Learn. Grow. Pass: Volume 1

G  U  I  D  E
  1. Origins
  2. The Past
  3. The Present
  4. The Future

O  R  I  G  I  N  S
Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end; sometimes they have an epilogue or turn into a series.

What about mindsets or knowledge? What’s the process?

I have a philosophy of Learn. Grow. Pass. Which is a philosophy I have practiced my entire life.

  • I gain knowledge, information, skills, or resources. (Learn)
  • I put into practice this knowledge, information, skills, or resources. (Grow)
  • After, I’ve gained a handle on the topic, I share the knowledge, information, skills, or resources. (Pass)

Sometimes, I pass as I’m learning and growing and other times I wait until I fully understand.

But at the end of the day, I believe what we gain, we should pass along to our family, friends, and community.                                                               

Over the years, I’ve shared reviews of events, articles, books, quotes, parables, my process, etc. I recently decided to take the information I gained, organize it, and put it into one place.

I always have people asking me for resources. I thought releasing an annual digest of things that helped me grow and transform my mindset might be helpful to others.

I’ll reflect on the year past, the current year, and look forward to the next year.

Overall, think of it as a highlight of things I consumed to help me grow.

I hope you take something from this digest. I call it Learn. Grow. Pass

Enjoy,***Lisa-Marie                                                                                    12/1/2018

P.S. TAG, you’re it. Time for you to pass something along. Share this digest or share in the comments something you learned in 2018.

T H E  P A S T
How far in the past do I go?

Well, let me start with 2015-2017. I feel that marked a new stage in my life. I transferred from Arizona State University to Michigan State University, I ended a long-term relationship, and seven people directly related to me or in my circle passed away. Oh, and I realized I had depression. The last few years have been emotionally and cognitively demanding. Getting a PhD, running around depressed and not knowing it, and dealing with a lot of change is not fun. As someone who keeps in emotions, it was a lot to handle.

But I don’t want to paint a pity picture. While I had challenging situations occur in my life, I also discovered my personal strength and resilience and the power of community.

I discovered efficient ways to learn and work. I learned how to communicate with people who think differently than me. I learned how to respond to conflict. I learned how to figure things out on my own, yet I also learned how to ask for help. I learned who was in my corner and who was not. I learned that mindfulness is a powerful tool. It also marked the first time in my life that I consistently kept up with a meditation and journaling practice.

I learned that when channeled the right way, I am a creative, empathetic, bold, and courageous leader. I like that, and I want to continue growing in that way.

My friend and I always laugh that I’m not a time traveler. Whenever I get stuck thinking about the past, we joke and say “no time traveling.” But what if we could travel in time? Would it be for the better? I think the past is gone and it’s just a memory, but reflection is a powerful tool. I started off this digest with reflecting on past events and feelings because it sets the stage for my present and future situations. While, mindfulness has helped me stay focused and present, every now and then I don’t mind dipping into the past and reflecting on how it will transform and groom me for the present and future.

T H E  P R E S E N T
It’s the end of November 2018 and I am in a good place. I spent most of 2018 building my own personal toolkit to help me with balancing my ambitions and the need for rest. I would say that 2018 was all about mental and emotional wellness. 2018 also was about learning more about myself and I spent a lot of time doing introspection. My decision to put my mental and emotional wellness first resulted in personal clarity and interestingly improved professional performance.  There were several tools that helped me maintain my wellness this year and I hope to share a little insight with you and hopefully you gain something from my experiences.

P r a c t i c e s


I used to keep a diary when I was in elementary school. I stopped that practice because someone read my diary and shared it. I picked up the practice again after college and sporadically kept a journal of positive aspects.  Eventually, when I moved to Michigan, I started up the practice again and I have stuck with it. I journal every morning, using the Artist Way method of three stream of thought pages. I also journal every evening, using a variety of methods, but most recently following the advice of Doist, I started documenting how I used my values that day.

Maintaining Relationships

Relationships are important to me. I value friendship and family and make effort to maintain these relationships. I have had my moments over the years when I was great at keeping in touch and then I fell off for a bit. Lately, I have returned to the practice of keeping in touch with people. I have reached out to people via email, text, phone, or written mail. It is important to me to maintain relationships with people who have played a role in my development.


I’ve meditated off and on since college, but never kept a consistent practice. When I moved to Michigan, I began meditating again at the encouragement of a friend. Now, I meditate one to two times a day. I do guided imagery, guide meditations, Kirtan Kriya, Deepak and Oprah’s meditation experiences, and Chel Hamilton’s meditation podcast. The practice of meditation has dramatically changed the way I operate. I used to be pressed about time and worried about the past, but now I take care to stay present. I try not to let things that I cannot control, control my actions and thoughts.


In 2018, I decided to try out therapy and I am glad that I decided to go. I love it. At first I was guarded and felt weird talking to a stranger about my feelings, but now I love that I have the opportunity to express myself in a judgment free zone. Over the last nine months, I have seen improvement in how I interact with others and how I even treat myself. It is a practice I hope to continue moving forward.

W r i t t e n

I read a lot. I read academic articles, blog posts, books, tweets, backs of lotion bottles, fine print on food products. I read everything. I’m always consuming information. It’s hard for me to highlight my favorite reads of the year, but I narrowed it down to the ones that I reflected on the most. However, have no fear; at the end of this digest, I do have a complete list of all the content I consumed. I don’t keep track of all the articles I read (I need to do better), but the list is updated as of 11/30/2018.

B o o k s

You are here: Discovering the magic of the present moment – Thich Nhat Hanh

Three years ago, my classmate recommended that I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I borrowed one of his books from the library and I could not get into it. Looking back, I realize that I was not in the right space to start reading books about mindfulness. I turned to reading mindfulness books in February because it was the only type of books I could focus my mind on outside of school related books. I have read many of Hanh’s books, but the one I started with in February was ‘You are Here’.  This book discusses in simple terms mindfulness and Buddhist practices dealing with breathing and staying in the present moment. This book opened my mind to the practice of mindfulness and I did a deep dive into all things Thich Nhat Hanh.

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama, is commonly known as the first Black First Lady of the United States, but after reading this book, readers will understand that she is so much more. I loved this book, mostly because Michelle was relatable and that was unexpected. I felt like I was getting a master lesson on mentorship, love, family, career, and creativity. This is a book that I will revisit, but in audiobook format. I would love to hear her tell her story. I believe that sometimes there are people who can serve as mentors from afar and I feel like Michelle Obama is someone I consider a mentor from afar and this book solidified her as a role model.

Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone – J.K. Rowling

My sister and I always discuss if J.K Rowling is a crazy or a genius; maybe a little bit of both. I grew up on Harry Potter and every year I revisit the series. I have interacted with the series in many mediums: books, audiobooks, soundtrack, and movies. Each format is excellent. This year was the 20 year anniversary of Harry Potter and in spirit of this milestone, I reread the first book and marveled at the magical journey that Rowling’s created for my generations and those to follow.

Roll of thunder hear my cry – Mildred D. Taylor

I’ve read and reread every book Taylor has written, but Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is my favorite. I still have my original copy from elementary school and I reread this book every year. It probably will be on this list again next year. I just love the main character Cassie and I love the writing of Mildred Taylor. I hope one day to write a story like she has and that there will be a person like me who reads the work every year.

The color purple series – Alice Walker

Did you know the Color Purple was a series? I didn’t know that. I also never read the Color Purple (or saw the movie). I know, I’ve been living under a rock. But this year I read two out of the three books in the Color Purple series. I read The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar. Wow, I loved them both and I can’t wait to read the third book. Walker is a masterful writer and I look forward to reading her other bodies of work.

Piecing me together – Renee Watson

I enjoy reading YA novels and want to read more books written by people of color, so I started to go down the list of Coretta Scott King winners and runner ups and I’ve been reading the books. I loved Piecing Me Together and just couldn’t put it down. I felt like I was there in the story and that to me is a sign of a book that sticks with me. 

A r t i c l e s

The productive benefits of journaling (plus 11 ideas for making the habit stick) – DoistI stumbled on this article this year and enjoyed the thoroughness of the article. I use the Doist product, Todoist and I enjoy reading articles they post on productivity. This particular article stood out to me because they gave insights on the different ways a person can journal.

Unprotected – Finlay Young

This article was an excellent read on many levels, from the investigative reporting to the visual layout of the article. I would love to one day create a multimedia article in this way. Besides the visual aspects of the article, the reporting was great and gave insight into the problems that arise when foreigners start charities in other countries. It was sad, eye opening, and made me think more about who I donate to.

How to digest books above your “level” and increase your intelligence – Ryan Holiday

It’s clear that I enjoy reading or this Learn. Grow. Pass digest would not exist. However, reading Holiday’s article on reading gave me insights into how I could approach reading in a more efficient way. It is my goal to get better at keeping track of the books I have read and the notes I have taken. I want to get better at making connections between readings and critically reading books the same way I might read an article for school.

Afrofuturism: The next generation – Ruth La Ferla

Ever take part in something and not even know it’s a thing or a movement. That’s how I feel about Afrofuturism. I’ve always liked science fiction and love reading books by Black science fiction writers. I feel a sense of connection with certain music artists, but it wasn’t until I found this article on Afrofuturism that I was introduced to the term. In the NY Times feature they define Afrofuturism as:

“Afrofuturism, a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts.”

Umm, yes, I’m all for this and didn’t realize I’ve always been for this. Having a name to put towards what I already enjoyed was helpful. 

Q u o t e s

A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years – Carl Sagan

To do great things, you have to read to lead. – Ryan Holiday

Every black person is obligated to try to do what he does as well as any person who ever lived can do it, or any person who ever lives can do it; then try to save one – just one – person if you can. And then struggle to destroy a system which is multiplying black victims faster than all the black intellectuals and black leaders in America can talk about. I see those three things connected – Lerone Bennet

One day I decided I was gonna choose me. I haven’t looked back since. – Yoga with Adrienne

The happiness in your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. – Spotify Playlist called Pollen

It’s a funny thing that we forget sometimes. We’re so scared that we are going to die, we forget to do the thing that keeps us alive. Breathe. – Donald, This is Us

Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. – Mrs. Whatsit, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

…Not all those who wander are lost… – J. R. R. Tolkien

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior. People are simply unique, incomparable – Osho

Democracy is not just about our individual rights and concerns and our individual protections, but rather it lives and thrives in making sure that everybody is lifted by the community. – Oprah

Maya Angelou used to say, ‘Baby, your crown has been paid for so put it on your head and wear it.’ So your crowns been paid for. The right to vote is your crown. – Oprah

I gave up blood on that bridge in Selma, 53 years ago; almost died. Some of my friends and colleagues were murdered in Mississippi and other places. I’m not asking any of you to give any blood. I’m just asking you to go and vote; like you never voted before. We have to vote. The vote is the most powerful, most powerful, nonviolent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and we must use it; use it. Go out and vote, let’s go out and vote. Go and vote. Go and vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. – John Lewis

One of the biggest things we want to start cultivating, curating this community of just fly, passionate, creative, driven people. Who all have a lifestyle; that want to do better, create more, empower other people, build things that matter, move culture forward. But still be fly, have fun, have good energy, and collaborate and connect with each another in a real way. – Julian Mitchell, Get Paid To Be Yourself

I think you and Oprah would have very lovely convos. – My sister Stephanie

So laugh, breathe, and repeat. You make others laugh because you are an important human being. – My friend Mattie

Don’t just write [about] it, live it. I want you to live it. – My friend Mattie

It’s cool to challenge yourself, just be careful not to define yourself by anyone’s opinion of you. – My friend Dean

Take a deep breath and remember who the fuck you are. – Unknown; sent to me by my friend Dean

Have faith, not fear. – my Aunt Lola

A u d i o  V i s u a l

F i l m s

Black Panther

As a Marvel fan, I was excited for Black Panther to come out and I was not disappointed with the telling of this  superhero from Wakanda. I think I’ve watched this movie over five times and each time I gain something new from it.

Crazy Rich Asians

I loved the book when I read it a few years ago, so I was excited to watch the film. I was not disappointed, I laughed and I teared. It was a great romantic comedy and of course I was happy to see the diversity.

The Hate U Give

I saw this movie twice in the theatre. The examination of police brutality and the aftermath was telling. I cried and I laughed during this movie; even after the second time seeing it. The actors did an excellent job drawing me into the story and making me relate with the characters. 

A u d i o

Arlan Hamilton: The Hustle

I’ve followed the Startup podcast for some time and I enjoy the profiles they do on different types of entrepreneurs. Arlan Hamilton was an interesting profile. This particular episode of the series stood out to me because it highlighted the lengths some people will go to ensure their dreams come true.

Golden State Warrior Andre Igoudala – Without Fail

I love Gimlet Media, so most of the podcast series I listen to are distributed by this podcast network. Without Fail is a new Gimlet series about failures and successes in business. This episode stood out to me because it featured an NBA basketball player that I am familiar with; Andre Igoudala. This episode was a reminder that athletes are not just athletes, a lot of them have interesting projects they are involved with outside of their sport. It was refreshing to hear Igoudala’s experiences with venture capital.

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop  – Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve heard MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech many times, but I never heard his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech. I spent the spring of 2018 listening to Malcolm X, MLK, and other leaders speeches, but the ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech was the most touching one I listened to. At the end of the speech, I found a tear dropping down my face. It was in that moment I realized that MLK was a powerful orator, he painted a picture that had me believing that I too can reach the mountaintop.

The Ring – Uncivil

Uncivil is a podcast that talks about the untold stories of the Civil War, this particular episode discusses two women spies; one Black and one White. I love listening to stories such as these because they provide insight into untold heroes in history.

E v e n t s

Haiti Tech Summit

This summer I went to the Haiti Tech Summit, which is part of a 13 year initiative to address the future of Haiti using startup ecosystems. The keynote speaker was Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square and there were a host of other speakers and sponsors there. It was great to see many Haitians, Haitians from the diaspora, and supporters of Haiti there to discuss using technology to accelerate growth in the country. Not only did I learn a lot, but I met interesting people and had an amazing time.

T H E  F U T U R E
I’m always thinking. Maybe overthinking, but thinking nonetheless. Sometimes I’m pondering over something that I noticed in the world or other times I’m thinking of solutions to a problem.

I think about the future a lot, not just in the form of questions that need answers (QTNA), but also what I will I learn about next.

I typically follow a need; my needs or maybe my community’s needs. Most of the time I’m just trying to grow, discover, and strive to reach my full potential. That often means whatever I’m reading tends to fill a gap in my life; something I think I need to work on. I mentor several people and facilitate a mastermind group and I read things that I think can help us grow collectively.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that asking questions and quenching a thirst for knowledge makes it much more enjoyable (at least for me). 


  • There is a young man who lives in my gramma’s neighborhood in Haiti. He is in college and has a bright future, but does not live in an environment that can support this future. When my gramma was alive, I might send gifts through her or money. When she passed away, there no longer was this middleperson who could facilitate sending remittance to Haiti. The other day, I was thinking to myself, “I would love a secure way to send money or items to this young man.” So I posed a question on Twitter:

  • I love traveling to Haiti and learning more about my heritage. Each time I visit Haiti, I grow a little more concerned about its future. Brain drain is a huge issue and lack of collaboration with the diaspora is another issue. Haiti is building its tourism industry, but maybe it should consider building its diaspora relationships. Develop ways for first, second, and even third generation Haitians in the diaspora to come back and learn about the country and how they can lend their skills. Additionally, many that are of African descent tend to want to make a ‘pilgrimage’ to the motherland (Africa). I fully support this desire, I’ve done it myself, but what if Haiti worked on branding to those of African descent, especially those in the western hemisphere to come to another motherland; Haiti. Haiti’s role in shaping the geopolitical environment in the western hemisphere is important history. More should know about it and it’s close to other western hemisphere countries. One of my good friend’s father always says that every Haitian and Black person should go to the fort in Cap Haitian. After doing it this summer, I agree. It felt like a rite of passage.

  • Haiti has an infrastructure problem on many different levels; electrical, political, transportation, waste management, broadband, etc. The one that is increasing concerning to me is the pollution problem;  how can this be solved? Is there a way to have people pick up the litter and bring it to a recycling center for money? Clean up the environment and also provide jobs at the same time?

  • The young gentleman that I know in Haiti is in college and has difficultly doing his assignments because of the unstable internet connection and also it cost money to use internet on mobile devices. How can education in a country improve, if students do not have access to basic things like a stable internet connection, low cost or free internet connection, and electricity.

  • Now, the issue that should be on the minds of every political leader. What is the plan for environmental refugees? The western hemisphere is home to many island nations. It’s not a question of if, but when climate change is going to create a massive humanitarian and environmental crisis in these regions (and other regions across the world). What are we going to do? Do we open the borders to accept these new environmental refugees? Is there an exit plan? How do you get people off the islands? Or if you don’t get people off the islands, what are these governments doing to plan for the future?

  • Every time I go to Haiti, all I think about is how are they going to solve a multilevel infrastructure problem? I hope Haiti gets a visionary leader, who can put the country on the right path without relying so much on foreign involvement.

  • Is there such thing as over production and consumption in our society? This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. There is so much of everything; information, data, clothes, businesses, etc. But where does it go? In nature, a tree grows, its fruit drops on the ground, an animal eats it, then through bowel movements, drops the seed into the ground and then the seed grows into a tree. This is nature’s version of circular design. I’m concerned that more businesses do not follow a circular design model. I also feel a bit of guilty as I participate in this over consumption and production by creating more blog posts, services, products, etc. When does it end? One thing I’ve been toying with is adding in a social good aspect into anything I end up selling. For example, if (when?) I write a book, donating proceeds to deforestation issues in Haiti  or an organization that helps disadvantaged kids get books. 

  • In the same vein of overproduction and consumption. What do you think of podcasts? In the early days, there weren’t many podcast out there, but now there so many podcasts out there, it is getting overwhelming. Is the podcast industry over saturated; much like the TV industry?

  • As we learn more about the adverse impact of digital tools, what will we do about the push to bring digital items into education spaces? Is being connected almost 24 hours a day healthy? Connected at school, connected at home, connected everywhere. I’m curious to know how this will impact learning in the future, especially the ability to focus.

  • This is random, but I don’t like the way mothers in commercials are dressed. Why do they have a mom cleaning a house in a business casual outfit? Have you ever seen a mom clean a bathroom in slacks, a button down shirt, and a cardigan? Where did this representation of mothers in the home come from? I know a lot of mothers and none of them dress like that to shop, to clean, or to play in the backyard with their children. It’s a small thing, but it bothers me, because media representation is important. Also, why is it always the mother cleaning and running errands, that’s a whole separate issue, but I would love for these companies to actually visit homes and see how moms really dress or who really takes care of some chores in the home. I used to date someone who liked to clean as much as I did. Can we see some men like that on TV? And please, not in slacks and a blazer.

  • I don’t know much about the cyber security industry, but I do think with all the data breaches and election manipulation news that has come out over the last several years; that cyber security is an industry that has room for growth. I am interested to see how consumer knowledge grows on how to protect their data and how other companies are working to protect consumer data.

  • I would love to see more policy on technology and the Internet. I feel the digital landscape is still the wild wild west with little oversight. I would like to see more discussion on how to create policy that protects consumers, while still allowing for innovation to take place.

 N e x t

Books I’m going to tackle in the beginning of 2019

Topics I want to further explore

  • Business analysis
  • Financial literacy
  • Goal setting
  • Mentoring
  • Operations


  • Graduate from my PhD program
  • Start my career

C O M P L E T E  L I S T
Content I consumed in 2018…

B o o k s

A u d i o b o o k s

F i l m s

N e w s l e t t e r s

P e r i o d i c a l s

P o d c a s t s

T o o l s


Lisa-Marie Pierrewww.lisamariepierre.com

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#PhDingWhile… Competing

I don’t  believe in competition as I mentioned previously on this blog and I realized I don’t really believe in it while a PhD student. One day I was having a conversation with someone and I mentioned that I would probably defend my proposal in January 2018. This person had a little disappointment on their face and stated “Oh, that’s before me. I thought I was going to beat you on getting the proposal done.” Later, they talked about how they love to compete against other PhD students in the department and outside of the department. If there isn’t anyone to compete with, they create an imaginary ideal PhD student. I told the person that I don’t compete against anyone but myself.

The entire time I’ve been in the PhD program, I’ve made acquaintance with a lot of people and I realized a difference in philosophy when it comes to competition.

I came to the university to get a PhD. While here I also realized I could grow personally and professionally. I took it upon myself to attend many of the free workshops offered by various departmental units and additionally took advantage of the free resources offered on campus. The university uses me for cheap labor, but I’m also using it for low cost professional development. Another person said that I go to a lot of workshops. I just said “yea, I like to learn and grow.”

The starting line lets you know where to begin, while the finish line gives you an idea of a destination. After that, I’m not worried about the next person’s number of publications, grants received, or graduation completion time. Because, I’ve learned that if your neck is crooked to the left and right or if you are entirely turned around, you will crash, burn, bump into obstacles, and miss opportunities.

When I was learning how to drive, my aunt told me I was looking in the rear view mirror too much and I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening in the moment and ahead of me. She told me not to worry about who was around me. This insight is something I’ve carried with me throughout my personal development journey.

I’m in my PhD program to learn and get my degree. I want to bring my knowledge and polished skills back to my community, share information, and help move us upward and forward.

I watched this Casey Neistat video about his journey running marathons and at the end he talks about competing with yourself and I felt it tied nicely to my thoughts in this post. Check it out.




Photo Credit: Steven Lelham

Are you a Lofi Starter?

Note: This is a repost. I originally posted this article July 2017 via the newsletter and this website. For whatever reason, the two blog posts that I posted on this topic deleted from the website. So I decided to repost them.

Are you apart of the lofi movement?

A couple of weeks ago, my sister sent a text to our family group chat about the NBA Finals. I made a comment that I didn’t even know the game was that night, at which she expressed her shock (I’ve been a huge basketball fan(atic) my entire life). I replied to her “I know. I don’t watch bball anymore and barely any TV. A new phase in my life. Lowfi Lisa.”

It hit me in that moment that the growing interest in focused deep work, being an individual in the age of distraction, being effective, and having analog experiences  is a new rebellion, a counter movement; it’s lofi. All these streams of thought about disconnecting is a subculture, much like how lofi music was a response to high quality high technical music production. The lofi movement is comprised of lofi starters; people who effectively address and solve problems, yet value the beauty of appreciating life. It’s like the people who decide to float the lazy river versus the people who run tube in hand. They all are going to the same place, but just going about it differently. And it’s not to say that one movement is better than the other; but it’s just a simple fact of which way are you going down the lazy river? Running, floating, swimming, etc?

As I thought more about that comment that I am Lofi Lisa, I realized it ran deeper than this new phase in my life where I am avoiding distractions. My entire life I’ve been lofi. Lofi doesn’t necessarily mean it is lo-tech, it just means that when everyone is running in one direction; you are running either in that same direction, but to your own beat or you are going in the opposite and sometimes parallel direction. In a nutshell by being lofi you appreciate the beauty of reflecting and being authentic to who you are, not what the world wants you to be.

In terms of #lofistarter, what does it mean to be a lofi starter?

As these thoughts of lofi were developing in my head, I listened to a four-part series on starters on Behavior Gap Radio. In the first episode called “Starting Things” Carl Richards discusses how some people are great at starting things; they have a constant stream of good ideas, but often are seen as people who can’t finish or execute these ideas. He goes on to discuss that it is finishers that get a great reputation, but being a starter is valuable because it is not common for people to consistently develop new ideas. He proposes that if you are a starter, that you finish enough things to give you permission to continue starting new things.

After listening to that four-part series, it clicked. I am a starter. I start a lot of things, some I finish and others I don’t. My head is over flowing with ideas that I can’t possibly get to in this lifetime or at least give it the attention it deserves to develop into a tangible creation. So I started to think of myself as a lofi starter; someone who starts things that run counter to the norm. I spent a few days with all these thoughts running through my head; lofi, lofi Lisa, Lofi movement.

What do you think of this concept? Are you lofi? Are you a starter; how do you finish your ideas?


Photo Credit:  Jason Blackeye

#PhDingWhile… Taking Comprehensive Exams

A major turning point in the PhD process is the completion of the comprehensive exams. Comprehensive exams illustrate that the student has a full understanding and command over the literature in their field and specializations. The comprehensive exams process is different between disciplines, and even within departments.

The comprehensive exams were a stressful time in my life for many reasons. One of the main reasons was the sheer volume of literature I needed to read and also the difficulty I had organizing my thoughts. Now that I am over a year past the completion of my comprehensive exams, I thought I would share some thoughts on things I did or wish I did during preparation.

The information, I provide below is based on my comprehensive exam experience.

Ground rules

In my department, students choose their areas of specialization and each faculty member on the committee is responsible for giving questions on that area of specialization. The exam can be open or closed book; that decision is up to the committee (mine was closed book). The exam has two parts: the written and oral exam. The written exam takes place over two 8-hour days; with an hour for a lunch break. The student is given a department laptop and jump drive to submit the questions. Each faculty member allocates 4 hours to complete their questions.

After the written exam is completed and scored; if the student passes, they then take an oral exam, where they will receive a pass or fail. The oral exam is when the committee members can ask the student to elaborate on their written responses. If the written exam is completed and the student does not pass,  they can take the written exam again. After completion of the written and oral exam, that is when the comprehensive exams are marked as passed. In my department, at this stage the student is now deemed a PhD candidate and after the dissertation proposal defense, they are deemed ABD (All But Dissertation).


  • Prior to preparing for the exams, learn how comprehensive exams work in the department.
  • Make it clear with the committee if the exams will be open book or closed book.
  • Find out how the day will be split in terms of time per question per committee member.
  • Find out when in the PhD process students typically take their comprehensive exams.

Compiling the reading list

For my comprehensive exams, my areas of specialization were general geography/economic geography, urban geography, entrepreneurship, and qualitative methods. My committee had me create my reading list based on these areas of specialization. I was to find foundational literature in these areas and some literature that could relate to my dissertation topic. After I made my list, I sent it to each committee member and we met to discuss my reading list. They had suggestions for additions and removals. By the time it was time for me to begin my studying, my list was 147 books and articles.


  • If you are making your own reading list, it’s better to start small. Start with about 10-15 books and articles per person. Then if they tell you that you need more, add on. I started off too large and didn’t think about the time it would take to read, take notes, and understand the materials.
  • Choose literature that is in conversation with one another, meaning articles and books where the authors are cited in each other’s work. This helps when it’s time to make connections between readings.
  • Find a balance between number of books and articles.
  • Try to find literature that was already read in courses or needed for class assignments.
  • If allowed by the committee, and you already have an idea of your dissertation topic, choose literature that you will use in your proposal and dissertation.


Before studying for the comprehensive exams, I spent several days figuring out how I wanted to organize myself. I figured out how I wanted to organize my notes. I figured out my schedule for studying. I also spent time figuring out how I was going to get the materials for studying. I’m a heavy Microsoft OneNote user, so I created a comprehensive exams section in my OneNote. In this section I had each committee member as their own tab and underneath I had all the readings for them organized by last name and year. Each reading had its separate page. I like using OneNote because I could link across pages and concepts. I also created a dictionary in OneNote for key terms and had a section that listed out practice questions.

I like using Todoist and Toggl for task management and time management. So, I used that to organize in my calendar for when I was going to read the literature. After, I read all the readings on my list, I printed out my notes and put them in a binder with my reading list. I also had index cards for each author. When it got closer to the exam, I also used paper to write out my thoughts on concepts. It seemed like the closer I got to the exams, the less I relied on my digital tools and relied more on my binder of notes, index cards, and blank sheets of paper.


  • Decide if you are going all digital, analog, or a mixture of both.
  • Before studying make sure that you have all the books and articles that you need saved on a jump drive and checked out from the library.
  • Whatever system you choose, stick to it. Have a place that has all your notes and materials in one place.


How do you study for comprehensive exams? You have tons of literature to read and have no idea what the committee members will ask. This is overwhelming. In my department we have a binder and this binder has a list of every question asked to students in our department and who asked that question. When I went through the binder, I realized that some professors asked similar questions over time. Unfortunately for me, my advisor was new to the department and had only two other students, both of whom had not taken their exams yet. I also had one committee member who never served on a committee in my department. So, for those two people I was in the dark about what kind of questions they would ask. For the other two committee members, I had a range of examples of the types of questions they would ask. I also took note of other questions that were asked that I thought could apply to my areas of specialization. Having the questions were helpful for when I was practicing (which I’ll talk about next).

My mistake when I was studying was that I tried to remember every detail in each article and I was stressing that it would take me years to memorize/know each author across all committee members. I spent a bulk of my study time reading every single word and trying to remember everything. It wasn’t until about a month or two months before my exam, that it finally clicked for me. I decided to stop focusing on reading every single word, because I was running out of time. I instead focused on key terms for each area of specialization. I read up on the concepts and made sure I understood them and then I thought about how each author addressed that concept. I also spent time making sure I remembered the author name and year and what they focused on (This was important for me because I was having a closed book exam). If I needed clarification on concepts, I visited each committee member and discussed topics with them. About two days before the exam, I memorized the author and year for every reading. That way when I got into the exam I could immediately write it down on my notepad and know that I would at least have a prompt for citations.


  • If the advisor (or committee members) has other students who have taken the comprehensive exams, find out more about their experiences.
  • Write down the key concepts for each area of specialization. As you read through the literature on your reading list, make sure to take note of how the authors address this concept.
  • Create an annotated bibliography for all your readings (This might also be helpful to do for your dissertation and proposal).
  • If you are running out of time and have not read everything, don’t panic. If it is a book: read the table of contents, determine what chapters are important, and read the introduction and conclusion sections of those chapters. If it is an article: read the introduction and the discussion/conclusion. You can then determine if what you read is enough or if you need to read that entire book/article.
  • Focus on comprehension instead of memorization.
  • Talk to other students about how they study. Maybe they have a method that will help you.
  • Sometimes it helps just to talk through your reading list and the concepts. Find a friend where you can talk through concepts with them.
  • If there is time, take classes with the people on your committee. This helps with understanding how they think and how they grade your assignments.

Practice exams

Prior to my written exams, I did several practice exams. I did some that were timed and others that were not timed. Maybe three of these practice exams, I shared with my committee members and they gave me feedback. This feedback was helpful in me seeing how they scored responses and gave me an idea on how I could improve. For other questions that I practiced, I went to the writing center and got some insight on how to organize my thoughts. I also like to outline before I write, so the writing center also gave me some insight on how to write a good outline. When I did practice exams that were timed, I worked on my speed; how fast I could write a detailed outline. I then came up with my exam strategy, which was focusing about 30 minutes on making a good outline and then 1.5 hours on actually writing out the response.


  • If your committee members are open to it, do a practice exam with them. If they are not willing to read a practice exam, have someone who has taken a comprehensive exam read it over or someone who has had one of your committee members serve on their committee.
  • There are resources on campus, use them. Go to write-ins and/or the writing center.
  • Make an exam day strategy that works for your style of working.

Exam day

Exam day, I was nervous, but I made sure to prep the room and make it comfortable for me.

I am always cold, so I had a pashmina that was my gramma’s. I sometimes get nervous/anxious, so I had lavender leaves in a jar for me to smell and keep me calm. I had water and snacks for when I wanted a break. I had a picture of my family on the desk. I had a notepad so I could jot down my thoughts and outline.

There isn’t much left to do on exam day. I had a professor in college who said, “if you don’t know it by the day of the exam, you don’t know it.” I always remember that because I am not one to cram. So, 1 to 2 days before the exam, I was resting and relaxing. The day of the exam, I had my choice of questions for each committee member and I chose the questions that I was most comfortable answering. After my first day of exams, I went to dinner with a friend. After the second day of exams, I went to a house party that one of my classmates was throwing. I pretty much just wiped my hands and understood that I did my best and the results were out of my control.


  • Set up the room so you are comfortable. Bring things that you know you like, especially remembering that you are in a room for 8 hours.
  • Bring a notepad and pen/pencil.
  • If you are not sure how to answer the question, answer it with what you know. Spin it to align with what you remember.
  • Choose the order of your questions. I was allowed to choose the order of my questions, so the first day I answered questions from the committee members who I thought I would struggle with the most.
  • Understand the questions. I took about 5 minutes to dissect each question. If it’s a how question, focus on process. If it’s a why question, focus on explanation. Do this for all your questions (What, who, etc).

Preparing for the oral exams

Passing the written exams is the first part in passing the comprehensive exams. You still need to take the oral exams. I feel once you make it to the oral exams, you should feel a little more relaxed. At this stage you know that your writing was good enough to get you to the oral exams. After I found out that I was to take the oral exams, I set up appointments with some of my committee members to discuss my responses. For the committee members that I did not meet, I read over my written responses and tried to see where I could expand my thoughts. I had about 3 weeks between my written exam and my oral exam. During that time, I focused on the questions I did not answer during my written exam and I tried to make sure I understood how I could answer questions on them. Also, prior to taking my comprehensive exams, I had permission from a student to sit in their oral exams (my department allows this if the student gives permission). This was helpful because we shared a committee member, an advisor, and had similar topics. I was able to see how an oral exam works.

The night before my oral exams, I went into the room to prepare it for the morning (my exams were super early). My friend came with me and we set up the room. I had a committee member calling in from a different time zone, so I made sure the computer was functioning. My friend and I also spent about 1 hour practicing questions. The day of the exams, I made sure to come with a notepad. I wanted to make sure I answered the questions. When I was asked a question, I paused and jotted down shorthand notes on the question. I took my time answering. Also, if someone asked me a question that I was unsure of, I used my notepad to sketch out my thoughts. In my head I felt like I was taking forever, but one of my friends came to my oral exam and she said I was fine.


  • Study all your questions but focus particularly on the questions you did not answer.
  • Take your time during the orals in responding to questions.
  • Jot down notes if you like writing out your thoughts.
  • If allowed, attend someone’s oral exams to see the process.

Post exams

The comprehensive exams were probably the most anticlimactic thing I ever completed. After I finished my oral exams and passed, I went to happy hour and dinner with friends. Not much happened after exams. I can say I now write faster, I organize my thoughts better, and I had some readings that I used in my proposal and dissertation. My binder of notes I opened recently to share with another student and give some advice and that was the first time I opened it in over a year. If anyone were to ask me questions about my readings, I don’t think I could give them a response as fast as I did when I was taking my exams. After, the PhD journey continues and the comprehensive exams are something you can laugh about and tell “war stories” to new cohorts.


I hope this overview was helpful to you. I tried to think of everything I did in preparation for the exams. Feel free to share in the comments any advice you would share. If you haven’t taken the exams, feel free to comment with questions.


Note: This post is part of a series where I discuss a variety of positive & negative experiences I’ve had during my PhD program. These experiences taught me about my own resilience & the power of community.  I call it #PhdingWhile.


Photo Credit: Kinga Cichewicz


In August 2013, I entered a PhD program and this academic year, I should defend my dissertation and graduate from my PhD program.

During that time, I have had a variety of experiences ranging from the negative to the positive. I have had the wonderful experience of meeting new friends and learning new things, while at the same time experiencing subtle racism and deaths in the family. These experiences taught me about my own resilience and the power of community.

I originally wanted to write about my school experiences after I graduated, but after talking with my sister, I realized that in this moment there might be a person who could benefit from the various experiences that I have had.  I have a list of 30 topics ranging from #PhDingWhile depressed to single to traveling to death to transferring. Some of the posts will be more narrative style and just sharing my experiences, while other posts will provide advice and resources on how to overcome certain situations.

I don’t have a schedule for when I will write these posts because one thing I am working on is just going with the flow and not overworking myself. But since I have a general idea of each topic, I suspect I will post a couple of times a month.

I hope that these thoughts and experiences that I share help others make it through a PhD program and know that they are not alone in this journey.



Photo Credit: Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash