Surviving the Qualifying Exam, Part II: Sitting Down and Studying
Disclaimer: This is the second part of a three-part series on preparing for and taking the qualifying exam component of a doctoral degree program, also sometimes called the “comprehensive exam,” “oral exam,” or “preliminary exam(s).” You can find the first installment here. After taking my exam in January of 2018 I decided to write down some thoughts from my experience and what I wish I’d known earlier in this process. My experience is based on the exam requirements for Yale University’s History of Science and Medicine program, which consists of one two-hour oral exam, with four professors, each testing one exam field. Keep in mind that other programs may have different formats and requirements.
So, you’re preparing to take your qualifying exam. You’ve already laid the groundwork by understanding the purpose of the exam, figuring out the administrative hurdles you’ll need to clear before taking the exam, talking to your colleagues, and drafting your lists with your faculty examiners. Now, let’s talk study strategies.
It probably goes without saying but there is no one effective strategy for preparing for your comprehensive exam that will work for everyone, just as there is no one effective strategy for writing a seminar paper, or completing your dissertation. I will share some of the study strategies that worked well for me, but keep in mind that these are only suggestions, and you are the most knowledgeable person about what tactics will work best with your schedule, daily habits, and general study style. As I did in my first post, here I also recommend reading what others have had to say on this topic, including posts from Cameron Blevins, Jonathan Dettmann and Zachary Schrag. You may have a period of trial-and-error of trying out different approaches before you really hit your studying stride (I certainly did), and that’s perfectly fine.
First, get all of the books:
Actually, first prepare for the books to take over your home. Clear plenty of space in your room or apartment to store them. If you live with roommates, a partner, or family, apologize in advance, and promise that the books will not be there forever. Develop a plan to organize the books, either by your exam lists or alphabetically by author. Simply piling them all on one side of your bed is not a great strategy.
THEN, get all of the books.
This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Even if you are still in the process of finalizing your lists with each of your examiners (and even if this process continues up to the eleventh hour), begin to call up books from your academic library. You may run into snags: a book may be checked out, lost, or not available at your home institution, and you’ll have to request it through interlibrary loan and wait a few weeks for it to arrive. Or, you may need several trips to cart all of your books home from the library, especially if they are all heavy hardcovers. The point is to not have to worry, a week before your exam, that you won’t be able to physically get your hands on every book you’ll need to be accountable for. Because I’d planned to do most of my reading over my university’s winter holiday break, I’d ordered dozens of books in early December, planning to take them home so I wouldn’t need to return to campus during the break. I don’t have a car and I ended up making several trips with a rolling suitcase full of hardcover books on public transit in order to bring them all home. This could have been avoided with a little more advance planning.
(Pro tip: if you are studying history of art, or have an exam field in material or visual culture, you’ll probably have a number of exhibition catalogues on your list. These books are not only typically hardcovers but usually oversized as well and won’t fit in some backpacks!)
You may be someone who prefers, or doesn’t mind, reading digital copies of books on your laptop or other device. In that case, investigate whether your library has access to electronic copies of recently published books; many do. If you don’t mind reading from a screen, this will cut down the storage space in your home you’ll need to devote to books. However, you should plan to download these digital editions in advance. Depending on the subscription service your university uses, you may be able to download pdfs of the books, or you may be able to get unlimited access to them through a “digital library shelf” for a short period of time. Again, you don’t want to worry about not having access to your reading material when you need it. If you download copies in advance, you won’t have to worry about problems with Wi-Fi or your university VPN when you need to read. The same goes for digital copies of any articles or individual chapters from edited volumes on your lists – download these as well, and then either read them on your digital device of choice or print them out.
My thoughts on buying books: I would advise only purchasing books on your lists if you KNOW that they will be absolutely essential for writing your dissertation and that you’ll want a copy you can thumb through, maybe take notes in, for the next few years. Otherwise, the point of an academic library is to provide (emerging) scholars such as yourself a venue for accessing expensive academic books for free. I have heard of people purchasing twenty or thirty books on their lists, but I only bought one, and that was because I saw it at a used bookstore for $7 US.
Develop a reading strategy that works for you:
This may take lots of trial and error. Take some time to ask your colleagues what worked for them, and also reflect on your typical work habits. Are you someone who likes to take notes on paper, or electronically? Do you already use a note-taking program like Evernote or Scrivener that you are comfortable with? Do you find flash cards helpful for learning new information? Are you already comfortable with skimming or speed-reading?
I asked many of my colleagues to share their strategies and tried several of them out, but after I’d done about five or six books I developed a formula that worked for me. I’m sharing it here in case it is helpful, but again, this is just what I found to be effective and you’ll have to put some time in to find out what works for you.
I began by opening up a blank Word document and labeling it for a book. I’d then read the introductory and concluding chapters of the book in full. Most academic history books will lay out the author’s argument, briefly summarize each chapter, and discuss what bodies of evidence they used in the introduction (although, there are always the maddening few that don’t, but I won’t name names here). Then, I’d skim one or a couple of the body chapters. Sometimes this would be the first one or two body chapters. For other books, the author would specify in the introduction which chapter was intended as the lynchpin of the argument, or the “star” chapter that introduced a completely new archive to the conversation, so I would read that one. While doing all of this, I would take brief notes in the Word document, noting the argument of the book and any interventions that seemed particularly unique, groundbreaking, or aimed at refuting prior scholarship. I’d note any new terminology the author introduced. I’d summarize each chapter with one or two sentences, note the themes the author repeatedly emphasized, and what sources they used. As I read more and more books, I’d also quickly note if the book or its argument reminded me of other books I’d read.
I would then look for at least two; preferably three reviews of the book from peer-reviewed journals, and read them, mostly to make sure I hadn’t missed anything truly obvious. I also usually Google’d the author, if I wasn’t already familiar with them, to find out a bit about their disciplinary orientation and their scholarly interests more generally.
After all of this, I’d take the notes in the Word document and turn them from a series of scattered bullet points and phrases into a coherent summary with full sentences, at least three paragraphs long but no longer than one, single-spaced page. I would try to do this without referring back to the book if possible, and rely on my own memory. Because I limited myself to one page per book, I had an incentive to keep my initial notes brief and describe only the most essential points. In my program, graduate students are encouraged to create “modules” or sub-groups for each list, organized thematically, geographically, or temporally, so I would save these one-page summaries in four folders on my laptop, organized by each of my four lists, with sub-folders for each module. HOWEVER YOU TAKE NOTES, YOU MUST BACK YOUR NOTES UP ELECTRONICALLY. This point is non-negotiable. I have all of my Word documents set to automatically back up to iCloud, but you might use Dropbox or another program.
The only deviation from this formula was that for the articles and chapters from edited volumes on my lists, I would read the entire article or chapter in full while taking notes.
Continually work on your efficiency:
Remember that you are not reading these books as if they were classic works of fiction, savoring every word. While there are some (many) books you’ll be thrilled to put down, there will be others that are so well written and fascinating, you’ll want to read them cover to cover (I’m looking at you, Conquest of Nature by David Blackbourn). But don’t. Make a separate list of the books that you want to go back to, either because they’ll be helpful for your dissertation or because they’re just so interesting, but remember that now is not the time, unfortunately, to get lost in them.
Reading for the qualifying exam is an exercise in ruthless efficiency: you’ll want to get into a book, pull out the most essential elements as quickly as possible, and then move on. Remember, your examiners will want to see you discuss the key themes of each book and how different books connect to each other. They won’t ask you for the birth and death dates of every historical actor described in a particular book. This is why reading the introduction of every book is so important, because they are usually formulaic in that they will give you what you need to know upfront before you touch any of the later chapters. As I got further along in my lists, if I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of the book after reading the intro and conclusion, I’d often skip skimming the body chapters and go straight to checking out reviews.
If you can get really good at reading efficiently in this way, it will only help you as you move on in your graduate program and potentially into an academic career. There will be so much academic literature you’ll be expected to keep up with and you won’t have the time (or the inclination) to read every new book in your field cover-to-cover. One junior professor in my program told me that they felt, after they took their qualifying exam, that they could then familiarize themself with any unfamiliar (but potentially useful or necessary) bodies of literature in a relatively short period of time, by using the same kind of efficient reading practices they’d honed for their exam. Try to think of the long months of studying as practicing a new skill, not just drudgery!
If you need to, you may want to actually set yourself a time limit for working on each book – perhaps three or four hours, depending on how fast you read. I commute by train to my university campus, and set a goal of reading and writing a summary for one article during my morning commute and one during my evening commute. Not only will a time limit per book help your sanity, it will help you progress in your lists. With all of the other graduate school responsibilities you’ll continue to have while preparing for your exam, you simply won’t have time to get through everything if you aren’t efficient about it.
This brings me to my next point…
Academic book reviews are your friend
Don’t be afraid to read reviews – this is not cheating! Reading another scholar’s take on a book – what they thought the key argument and interventions were, what they found lacking – can only help you understand the book better. The New Books Network also has a great roster of podcast-style interviews with authors about their books, which I found really helpful to listen to. I have heard of people who prepared for their qualifying exams by only reading reviews of the books on their lists. I felt like I needed to read at least some of each book in order to feel comfortable speaking about it. But, to each their own.
Historiographical essays, essays that give a sense of the history of scholarship in a particular area, are also an excellent way to get a sense for how your books fit into the academic landscape. In history and history of science, the journals History Compass and Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences publish these kinds of essays, and I found them extremely helpful. Ask your colleagues and faculty if these kinds of publications exist in your discipline.
Synthesize, synthesize, synthesize (my favorite study tip)
My advisor, Joanna Radin, gave me a great suggestion when I finalized my list for her. She told me that when I finished reading all of the books in a given module (sub-group) on the list, I should spend some time writing a five-page synthesis of the books in that module. It needn’t be anything formal, just a kind of free-writing exercise to record my thoughts on the books while they were still fresh in my mind. What connections did I see amongst these books, either in terms of content or theoretical orientation? How did they fit together as a group? What was missing from their “conversation”?
I followed her instructions and it was so helpful I ended up doing this for modules on my other lists too. I really recommend doing this technique if you have time. Just put your thoughts down, no matter how random or unpolished you think they are. Don’t focus on small details or citing particular passages, but think about general overlaps in theme and approach. Record any insights that drift into your mind as you’re thinking about the books. Doing this writing exercise will help you think about your books at the macro level, in conversation with each other, which is exactly where you’ll want to be for the exam itself. After writing these passages I felt more secure in my knowledge of the material. I’m also pretty sure I regurgitated parts of them in my mock exams and in the final exam itself.
Do some background reading
It might feel like there is no possible way you can squeeze in any more reading. However, you should set aside some time to do some “background reading” on your exam fields. While your exam lists will help you understand the current state of scholarship on a particular geographic area, time period, set of historical actors, etc., background reading should help you get a broad sense of the basic timelines and important dates and events that undergird that scholarship. For example, my list on history of anthropology offered several different academic interpretations of the shift from the Victorian “armchair anthropology” of E. B. Tylor and James Cowles Prichard to the twentieth-century fieldwork tradition innovated by Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski. But I also spent some time reading about the basic names/dates/people of early anthropology: who were the important figures? Approximately when were they active as anthropologists? Were they associated with particular institutions or theoretical schools? What were these major theoretical schools? Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series is great for this kind of background reading.
I left my background reading close to the end of my preparation period, but if I had to do it again I’d find time for it earlier; I think it would have helped me understand some of the books on my lists better.
Develop a schedule and stick to it
While you’ll need to find a reading strategy that works for you, you should also find a schedule that works for you. Once you have an exam date set, or even if it’s only tentative, take out your calendar and plan out when you’ll do the reading. Can you set aside one whole day a week for reading? Do you have time to squeeze in a book every evening, after your other commitments have finished for the day? Mark off blocks of time for reading in your calendar. Make sure you factor in time for teaching, coursework, or other commitments you’ll also have during the same period. (Pro tip: you can get some reading done traveling to a conference, if you’re not driving, but despite your best intentions, you will almost certainly not get any reading done during a conference. And you’ll probably be too exhausted on your way home to read either.) Also factor in time for your background reading.
Build in a buffer of several weeks right before your exam if you can, just to spend time reviewing your notes (and/or if you fall behind in your reading schedule). Some of my friends blocked out their schedules down to the specific book they planned to read at a given time. But even just having “Reading Time” marked off on your calendar will make the whole preparation process feel less daunting. Then make sure you stick to the schedule!
Find a satisfying way to mark your progress
Some people like checklists, or physically moving books from a “to read” pile to a “finished” pile. I had each of my lists in a Microsoft Word document and I highlighted each book in yellow as I finished it. Seeing my lists fill up with bright yellow pages was a real confidence-booster!
Schedule time for breaks
This is hugely important. In order to keep from burning out, you should schedule some breaks in your calendar, just like you schedule your reading time. You might want to take a few weekends completely off from reading. Or, take one reoccurring evening a week off for Netflix or pub trivia. Schedule some fun activities with your partner, friends, family, or yourself. Self-care is crucial during grad school in general, and you’ll need it now especially.
But at the same time…
Be aware that you will almost certainly have to cut back on some of your extracurricular activities, especially in the last six to eight weeks or so before your exam. Think about any academic activities (reading circles, working groups, lecture series) you have responsibilities to – can you delegate your work to a colleague for the semester or even just a few weeks? Will you need to let any supervisors know that you’ll be cutting back on work or volunteer hours? People will generally be very understanding.
I found that it was hardest to turn down plans with my friends outside of academia and my family, who were used to seeing me regularly and didn’t have an automatic understanding of how time-consuming preparing for my exam was (although friends and family members who had taken Bar examinations understood immediately!) If you’re in this situation, just be honest and explain the process to them. Everyone, regardless of career, education, etc. goes through periods where work or life circumstances are especially intense. So know that you’ll see these folks soon, and don’t feel guilty for being a hermit for a while.
On the other hand, exam study makes a great excuse for getting out of social events you didn’t really want to go in the first place. Just saying.
Confirm and check in
Continue to check in with your examiners to refine and finalize your lists (be aware that you may have an examiner that will make suggestions and changes up until the last moment – if you have the aforementioned buffer period at the end, you should be able to handle this!) If you can, ask to schedule check-ins with them every month or six weeks where they’ll ask you practice questions about the books you’ve read so far. Try to schedule at least one “mock” a few weeks before the qualifying exam with each examiner. This is not, as my partner once joked, where your examiner will mock you (hopefully), but where they will give you a mock examination with practice questions and then give you feedback on how you did.
Along the way, if you have friends who are also studying for their exams, you might consider forming a study group. You can share notes, but even if you don’t have much overlap between your lists, you can ask each other practice questions or just keep each other accountable to your study schedules. You might even be able to recruit a friend from your program who has already gone through the exam process to quiz you!
Above all else, don’t panic! You will start to stress out, but just keep going with your study schedule! Sometimes the hardest part is just forcing yourself to sit down and read. If you can do that, you’re half the way there.