avoid jargon! None of this cell line XD72k or gene 338s7893. Those details often don’t matter, or if they are critical to the project, put them in the methods with a brief explanation.

Black-chinned hummingbird

After you have written the introduction or background to your grant, be sure to clearly state the purpose of your study. What is the specific question you are testing? What is your hypothesis? If you can fit in predictions, even better! I know some grants are very limited space-wise, but these are important parts of a grant so that you show that you not only understand the background and potential importance of your work, but that you have designed a clearly laid out study. In the end, the grant reviewers want to fund projects that they think will a) actually occur, and b) be successful. And by successful, I do not mean that you will get the exact results you want, but that the project will be completed and yield some sort of results that will hopefully be publishable.

This brings me to another point, which is more about project design in general, but still relevant here. Be sure that the study you have designed and are proposing in your grant is not answering an all-or-nothing type question. By this I mean, be sure that when you get your results, if they do not end up as you predicted, that they will still be interesting, and not mean nothing. There are too many studies out there, where if the exact results predicted are not obtained, then there is no alternative hypothesis or conclusion. That is just bad experimental design.

For the methods of the grant, be thorough but brief. You need to make it clear that you have a concrete plan and know what you are doing, but do you not have to write out every detail for your experiments (and you will often not have the space to do so). Use citations to help fill in extraneous details or shorten the methods section. And again, keep the text free of jargon, especially if this is a more general science grant. I’ve had to write grants/methods as a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist that a molecular biologist would have to understand, and you likely will too.

Explaining complex methods in a sentence or three can be very hard, I know, but its good practice to learn how – it will help you with grants, paper writing, and conveying your research to a non-academic audience.

One of the last parts of a grant is often the proposed budget. This is another place where I have seen many mistakes in grants that ended up sinking the proposal completely. The first major piece of advice I have is do not propose a budget that is higher than what the grant can provide. The ONLY time you can do this, is if you have already obtained funding to match what will be required outside of the grant you are applying to AND you mention this in the budget. This is very important, because if the maximum grant award is $2000 for a specific grant, and you write a project with a budget for $5000 without evidence that you have the remanding funds, then you will not get funded, because if you receive the $2000 from this grant, but do not obtain the remaining $3000, then your project will fail. If your project does require a bigger budget than the grant you are writing for, then focus down what you ask for and/or request funds for specific components. For example, if you are requesting funds for fieldwork – shorten the length of the work to fit within the grant’s budget. Then apply for more grants and if you get them, you can go back to your originally planned field season length, but if you do not, you can at least work in the field for some time, which is better than none!

Fieldwork on a budget – couldn’t afford a rental truck, so we improvised a way to carry our materials to the field!

Another common mistake with budget writing comes from not reading the grant call specifics, as I mentioned above. Some grants, especially societal grants, will have restrictions on what they can fund. For example, many grants will specifically say that they will not fund hired help or field assistants. Well, if you request money for a field assistant, then you will not get that grant. Only ask for what the grant allows you to ask for.

To avoid having an overly long post, the last thing I will suggest here is get someone, especially your advisor if you can, to read your grant and give you feedback. At the very least they can help catch poor grammar, confusing wording, or spelling errors, which can easily sink a grant as well. I have often received incredibly helpful advice on the phrasing of certain parts of my grants, which ultimately made it into the papers produced from the funded work, which leads me to another point. If you write a good grant introduction and methods section, you can easily expand them into a future paper, saving you both time and energy in the long run. I have done this with several of my dissertation chapters myself.

I hope to see you in the field!

I hope this advice will be helpful for when you write your next grant, and please let me know if they are or if you have any further suggestions! If there is enough interest, I may write a second post on this topic as well. Best of luck to you all with your grant writing!

What is a post-doc? And what am I doing as one?

It has been quite some time since I last wrote a blog post, and I decided that for my first post back, I would talk about my current position in academia: a post-doctoral fellow. When I last checked in, I posted that I was moving to Canada and starting a post-doctoral position in Dr. Stephanie Doucet’s lab. But what is a post-doctoral position, or post-doc for short? Well a post-doc is an in-between phase, where I am no longer a graduate student, but I am also not yet a professor. Due to the small number of available academic jobs each year, people who finish their PhDs often do not get professor positions right out of grad school. Instead we take up research focused positions in, typically, another lab, where we learn new techniques, ask new questions, and/or expand our previous work. Post-docs do not usually have to teach, so we have much more time to conduct research and write, which is a huge benefit for being a post-doc. We are also much more independent and are often semi-autonomous with our work. A post-doc was once described to me as a time to conduct another dissertation on a shorter time scale (1-3 years), but with all the knowledge and experience from grad school helping streamline and expatiate the research process.

There are two mains types of post-doc positions. The first is where you write a fellowship, for example through the National Science Foundation or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology post-doctoral fellowship. Some consider this type of post-doc ideal, because you join a lab with your own money and are conducting your project, not helping/conducting your advisor’s project(s). While this freedom is definitely a boon, the other type of post-doc is no less ideal. For the second type of post-doc, you join a lab on the PI’s, or principle investigator’s, money. This typically means that you are conducting research on an already established project or grant proposal and might have less freedom to do whatever you want, research-topic-wise. However, these post-docs can be quite ideal positions as well, because you can have more structure to be productive, and the position “forces” you to learn new techniques/study-systems/research ideas, which can help you further develop as a scientist. Now, the fellowship-type post-doc also provides plenty of opportunities for you to learn new things as well, so I would say neither is necessarily better than the other. It really just depends on the lab you join, your advisor, the source of funding, and YOU, which can result in a plethora of different experiences.

My post-doc is the second type of post-doc, where I joined a lab on my advisor’s funding. There were many reasons I took up this position over others. Firstly, my wife and I were both looking for post-docs, which is a difficult situation to be in as it is hard enough to find one post-doc, and the post-docs we both found were only 2 hours apart, so we could live together as I commuted to work (which is only twice a week currently). Secondly, it was one of my post-doc advisor’s papers that inspired my entire dissertation, so it is really awesome to be working with the person who had that level of influence on my research. And thirdly, I am able to work on several different projects with Stephanie, allowing me to expand my research along multiple avenues. Overall I am very lucky to have found such a great position and advisor!

Pine Warbler

There are three main research thrusts for my post-doc. The first is a continuation of some work I started during my dissertation, which is to conduct electron microscopy on hummingbird feathers to study and quantify the surface and internal structures of their iridescent feathers. Electron microscopy is a technique that allows me to look at feathers as a very, very small scale, much smaller than your typical light microscope, and allows me to look at the micro- and nano-structures in the feather that interact with light to produce the brilliant colors we see in hummingbird feathers. This project is another reason I wanted to work with Stephanie, as she has conducted this type of work in the past.

The second project I am conducting is a continuation of a project Stephanie and her former master’s student (Allison) started several years ago. We are working to understand the evolution of wood-warbler plumage coloration. First, we tested how variation in breeding habitat, nest predation, outside of pair matings (males/females copulate with individuals that are not their social mate to acquire additional offspring), and other related variables to understand how sexual and natural selection are working simultaneously to drive color evolution. This part of the project is actually already written up and will hopefully be submitted for publication soon! We are also working to understand how species range overlap (how much each specie’s range overlaps with another species’ range) predicts color evolution, with the idea being that the more you overlap with other species, the more different your plumage color will be compared to those overlapping species. This part of the project is allowing me to learn several new comparative statistics techniques, which I am thoroughly enjoying!

Finally, the third research project of my post-doc is working with local vineyards to help them both better prevent birds from eating all of their grapes and to evaluate grape ripeness using color. This is a more applied research project, which is great for me, because it is a new opportunity to study questions of color function and evolution in an entirely new context. We will be starting this project later this year, so we are still in the development stages of it, but I am excited to see what happens!

I hope that that this post was both informative about what post-docs are and provided you with an update about the research I am currently conducting. I am excited about all of the new opportunities I have been granted through working with Stephanie, and I have also been fortunate to have many opportunities to interact with a diversity of other research labs both at my university, University of Windsor, and my wife’s university, University of Western Ontario. Overall, I have had a great start to my post-doc and hope to have many more exciting updates in the future!

The Evolution of a Graduate Student: from Start to Hummingbirds

It is amazing how time can fly in grad school. It did not seem that long since I last blogged, but here we are a month later. I mostly blame writing an NSF DDIG (a really big graduate student grant), but I also do not always have the best memory….. Anyways, I actually have not gone on many adventures in the past few weeks, but through writing my NSF DDIG, I have  reflected a lot on my path from starting graduate school to where I am now, and so this post is going to be on how I initially became interested in hummingbirds (a weird accident) and how I ended up with my current dissertation work.

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The brilliantly colored Costa’s hummingbird.

For starters, when I arrived at ASU, hummingbirds and iridescent coloration were no where on my radar for potential dissertation topics. I have always been interested in the diversity in animal coloration and questions about why animals use multiple traits to communicate (e.g. song and colorful plumage are both used for communication in many bird species), so my project now definitely still falls in that broad interest. But, I was going to Dr. Kevin McGraw’s lab, a world expert on bird pigment coloration, specifically carotenoid coloration (responsible for many of the reds, yellows, and oranges, such as in house finches or yellow warblers), so I was looking into species that either hard multiple different carotenoid colors, such as the western tanager:

A western tanager with its red head and yellow body near Lake Tahoe in California.

Or species like the northern cardinal, which use different types of pigments to color themselves (the red is carotenoids while the black face mask is due to melanins).

A northern cardinal at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, AZ

I had originally given thought to non-pigmented colors to some degree, such as the blue coloration in the painted bunting or varied bunting, which is due to specific arrangements of the nanostructure of their feathers. Overall, it seemed that I was focused on why certain birds/animals have multiple colors. But then everything changed when ASU teamed up with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and offered semester-long fellowships to potentially start up dissertations in the tropics. This was an amazing opportunity, which I immediately jumped on.

Me in Panama – photo credit: Alex Tran

At first, I wanted to keep the multiple color patches idea and study some of the extremely colorful tropical birds, but I was told that many of the birds I was thinking of studying, such as the golden-hooded tanager (below), were not very common and/or lived in the canopy, which would make things very difficult. So I ended up shifting my question from multiple color patches to multiple signals and studied song and color in an understory bird – the red-throated ant-tanager.

A golden-hooded tanager in central Panama.

Red-throated ant-tanager in central Panama

My work in Panama went fairly well for a first field season, but difficulties during that fieldwork were not why I switched to hummingbirds. My switch to hummingbirds came from a combination of watching the many species of hummingbirds feeding and fighting at our hummingbird feeders in Panama and reading a specific paper – Iridescence: a functional perspective – which has come to be one of the most influential papers I have read to date.

White-necked jacobins and a violet-crowned woodnymph at a feeder in central Panama (don’t mind their creepy eyes, it is from the flash).

And so, I began many thought experiments and discussions with fellow researches to come up with a project involving iridescent coloration using hummingbirds as my model. For a while I was thinking about looking at how hummingbirds might use their coloration to communicate with other species as they fought at feeders, but my idea switched to wanting to study the use of coloration within species and how that might have evolved. And so I returned to the United States with this idea in mind and began working it into a dissertation project with Kevin. Like a good advisor, he challenged me to continue to craft my idea and find gaps in the field to make a novel and exciting dissertation. And around the same time, he introduced me to Dr. Christopher Clark, a new professor at UC Riverside, who studies hummingbird courtship and acoustics. Eventually we visited him at one of his field sites and saw the hummingbirds in action.

Boyd Deep Canyon – a UC Davis field station near Palm Desert, CA. This is where Chris took Kevin and I to see hummingbirds in action, and where I ended up studying Costa’s hummingbirds with great success.

It was then, when I learned what I could and could not do with these birds and was able to finally craft my dissertation project. I was going to (and am now) studying how hummingbird plumage coloration and courtship displays co-evolved and interact to produce the colors females see as males display!

A broad-tailed hummingbird at Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, AZ

Another huge influence on my idea developments came from my interactions and amazing discussions with my two former lab mates Dr. Russell (Rusty) Ligon and Dr. Brett Seymoure, who were both studying color communication and sensory ecology. It was a great time for developing my ideas as Rusty was in his 4th year when I started and Brett in his 3rd, so I had a good deal of overlap with them.

Sadly this is the only picture I could find of the three of us (Rusty, myself, Brett). Sorry for the tiny photo and poor quality! Photo from

Now, both Rusty and Brett have graduated, and the lab has changed quite a bit. Most of Kevin’s students are very mechanistically focused (meaning they are interested in studying the physiological or biochemical underpinnings behind behavior and coloration), such as my lab mate Pierce Hutton, who is studying anthropogenic effects on house finch coloration and behavior. This has been great, because it is forcing me to think more like that (I typically think about the functions and evolutionary history of behavior and coloration). I am currently working to integrate mechanistic studies into my current hummingbird work, and this is something I am building with my DDIG proposal (more on that if I get it!).

Pierce and I up near Payson, AZ, photo credit: Meghan Duell.

So that is now I transitioned from starting grad school to studying the evolution of hummingbird coloration and courtship displays. I hope you enjoyed my story!


Conferencing in England, and Meeting a Ton of People!

After a long summer of fieldwork, I traveled across the pond to present my research at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE) biannual meeting. The meeting was held in Exeter, England, and then I traveled to a post-conference symposium on anti-predator coloration in Penryn, England. Both of these events were held on University of Exeter campuses, which were quite pretty campuses. This post will be part travel-blog but also a shout out to the many people I met at the conference with links to their personal websites (or twitters if they do not have their own website), because they were all awesome and you should check them out!

A view from one of the high points on the University of Exeter campus, overlooking the university and town.

This ISBE conference, plus the symposium, was the most productive conference I have been to in my grad career. I teamed up with my former lab mate, Brett Seymoure, to do some major networking, which was super helpful for our academic careers, but also a ton of fun! Brett and I are both very interested in animal communication and sensory ecology, specifically visual ecology. Europe and especially England has a very rich community of visual ecologists that work on a variety of systems and questions. Because of the post-conference symposium, most of those people were at the meeting, and we were able to meet many of them. One of the key labs we interacted with, and the lab which put on the symposium, was Martin Steven’s lab. Martin is a well known visual ecologist who has developed, with his current post doc Jolyon Troscianko, several useful techniques for measuring coloration and pattern using photographs. I am using one of their recommended setups for my dissertation, and while I was at the conference, I was able to sit down with Jolyon and get some great feedback and ask many questions, which was super helpful! Martin has also created a great network of students either currently in his lab, or that did a masters in his lab and are now elsewhere, and Brett and I were able to meet many of them. His group studies a large variety of animals from color changing crabs (Sara Mynott), to very colorful moths (Emmanuelle Briolat) and ladybirds (Sarah Paul), to incredibly cryptic nightjars. Martin has also had many people visit his lab, including my former lab mate Russell Ligon, who sadly was not at the conference, and Elisa Badas , who studies bird and egg coloration.

Brett and I out in the town of Exeter.

During the conference, I was also able to reconnect with several people I had either worked with or previously met. My undergrad advisor, Troy Murphy, who was a major influence on where I am today, was at the meeting, and it was great to catch up with him. I worked with Troy both on his goldfinch bill coloration research and my undergrad thesis on wood warbler coloration, and he introduced me to my first bout of fieldwork on animal coloration in Canada (and he also introduced me to my current Ph.D. advisor). I was able to meet up with a friend I made at a different conference in Japan, Jared Wilson-Aggarwal, who I toured Tokyo with for a few days. He previously worked with Martin on the nightjar project, but now studies dog social behavior and how that relates to disease transmission in Africa. I also reconnected with Trevor Price , from the University of Chicago, who recently gave a talk at ASU and also gave a plenary lecture at ISBE. Trevor has done some very interesting work on birds in the Himalayas, and has now developed a keen interest in color vision and has many cool ideas. Trevor also helped me meet Gavan Thomas and his post-doc Chris Cooney, who are undertaking an awesome project to photograph every bird species via museum skins and study avian color evolution across all birds with great detail.

Brett and I with Trevor Price. ISBE created a bingo card with different things to do while at the conference, and one was take a selfie with a plenty speaker – check!

Speaking of plenary lectures, there were many great ones at ISBE, given by huge names in our field. We had speakers such as Tim Clutton-Brock and Malte Andersson (who wrote the famous book Sexual Selection), but my favorite talk came from Rosemary Grant. Rosemary and her husband Peter, famously followed up on Darwin’s work in the Galapagos on Darwin’s finches, and published much groundbreaking and influential work. It was a real treat to see her present, especially since I have received a grant with her namesake from the Society of the Study of Evolution.

While at ISBE, we went on a mid-conference tour, which took us to the beautiful Dartmoor National Park, where we was able to see the amazing Wistman’s Wood, which is a stunted oak forest covered in moss and lichen. Also in the park were many tors (hills topped with outcrops of bedrock), which dotted the landscape. While  on the tour, we met two students from Emily DuVal’s lab, Jess and Karla, who study brown-headed nuthatches and lance-tailed manakins respectively. Me and all my lab mates (Pierce, Melinda, and Brett) also had lunch with Jenny Ouyang, who studies the effect of light pollution on bird physiology and hormones.

Dartmoor National Park, with Wistman’s Wood in the distance.

Under the canopy of Wistman’s Wood.

A view of the diversity of mosses and lichen found in Wistman’s Wood.

Another view from inside Wistman’s Wood.

Our tour guide showing us an inscription where a previous king had cut down a tree here.

A wider view of the forest.

A close up of the mosses, lichens, and ferns growing all over the branches and trunks.

One of the many tors in the area.

Another tor, with the grassland/peatbog landscape all around.

A jackjaw we found at the pub in the national park.

My poster presentation went very well, and despite being placed in the back corner of the room, I had continuous traffic and nearly lost my voice by the end from talking so much. I presented some preliminary results from my first chapter, which was great to finally get out. This poster allowed me to establish my name in the field and get on many people’s radars, which is great for future post-doc positions! At the anti-predator coloration symposium, I presented a project that I am helping Brett with on Gila monster coloration. Gila monster coloration seems to change with age, and so we explored if this was true, and found evidence that young Gila monsters might be more conspicuous than adults, which leads to some very interesting ideas about a potential switch in anti-predator strategies from aposematism to crypsis. The talk went over very well, mostly because people really loved the fact that monsters are real!

Me and my poster!

While at the anti-predator coloration symposium, I was able to continue to hang out with many of the visual ecology students I met at ISBE, including Sara, Sarah, and Emmanuelle (from above) plus Sam Smithers (studies polarized vision), Jenny Easley (studies avian taste perception), and Diana Umeton (studies flicker fusion vision). I also met many more visual ecologists at the symposium, where everyone present gave a 5 minute talk with built in time in-between talks for plenty of discussion. The symposium, while exhausting, was incredible, because we were all unified with an interest in coloration and visual ecology, and I was able to meet big names in the field such as Tom Cronin (studies many aspects of vision) and Innes Cuthill (studies many aspects of anti-predator coloration). I also reconnected with Hannah Rowland, who I met in Japan as well, and heard more about her interesting work on avian taste perception & learning and anti-predator defense. I learned a great deal more about mammalian anti-predator defense from Ted Stankowich, which was very fascinating and has been under studied. And finally, I met and hung out with several other graduate students/post-docs, including Amanda Franklin (studies mantis shrimp communication), Emily Burdfield-Steel (studies variation in tiger moth chemical defense), Sandra Winters (studies primate coloration and diversity), and Jenna Proctor and Alice Rosen who both just started in Martin Steven’s lab to study crab and amphibian coloration, respectively.

The main restaurant/bar street in Falmouth, which is the town next to Penryn and where all of the social activities occurred during the post-conference symposium.

After meeting so many great people and hearing about so much interesting work, I returned to the states exhausted, but also inspired to get back to work and try to live up to the high caliber of research already existing in the fields of animal coloration and visual ecology. I want to thank everyone I met for taking time to share their research with me and provide feedback on my own work.

For those who study any aspect of behavior or color that have never been to ISBE, I HIGHLY recommend going to the next meeting in 2018! Also when it comes to meetings, networking is so important. It helps you get your research out there, both to get feedback and also to get people interested in you or form new collaborations. For me it is definitely easier to network and meet new people if I’m with someone, like I was with Brett this conference. But I’ve also gotten a lot of help from my Ph.D. advisor, Kevin McGraw, who has introduced me to many important people and instrumental collaborators. So my advice is to both find a networking buddy and talk to your advisor about meeting specific people (i.e. do some homework before the meeting), and that will hopefully help open you up to new research opportunities or future job possibilities!

My advice and tips on studying for comprehensive exams

Now that I have passed my comprehensive exams, I figured I would post some of the study methods I did that worked for me. Please note, that while these worked well for me, they might not work for  you, depending on how you deal with stress, how you manage your time, etc. So here is my advice and tips on how to study for your comprehensive exam. If you have additional things to add, please post them in a comment. I hope this helps you and good luck to those who are taking their exams in the future!

Schedule, schedule, schedule!
Get into a routine where you go to bed and eat meals at a set time; also know what you need to read books/papers etc. ahead of time and plan out when you will read what. For example – read 2-3 chapters of a book + 10 papers a day.

Read books
Papers are great and you will definitely read a lot of them, but books can provide great coverage and consolidated information many topics and save you the time of finding and filtering through hundreds of papers. Ask your committee members what books they might recommend, and if they don’t have any, try to find one on the subject and see what they think of it.

Communicate with your committee
Meet with or have email conversations with your committee members at least every other week. Ask them what to study and for feedback on your proposal, but make sure you give them time and deadlines.

Try to run errands and make appointments all around the same time
Spacing out errands/appointments might seem like it gives you more time, but even a “quick” 15 minute errand can take away 1-2 hours of study time because you lose focus. Try to make all of your meetings on the same day and back-to-back and schedule errands around those.

Plan in time to work on your proposal
You will need to give your self plenty of time to get your proposal written to send out to your committee 4-6 weeks before your exam, and then you will need 3-7 days after you get feedback to incorporate it all, before you send your final proposal the week before your comps.

Get up and walk around every once in a while
After reading a book chapter or set of papers, get up and walked – go to the bathroom, get food etc. This helps keep you focused and from getting sleepy.

Because you are spending a lot of time either sitting or laying down, it is important to exercise daily so that you don’t become lethargic or gain too much weight!

Watch your caffeine intake
You might think you have to drink coffee constantly in order to stay awake in focused, but too much coffee can throw off your sleep schedule and have other adverse heath effects. I tried to limit myself to a cup a day, and then would drink tea throughout the day – less caffeine and better for you

Take time to relax – even daily!
This can be the hardest, but most important thing to do while studying. Every day you should take some time to yourself where you are not studying – I recommend at night. For example, most nights, I chose a time to stop studying and watched a movie to help clear my mind before bed.

Do a practice comps
This is not only an alterative way to get feedback on your proposal from people who know your advisor and committee members, but its also a litmus test to see how well your studying is going. Do this two weeks before your exam, so that if you are missing something, you have time to fix it. Also you will often find questions that came up during your practice also come up during your actual comps.

Get comfortable when you study
Make sure you are comfortable when you sit down to study, or else you will get distracted. This isn’t to say get so comfortable you will fall asleep though. If noises distract you easily, put on some music – wordless music like classical, jazz, instrumental groups, and techno can all help block out extra outside noise and let you focus.

Make meals in batch
While cooking can be great, it can also take up a lot of time. I recommend making batch meals a few times a week, so that you have plenty of leftovers for lunch and dinner. You can even make something like muffins in bulk for breakfast.

Don’t socially isolate yourself
If you keep to yourself the entire time you study, you might go insane. Social contact, even it is just to discuss comps or your proposal is important. Many of your friends might have already gone through this and can offer their own advice on how to prepare and such.

Don’t study new material the last few days before your exam
At this point it would probably be better to review your notes or other material you have previously read to make sure you retain it all. I recommend not studying much at all the day before your exam and trying to do some activity that will distract you for most of the day

Take good notes
As you read through books and papers, take notes or write up summaries. This will not only ensure better memory retention and learning, but will come in handy when you want to review what you’ve read before or even after comps!

If its not important, don’t worry about it
There are a million things you might think to do or read while studying, but most of them will have little to know impact on your exam at all. If you are working on a grant or permit that is due after your exam, don’t work on it until afterwards. Same with other projects or papers. They will still be there after you finish your exam, so don’t let them distract you.