Comps, orals, qualifying exams…no matter what you call them, they are a source of angst for many (US) PhD students. Expectations can vary from one department to the next. Some programs have set reading lists, and a process that takes much of the guess work out of preparing for these exams. Other programs expect the student examinee to take a more proactive role. The advice herein is not exhaustive, but is geared primarily towards students who in this later situation. As you prepare, remember that thousands of PhDs have successfully passed through this process, and you can too. You just need to put in the work.
Preparing the List(s)
You will want to prepare your lists at least a year ahead of when you expect to take your qualifying exams. Meet with your exam supervisors, at least briefly, to get a sense of their expectations.
If you do not have a set list from your department, you will be expected to make your lists yourself, but many departments have copies of previous examination lists. Request copies from your department’s administrative assistant. If you’re friendly with students who have passed into candidacy in the past year or two, ask them for their lists as well, especially if you have the same committee members. These lists will allow you to judge a few things:
- Approximately how many books and/or articles is typical per list in your program.
- How much emphasis between classic historiography versus newer scholarship you should include on your list.
- Some sense of which books your field supervisors think are important.
Once you have compiled your lists, share them with your field supervisors for final approval. They may add or strike books.
Reading for the Exams
If you have little previous background in a particular field you are preparing exams in, I recommend that you get your hands on a textbook, and the relevant books in historiographic handbooks like The Blackwell Companions or Oxford Handbooks series. Read them through for major events, and also because the handbooks will help to illustrate some of the major historiographical arguments in the field. I also made brief lectures for each era (exploration, settlement, etc). I had 4 exam fields in my program (Early America/Atlantic, Modern US, African History, Caribbean Studies), and kept my study materials for each field together in its own binder.
It is recommended that you start reading for your comps at least 10-11 months in advance. I recommend organizing your approved lists into subcategories, such as Women, African-American History, Religious history, republicanism, etc. As you go, take notes. Use those notes to make 5×7 index cards that detail each book’s title, author, argument, and contribution to the field. You will use those as flashcards later. (For examples of comps note-taking, see here and here). Once you have read through a subcategory on your list, write yourself a short, informal historiographical essay for each subfield, to help you organize your thoughts on how the literature fits together.
Once you have completed your initial reading (hopefully at least a few months out), ask your supervisors if you can schedule a mock exam with them. This will give you advanced warning of things you still need to work on, and will also give you a sense of the types of questions you are likely to be asked during your exams. It is also another opportunity to get a sense of which books your examiners see the central texts. Take notes. If it seems not to have gone well, remember that the point of this exercise is to figure out what you do not yet know while you still have time to address gaps.
By 3 or so months out from your exams, you should start spending at least 30 minutes each night grilling yourself with your flash cards, or having a partner or roommate do it. The point of this exercise is so that when you are mid-exam, this information pops into your head with minimal effort. You will have enough other stuff to worry about.
One Month in Advance
Try to schedule another mock exam with your qualifying exam supervisors, as a final check of your preparedness. By now, you should be fairly proficient in the literature you need for the exam, but this is an opportunity to fine-tune and catch any remaining deficiencies. Continue practicing with your flashcards at least 4-5 nights a week. You can also revise your historiographical essays a bit, to make sure that you have not overlooked anything.
One Week in Advance
At this point, you should be winding down your more intense preparation. Generally, once you are within a few days of your exams, you probably know all that you are going to know, and attempting to cram will only make you anxious. Self-care is important. You are better off getting plenty of sleep, letting yourself go for walks, etc.
Day of Exam(s)
Dress depends on your department culture, and whether you will be in front of your committee. I recommend dressing up a bit for exams, because it might help your mindset, but make sure you are comfortable. You don’t want your clothes to be a distraction.
For written exams, bring yourself plenty of fluids (including water and cold caffeinated beverages) and some protein snacks like a banana and/or meal bars. If your program allows it, consider bringing an iPod and noise canceling headphones to listen to some favorite music while you work. If you have done your prep, and gone through some mock exams, you are unlikely to see any curve balls. Write yourself a quick outline to help your brain stay on track, then focus on fleshing it out.
For oral exams, it is best to go into it with the attitude that you are having a conversation with high-level colleagues. Bring yourself a bottle of water. That way, if you get nervous, you can take a sip and use that time to refocus your thoughts.
After Your Exams
Give yourself a week or so to recuperate before trying to do anything more mentally strenuous. Chances are, you will experience a bit of an adrenalin rush, then a drop off that will make you tired and unfocused. While it doesn’t happen to everyone, it is also not unusual. Allow yourself some time to recuperate.
This is useful advice for the most part. At my graduate school and at the university I currently teach at, it’s much more common for a student to finish reading a few weeks before their exams. If I had a student who finished months earlier, I’d encourage them to move up their exam. I also don’t have time for mock exams with my students. Instead, I encourage them to ask senior students who have already taken exams with folks on their committee.