Taking Exams

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

[I am away/lack a good internet connection for this week, so I have lined up a bit of a guest post here. The following advice comes from Matthew who is a Ph.D. candidate at my institution. He and a few other recently-completed-exams candidates held an informal chat about how to pass exams. Some of the advice is specific to literature and humanities, some even to our program, but I think the general layout here is useful to a wide range of disciplines: have a plan and a schedule. If you want to add your thoughts/advice please do so in the comment section. And once again thanks to Matthew for this.]

Assembling the Committee (T Minus (about) ONE YEAR)

  • Take their classes; read their work; when you ask them, try to give specific reasons why you’re asking them.
  • Think of everyone as having a role: this is a team, and each person has his/her position.
  • Ideally, the Director’s area of focus should match your intended area of focus—research job listings if you are curious about how universities categorize job hirings.

Creating Your Reading Lists (T Minus SIX to NINE MONTHS)

[Editor’s note: This section is fairly specific to Albany where we have three exam lists: one literature, one theoretical, and one dissertation focused (more or less). But, I left this in here for the Albany students, and so others can follow Matthew’s thinking/plan. (Plus I don’t like to redact other’s work.)]

  • Your literature list should be a 30-text survey-course syllabus for your field, slanted toward your particular genre focus (novel, essay, poetry, etc.). Be sure to include works on which you have already written papers for past classes.
  • Your theory list should be a 30-text survey-course syllabus for your particular theoretical bias, with some relevant peripheral texts that prove you have a broad understanding of theory. If your approach is psychoanalytic, include important texts that connect to other traditions: materialist, post-colonial, etc. Use texts you have had to read for required courses.
  • Your third list is merely your best guess about 30 texts you will need for your dissertation. You have absolutely no idea probably which texts these will be; therefore, the best texts for this list are lit-crit ones; pick ones that reflect how your genre, theoretical, and period interests intersect or overlap. Do not stress about this list.

Reading! (up to T Minus TWO WEEKS)

  • Make a reading schedule. Adjust if necessary, but try to stick to the schedule.
  • Match your reading schedule to classes you will be taking and teaching.
  • Take thorough notes inside your texts, and try to write in sentences rather than phrases. Write inside the back cover a personal index only you will understand or find useful, reflecting important themes and giving page references. Write inside the front cover basic stuff: year published, plot diagram, etc.
  • Write-up for each text a 2- to 3-page summary/critique. This is both a mnemonic resource (What is this book about?) and a brainstorming platform (How would I write about this book for 20 pages, if I had to?). TAKE A POSITION on the text. Rate it on how important it is to your developing project.
    Write out but also practice orally answers to questions such as the following, for each text: With what other texts does this one naturally go? If it is theory, how well does it “play” with other texts? What kind of position is emerging about literature and thinking?
  • Check in from time to time with committee members, talking over your ideas.
  • I would put on there to practice defending text choices for the lists by writing rationales (this in turn will feed into the development of a prospectus)
  • Turn in Prospectus a week before exams. This is a kind of position statement/dissertation outline. Do not worry about the Prospectus. It will change.

Conceptualizing (up to T Minus TWO DAYS)

  • Draw concept diagrams, timelines, and thematic charts to explore relations among texts.
  • Practice explaining your area of interest to friends, relatives, and fellow bus passengers.
  • Define/position yourself in relation to your field: What do you bring to the table?
  • Choose your go-to texts and brainstorm answers to obvious questions.

Writing (This is it!)

  • You are an intellectual athlete running a 72-hour marathon. Treat yourself right; reward yourself with favorite food, fun exercise, well-timed breaks, Belgian beer.
  • Your space should be quiet and uncluttered, your schedule free, your books arranged in order in the place where you will be writing.
  • The questions will surprise you. Don’t freak out. Have fun with your answers.