The Gates of Hell

h65382D1CThe title of this post may seem overly dramatic, but for Ph.D. students, preliminary exams (also called qualifying, orals, or candidacy exams) are typically characterized as the gates of hell that lead to the beautiful and revered status of All But Dissertation (ABD). These exams are usually done at the end of doctoral coursework, before beginning research and writing the dissertation. The exams qualify students to continue in their program, by testing how knowledgeable they are on important topics in their field. Prelims are the final rite of passage before graduate students can embark on the activities that really matter for graduation – research and writing the dissertation. Now each department does exams a little differently, but in my department prelims are three days scheduled within a seven day time period, with nine hours of writing time each day and an optional hour lunch break (just take lunch with you and eat at your desk, you don’t have time for that break). Depending on your adviser, you may or may not have the annotated bibliographies you carefully constructed in preparation for the exam.

I just took prelims last week (huzzah!), but have not yet defended them. To ‘defend’ anything in graduate school means to stand before your committee members and adviser and explain why you wrote what you wrote, why you think of a particular topic in a certain way, answer their questions, and define your strengths and weaknesses. For some, this is the most grueling experience and for others, the written exams are the worst part of the process.


Preparing for preliminary exams. One of my committee members thought this picture, uploaded on facebook, was hilarious.

Before I took the exams, peers and colleagues told me harrowing tales of cramming for exams, barely sleeping, the incredible stress of preparation, and altogether made it sound like the worst experience I would ever have. Granted, exams were difficult. It was a grueling week-long process; I suffered from jet lag (I flew from my field site for the exam), extreme budgetary restrictions due to the high cost of traveling to and from exams, exhaustion, and struggled with ‘marathon writing’ which is not my normal mode of writing. However I didn’t cram for it, I slept a lot, and even though I was very stressed, the stress mostly came from trying to balance out all my normal activities with fieldwork and preparing for exams. Based on my experience with prelims, I offer a little advice to other graduate students out there who see exams looming on the horizon.

Now I haven’t defended prelims yet, so for those of you looking for advice on taking these exams you may want to hold off on taking the following suggestions until you hear that I have successfully defended! However I want to throw some advice out there while it’s still fresh on my mind and I am still trying to recover.

  1. Be clear and specific with your adviser and committee members about what topics you will be tested on and carefully select readings to meet the required topics. Sometimes this occurs in collusion with the adviser or committee members, others, like myself, do much of it by individual effort. Either way, send draft annotated bibliographies as you construct them to make sure you are on point with your readings and to prod faculty members into providing feedback.
  2. Don’t wait until the last minute to read. Create a reading schedule months in advance. Figure out how many readings you need to complete before prelims, put together the bibliography of those readings, and then determine how many readings you should read per week to reach your goal. This will help you keep a schedule for yourself and determine whether you’re making adequate progress in prepping for prelims.
  3. If you are allowed to use your annotated bibliographies during the exams, make sure you incorporate keywords throughout the bibliographies. This allows for two potential outcomes: 1) if you can take an electronic copy of the bibs into the exam, you can use the ‘find’ function to search your keywords, easily locating readings relevant to your argument; and 2) if you can’t take an electronic copy, but can take a paper copy of the bibs, you can highlight with different colors or indicate in the margins where those keywords are, making it easy to identify those articles relevant to the argument.
  4. Be able to give a 30 second ‘elevator speech’ about your project, why people should care about it, and be prepared to link the readings with your project. This is especially salient for the defense, but should also be incorporated as part of your written exams. Think of the exams as part of an argument for your perspective and research focus.
  5. Balance your life! One of the best things I did during my time studying was to stay in contact with family, spend time with friends, and make sure I integrated time for other things into every day. We’re all busy. For example, I was in the field doing research, writing three publications, holding down an internship, attending workshops and conferences, and tons of other activities during the studying process. Learning to balance your life is an important skill that should be cultivated now, not later.
  6. Stay healthy. However you focus on health, stay healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Unfortunately graduate school and academia more broadly are not places overflowing with support for any of us, much less those alternately abled. This means that, while we advocate for changes to this system, we must take the initiative in the interim to take care of ourselves the best way we know how. I exercised, ate healthy, cut down my work hours on work days and weekends (which, interestingly enough, just made me more efficient…more on this later), and fostered relationships with family and friends. These were really important to keeping me healthy and stable in preparing and taking the exams.

What I say isn’t the end-all be-all of prelim advice, however. Others have suggested different recommendations and given different advice. Here are just a few pages that provide more information, advice or different perspectives on preliminary exams: NCSU, PhD(isabled), Chronicle of Higher Education, Unofficial Grad School Survival Guide, 27 and a PhD, and Oikos.

Have a question? Want to share your experience with prelims? Looking for support during your process of preparation? Post a comment below!


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