A bird pooped on my pants that sunny October Monday as I walked up 109 Street, near the High Level Diner. As the white streak dried on my black cargo pants, I took it as a good sign–I was walking into campus to write my first departmental candidacy exam. At the U of A, in English, doctoral students write three three-hour exams, usually M-W-F, then participate in a two-hour oral exam on the contents of the written exams, about a week after that. The three written exams, at least when I wrote them, were based on reading lists of the student’s own devising (in consultation with, and approved by, the dissertation committee) on topics related to the proposed dissertation, and to the broader literary field in which that dissertation would situate itself.
Here at Waterloo, in English, our doctoral students write two four-hour Area Exams, from set lists, the first in November and the second in May of their second year of study. One exam is from a literary area, the other from a rhetorical one. One of these areas will be deemed ‘primary’ and has an extra, oral exam component within two weeks of the sitting.
I imagine the case is different at your institution. I always love the hear the gory details of exams from my friends and colleagues–the wide variety of timelines, reading lists, numbers and types of exam situations, rubrics, etc, is fascinating. A recent first-person article in the Chronicle, though, caught me up short: the author of that piece, a new-minted ABD historian, seemed to go into his exams with very little idea at all, not simply of the mechanics of the process, but also of the point.
I’m leading a workshop for our PhD students in a couple of weeks, on the topic of “how to study for your area exams.” I think I’ll start with some discussion of the point of them, before moving into specifics. Without understanding the ‘why’, I don’t really think there’s much basis for thinking about ‘how’ or ‘what.’
Maybe I’m not the right person to ask: I LOVE exams, love studying for them, love the boundedness of a format where you go into a room and you just type away for x number of hours and then it’s OVER. I write really well under those conditions, and much prefer exam writing to most other kinds of writing, actually.
So I’d love any advice you could offer on studying for the exams. I’d really like to gather as many tips as possible, from those of you who’ve been there, maybe especially if you’re not so supremely exam positive as I happen to be.
I’ll start: I treated studying for my exams as a full time job–I kept worksheets of how many hours (I aimed for 7 a day, five days a week, but I wasn’t teaching) I read and took notes, and the sheer accumulated bulk of these comforted me with the idea that at least I was putting in the effort, no matter how inadequate all that reading sometimes made me feel.