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May 27, 2017 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Best Advice I Have to Give about Qualifying Exams

One of the disciplinary traditions of graduate study is the exam which allows a student to advance to candidacy. In theory, it’s not a bad idea: a little ritual to help indicate to your committee that you know the intellectual terrain well enough to get into your research and writing full time. In reality, the process tends to be obscure, and, for many students, can become an enormous source of anxiety. I benefited from a committee that provided a lot of structure for my exams, and so if you have a committee that isn’t particularly structuring (or even if you do), some of these practices might help. Qualifying exams are really just another test — and, if you’re lucky, they’ll be the last tests you ever take.

Milgram

Is it wrong to use an image from the Milgram experiments to talk about qualifying exams?

I’ve experienced two different forms of qualifying exams (or comprehensive exams, or whatever else they might be called): the timed exam and the open-ended exam (or the acute and the chronic). The first comes in a couple different varieties — sit in a room for a day or more and answer a question (or set of questions) or sit at home for several days and answer a set of questions. The second comes in a couple forms too — write a literature review of a set of texts or write a chapter or two of your dissertation (which are based on a set of predetermined readings). In each case, the exams are based on a collection of readings that have been determined by the student and the exam committee, with more or less direction.

I’m a big proponent of the ‘several questions over several days’ method of testing for a couple of reasons: short exams tend to be not very productive for the testee, and they tend to not be very good to read for the testers. The result is that they tend not to be especially indicative of what a person actually knows — just what they can cram into a one-day writing session. I’m also not a big fan of either of the open-ended options: they tend to drag out forever, leading to students taking a long time to advance to candidacy, in no small part because the implicit expectation is that they will in fact be ‘comprehensive’ (which is impossible). In both cases, students end up turning in exams that don’t do enough because they can’t — or which try to do too much without actually needing to. But that’s all neither here nor there — in any case, you have a reading list to generate…

Making the Reading List

Your reading list will be made of a certain number of readings as proscribed by your committee, and that list will be broken up into a set of smaller topical and thematic lists (usually 2-3). Usually, these lists are also keyed to a specific member of your examining committee, who is tied to the list (and your exam) by a shared speciality. So try this:

First, go through all the syllabuses from the graduate (and maybe undergraduate) classes that you’ve taken (you did keep them, didn’t you?), and come up with a list of all the topically and theoretically important stuff that you’ve already read. There might be additional stuff on these syllabuses that you haven’t read, but you should, and so this would be a time to do so.

Second, come up with a list of all the stuff you feel like you should know for your exams. This can be theoretical stuff, topical stuff, greatest hits from your discipline, historically important stuff for your specific field, etc. If you aren’t sure where to start, take a look at the Annual Reviews website and read through some review essays on topics related to your dissertation — they can be a great source of citations to mine. If you haven’t taken classes related to your dissertation topic, you can email professors who have taught relevant courses at your institution and other institutions and ask for syllabuses, which are also a good source to mine for citations.

In both cases, you don’t want your list to be too specific. I recommend to students that they should think about the classes that they’ll eventually teach and come up with syllabuses for them — they should be populated with texts that you would include on your reading lists. Most people don’t go through their careers teaching highly specialized courses, i.e. I don’t teach classes on sleep medicine in the 20th century; I teach classes on medical anthropology and the biology of everyday life. ‘Sleep medicine in the 20th century’ is too narrow for a exam list, but ‘medical anthropology’ of ‘the biology of everyday life’ would be good places to start.

Now, take the list of readings and sort them into thematic and topical clusters. Try and get each reading into two or more clusters, and try and make sure that each cluster has at least five readings in it. If a cluster doesn’t have enough in it, cut the cluster. If a reading can’t fit into at least two clusters, put it on a reserve list — don’t cut it, since it might be important, but put it into storage.

To make this a little more concrete, here’s a pretend dissertation to work with: nationalism in South Asian superhero comics, with fieldwork focusing on their creators and fans. (If you want to write this dissertation, let me know: I have a box of Indian comics waiting for the right graduate student.) So, to start with, our imaginary graduate student is going to have a few obvious clusters: South Asia as a topical region, theories of nationalism, and studies of popular culture, its creators and fans. There are going to be readings that fit into more than one of these clusters right off the list — readings about nationalism in South Asia, readings about popular culture in South Asia, and readings about nationalism and popular culture.

But each of these clusters is going to be comprised of a bunch of smaller clusters, so, for example, the popular culture cluster can probably be broken down in relation to kinds of media (film, novels, newspapers, TV, comic books, music, etc.). It might also be broken down in relation to the topical approaches of the authors, so you might have clusters focusing on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. The student might also have clusters around fandom and creator-oriented approaches.

Again, you should be able to sort readings into multiple clusters. For the first draft of your reading lists, it’s not bad to have the same reading appear more than once (as long as your committee knows that you’re doing and not try and artificially inflate your reading list). At this point, it’s worth going back to the Annual Reviews database and looking for reviews of each of these clusters, and again mining them for citations. At the end of this process, you should have a pretty significant list of readings.

Once you have your clusters in place, it’s time to check in with your examining committee. What they should be doing is offering suggestions on other readings to fit into each of the clusters — and they might want to remove some stuff as well. Committee members can be especially helpful in identifying recently published stuff that may not have made its way into Annual Review essays yet, and they might also know scholars working in your field that are under recognized.

These suggestions from your committee should move your lists to being pretty finalized, and at this point you should work on organizing your clusters into their master lists and removing redundancies. (But you might keep a master list of your clusters so you can see where readings crossover into other clusters, which may be helpful as you write your exams.) You might also find that your list topics change in this process — that our imaginary graduate student moves from lists on South Asia, nationalism, and popular culture, to ‘nationalism in South Asia,’ ‘ethnicity, gender, and religion in popular culture,’ and ‘theories of mediation.’ (Frankly, any of the starting points of these lists was too broad to begin with — they should narrow and deepen as you work on them.)

With your finalized lists in hand, it’s helpful to write introductions to each of the lists. These introductions should be short, say 4-7 pages, and will lay out what your interests are in the overall topic of the reading list as well as the individual clusters that comprise the list. These introductions are helpful first stabs at thinking systematically about how the clusters in the list work together and what continuities exist within and across them; they are also very helpful for you committee, who may use your introduction to come up with questions for your qualifying exams. These introductions also help to serve as a guide for you as you do your reading, which, as you get into it, might start to feel overwhelming. But, if you know why you’re reading what you’re reading, your introductions can focus your attention to key questions and concerns in the texts.

Remember that your reading list is a contract with your committee: you can’t be held responsible to know anything not on the list, so when it comes time to write your exams or discuss them during an oral defense, know that the exam limits your committee too — at least in terms of what they can choose to ask you about and expect you to meaningfully engage with. If someone asks you something about a text that’s not on your list, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look it up.’

Reading & Writing the Exams

When it comes to the actual reading, it’s helpful to break the texts into two groups: things you need to spend a lot of time with and things that you can read in a cursory fashion. The cursory stuff might be things that you can read the introduction and a chapter or two from just to get a sense of where the author is coming from, where the project fits into the literature, and what the project looks like. You probably shouldn’t spend more than a day with any of the cursory material. In terms of the more intensive stuff, you’ll want to plan on reading it in its entirety and taking careful notes, with the expectation that you might spend two or three days with it. Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is identify similarities and differences between the approaches taken by authors — to that end, you should work on grouping authors and texts so that when it comes time to write answers to the questions you’re given, you can summarize kinds of approaches and trends in the field (it’s also helpful to plot historical transformations and continuities in how topics have been thought about).

I can’t imagine what your committee will ask you by way of exam questions, but, generally speaking, what committees are looking for in an answer is that you can cite as much of the relevant reading list as possible in a meaningful way — which is often structured around how scholars have addressed a set of central concerns in the field. So, for example, I might ask our theoretical graduate student how nationalism has changed based upon transformations in forms of mass media from the late 19th to early 21st century. The student could then have a few approaches: by historical period, by media form (newspaper to radio to film to TV, etc.), by theoretical approach — or some admixture thereof. What I’m looking for when I’m reading an answer to a question like that is a thorough engagement with the ideas embedded in the texts on the reading list; a cursory citation doesn’t really count. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a full paragraph about a single book (especially the cursory stuff), but it might be a full paragraph about a shared approach or topic, built of sentences that each refer to a reading or two.

Qualifying exams aren’t usually a place to do creative writing; they’re really meant to demonstrate to your readers that you understand the fields you’re participating in and that you’re on your way to being an expert. If you can find a compelling way to approach your answer, that’s always more enjoyable than a dry recitation of a comprehensive body of literature. But a dry recitation is better than a wildly creative non-engagement (which may appear evasive to your readers). Exams aren’t fun, and they really aren’t meant to be; but handled well, they can be productive and give you a solid piece of writing that you can go back to when it comes time to write literature reviews for your dissertation or articles.

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