Thoughts on life after the PhD
Grad life has a few major stepping stones, and I’m about to hit one of the bigger ones: qualifying exams. It’s bizarre to think that just a few years ago “quals” was an ambiguous word that I knew meant something important and terrifying, but that I really had no tangible hold on. Now mine are less than a week away.
In my department, quals are the third out of four major steps toward the PhD. The first is the major field exam, also called the screening exam, where the candidate spends a semester studying a long list of primary and secondary texts in a particular national literature, ultimately answering three questions in essay format decided on by a committee. The second is the comparative field exam, which isn’t so much an exam as a paper–around fifty pages, related to the candidate’s third national literature (mine was Spanish), followed by an oral defense. Then there are quals, which consist of formulating a 20-25 page prospectus on the dissertation topic, a lengthy reading list of any and all material that’s already been written on the topic, and again three questions followed by an oral defense. Finally there’s the dissertation itself, written over a period of anywhere from two to ten years (I’m shooting for two), and an oral defense.
There’s a decent amount of variation as to how humanities departments all over the world certify their PhD’s. I’ve heard (scary-sounding) stories of 100% oral qualifying exams, where the candidate faces their committee members and has to give a lengthy verbal answer to the three questions. Given that so many grad students are socially awkward and terrified of speaking in public, this sounds like one of the cruelest forms of exams out there.
At my university several departments opt to drag things out for a whole week, giving the candidate one question every 48 hours and allowing them to complete the exam from home. This, too, seems brutal–of course people end up not sleeping much, and by the final question you’re so frazzled that your writing probably doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore.
My department takes the pressure cooker approach: six hours, three questions, no notes. On the one hand I like this format (it got me through my first exam, the major field, all right), mostly because it’s quick. And there’s less pressure to seek out direct quotes and passages from every text you can think of since you only have access to your own brain. In reality, though, it probably isn’t the best approach, simply because no academic writes that way. Or teaches that way.
Everyone wonders what the best way is to study for qualifying exams. Of course it’s impossible to read *everything* associated with your dissertation topic, and it’s even impossible for most people to read every book on their reading list (mine’s about 70 books long). I’ve tried to break things up, reading a little fiction, a little theory, doing a bit of writing, meeting with people and talking about it. Now, however, cabin fever is starting to set in, and with it the required sense of panic that the gods have ordained must accompany all major graduate exams (or any exams, for that matter).
Sometimes the freakout feels more like a performance. I’m not so arrogant to think that I have nothing to freak out about, but I’m a realist–there’s not much point in panicking when you’ve studied as much as your brain and your body will allow, and when you have so little control what the exam questions will look like. But *not* freaking out seems like it would invite the evil eye.
Then again, some of the freakout is real. My desk is currently stacked with books and folders, and as I read one I curse myself that I never read another, surely they’re going to ask me about that one, now I can’t remember who wrote that super-important novel from which so many other novels are descended, or the decade it was published in, or the literary school it belongs to, and as much as I’ve reviewed my own prospectus and had it reviewed again and again by various committee members I’m sure it doesn’t make any sense anymore, and my central thesis is like a table with a wobbly leg, sure to topple the minute anyone gives it a nudge…
And at that point it’s time for a walk around the neighborhood, or a few minutes of bad TV, or a ten-minute tae bo workout (I know yoga is supposed to be good for me, but I just can’t sit still for that long–workouts that involve punching and kicking seem to do a much better job of relieving stress).
The best way to study for quals? Freak out a little but not too much, study a lot but not to the point where it becomes counter-productive, eat healthy, sleep well, and remember that very few people make it this far only to fail their exams. Or so they tell us.
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