Why FAILING my (PhD) Comps was one of the best things to ever happen to me…

Oh, doctoral programs. Oh how badly I wanted a ‘Dr.’ in front of my name just so that I could be proud of my academic achievements. Oh how I totally did not fit into the doctoral program I chose. Oh how I am so grateful I failed the doctoral exams that prevented me from wasting 3-4 more years of my life.

Finished High School Early

I finished high-school 5 months before everyone else and I went on va-ca to Europe. Because that’s how I roll. You see, I didn’t finish school early because I loved it oh so very much. I finished it early because I hated it oh so very much. High school was a complete waste of time. The mundane courses, the heavy course load, the early wake-up, and the ridiculous bullying encouraged me to get the hell out of that place. And I did. And I went to Europe to part-ay. While on the dean’s list – obviously.

Finished BA Early

I finished my 4-year BA within 3 years. Because that’s just how I roll. No one said you have to finish a 4-year program in 4 years. That’s just the average, and I’m absolutely nowhere close to being average. I finished my BA when my peers from high-school were starting their BAs after ‘leap’ or ‘lap’ years of high school (whatever they’re called). I finished my BA earlier than everyone because I knew how to batch. I was an ignorant genius because I knew how to work the system. I excelled at high school and my BA because I knew what I needed to know in order to ace exams. And as a side note, I also worked 10-20 hours per week during high school and my BA – so yes, I seriously batched. So even before Tim Ferriss came along, I was already implementing batching and applying selective information to achieve my goals.

Finished my MA Early

For me a BA was not enough. A BA is worth the same as a high school diploma in the 1970s. Everyone has one, so if you have one, you’re not really able to contribute more than others. [Note: this was back when I wanted to find a JOB… *shivers*]. So I continued onto an MA program. For the record, I loved my MA and I loved my BA. International development, international governance, migration, refugee studies, global social actors, etc. Pure heaven for me. My MA from the Balsillie School of International Affairs would have taken me 1.5 years, but I felt like completing it within a year, so I did.

Youngest PhD Student

At the young and bright age of 22, and right after I completed my MA program, I began my PhD program. I was the youngest student out of the 3 doctoral students. Heck, I was even younger than most of the MA students in the Political Science program. But you see, and here is the problem, the program was too narrow. I am a free soul and thus excelled in my interdisciplinary BA and MA programs. When it came to my tightly-disciplined (pun intended) PhD program, I felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t too interested in the coursework. I wanted a PhD because I wanted a PhD, and not because I wanted to become a professor. A year into the program, I had my Comps (PhD comprehensive examinations). Now these were intense Comps – 4 or 5 profs sitting around an oval table staring you down while you answer their questions while standing up and trying to keep your breathing steady. I may be exaggerating a little, but regardless, Comps are intense shit-yourself while you’re standing exams. And I failed them. I may have described my fail as a ‘they would like me to prepare myself with the material before continuing,’ but it was simply a ‘you failed, Marika’ moment. But the most (perhaps) unusual thing about failing my Comps, was that I wasn’t heartbroken. Whereas other students may have been devastated, I accepted it and was even… relieved.

Seeing an Obstacle as an Opportunity

I took a semester off to ‘re-study’ the Comps for a second attempt. I was on a really nice scholarship so I used the time to rejuvenate (read: learn to knit and watch Friday Night Lights on a daily basis). That fall semester, I knew for certain that failing my Comps was fate’s way of guiding me onto a better path. My purpose in life was not to spend 4 years working towards a PhD. My purpose in life was to continue into the job market as an employee, then as a business consultant, and finally as an entrepreneur who has achieved financial freedom at the young age of 27. I achieved financial freedom at 27. And it was thanks to failing my Comps that I knew I wasn’t made out for school. I wasn’t born to stay in an institution that told me what I should know and what I shouldn’t know. School was not for me, and I’m grateful that I realized this sooner than later.

The world is our playground and field of experimentation. So when an obstacle comes our way, see it as an opportunity for something greater. Something greater than you could have ever imagined. And act on it. Even if you can’t see past this ‘hill’, believe that there is something amazing lying ahead. Be positive and you can achieve anything.


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