A Look Back at the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

The Ph.D. qualifying exam generates a different kind of anxiety than a typical test. Other exams can be stressful and, depending on the subject matter, very difficult, but there is an element of the unknown that makes the qualifying exam unlike any other test I’ve taken in my long career as a student. Other exams are usually based on syllabi or even study guides which help narrow the scope of the material. Success is largely a matter of memorizing the information likely to appear on the test or, in an approach I prefer, of mastering key concepts that allow one to extrapolate answers, even if one’s memory fails. The qualifying exam seems very different, though, and many students wander aimlessly through their preparations or, worse, allow themselves to be intimidated by the unknown. I have met doctoral students who dropped out of their programs to avoid facing quals. In this post, I will try to demystify the qualifying exam by explaining what it is and how to prepare.

I should begin with a couple of caveats. First, I’ve never had to evaluate anyone’s qualifying exams, so I don’t claim any professorial authority. However, I did pass my own exams. Second, I am a student in the Humanities, in the U.S. academy, so my experience may not be generalizable beyond those disciplinary and geographical boundaries. Even within the Humanities, qualifying exams vary widely in form and content, depending on one’s institution and academic unit. My quals consisted of a written exam completed over two eight-hour days without the use of notes or reference materials, and a two-hour oral interview with the members of my committee. Many departments now prefer a take-home format, which seems more humane, but still requires a tremendous amount of preparation. Readers should adapt my advice to the particular characteristics of their own disciplines and exam formats.

What is the Qualifying Exam?

In the simplest possible terms, the qualifying exam requires you to demonstrate competency in your field. Your professors will not care about your “potential” or your work ethic. You must be able to discuss a range of topics with clarity and profundity, thus proving that you are prepared to enter the field as a specialist. Those who prefer to think of themselves as “generalists” may bristle at the word “specialist,” but that is the disciplinary reality in which the Ph.D. qualifying exam functions. Quals may also evaluate one’s proposed research in terms of its value and its practicality, i.e. whether the dissertation will contribute to existing scholarship and whether or not it can be completed in a reasonable time. In sum, a successful examinee will exhibit the abilities to analyze and/or critique particular works or concepts within the broader framework of his or her field and to successfully design and complete a major research project.

Departments usually make sample questions available. Reading these is perhaps the best way to understand the kind of questions that you will be expected to answer accurately and thoroughly. Don’t panic if you have no idea how to answer the sample questions. Quals tend to be highly individualized since professors typically write questions based on students’ reading lists and dissertation proposals. Try to identify recurring topics and themes and prepare to answer similar questions about the material on your list.

Step 1: The Reading List

I suggest preparing the reading list as far in advance as possible. Six months to a year out seems reasonable. Think carefully about the works you will include. Try to choose works that you have already read and that connect closely with your research interests and dissertation proposal. If your area is literature or cultural studies, for instance, you will need to read as much criticism and secondary material as possible. You won’t have time to read or view new primary material. For example, my list included 76 titles, the majority of which were novels or book-length works. I could not have read or re-read that much material in an entire year. Think about how the works on your list dialogue with each other and with your dissertation topic. If your reading list is tightly constructed, your study will be more focused and you will be able to draw connections more easily.

Step 2: The Dissertation Proposal

Some programs don’t require the dissertation proposal to be completed until after the qualifying exam. Even in that case, it helps to have a clear idea of your research topic, and you can expect your exam committee to ask some questions about your plans. As with the reading list, timely completion is paramount. A delay in the dissertation proposal will limit your time to prepare for the exam and, just as importantly, to reflect on the proposal itself. Distance and critical reflection is important because the professors on your committee will home in on the proposal’s weaknesses and ask very pointed questions. It helps to have anticipated objections and to have thought about how to address them. Your proposal should include a representative bibliography. I suggest not making the bibliography exhaustive because the exam may require you to answer questions about the works you list there. Don’t make yourself responsible for more material than necessary.

Step 3: Systematic Study

Manage your time. Whether you like to study in the morning, late at night, in the office, library, or café, block out your study time and don’t let anything interfere with it. It’s important to be consistent because, if you start skipping study appointments, you may find yourself insufficiently prepared on the eve of your exam. Tempus fugit.

Create a system for tracking your reading. Set a reasonable goal to read, as a minimum, two or three substantive articles about every work you have on your list. My method was to put my reading list into a spreadsheet column and, alongside every title and in separate columns, to list at least two journal articles or book chapters containing a significant discussion of the work. If you have tailored your list to your strengths, you may be able to do much of this from memory. If not, don’t worry, but be aware that you have a lot of ground to cover. If you are unfamiliar with the secondary literature on a particular work, do some preliminary research and list the most promising titles. Once I had identified sufficient background material for each item on my list, I marked all the secondary literature by coloring the spreadsheet cells red. I did this even for materials I had already read, unless I had prepared reading notes. I did this because, without a set of condensed notes, I was not going to be able to assimilate all the material. I would unmark a title only after reading and taking clear and concise notes on it. As I studied, I could visually track my progress as the number of red cells in my spreadsheet gradually decreased. This worked as a good motivation tool. I should confess, though, that I never reached the end of my list. There were a few red stragglers at the end, because I discovered more sources as I read, and I would add them to the spreadsheet. The task became rather Sisyphean, but the silver lining was that I read far more background material than I had initially planned to do.

As a general rule, you should begin with the works you are least comfortable with. This will give you more time to address your weaknesses. As you read you will discover that there is a lot out there that you don’t know. It helps to remember that you are expected to demonstrate competency, not absolute mastery or omniscience. If you can speak and write clearly and accurately about each work on your reading list, you will be in good shape.

Step 4: Know When to Stop

It’s a good idea to stop reading new material at about two weeks before quals. This is especially important if your exam format prohibits support materials. You will need time to return to the notes that you have collected so faithfully. All your reading should be condensed in these notes, and you will need time to review them. I wrote around 250 typed pages of notes; to review them completely took me about two days. You will want to give yourself enough time to go through all your notes several times. The goal is not to memorize your notes word for word, but you should be able to recall, more or less automatically, all their major points. Thinking about a given title should create a mental image of your notes about it, and hopefully also of all the reading that went into your notes. This may seem impossible, but if you put in the hard hours of study, you will eventually reach this point. Memory, if exercised, can do incredible things. In Golden Age Spain, rival theater companies would steal scripts from each other by sending professional plagiarists, or memoriones, to the theater. After sitting through a performance, these mnemonic superheroes would hurry home and write down every line in the play they had just seen.

You should also spend part of your last two weeks revisiting your dissertation proposal. Chances are that many of the exam questions (especially on the oral portion) will be related to your proposal. Think about how the works on your list connect to your proposal. Try constructing some narratives about where your research fits into the field as a whole, which, after so much reading, you should be able to picture with some clarity. Read your proposal critically. What are its defects or controversial aspects? Try to come up with some clear answers to this sort of question. Don’t forget to review key works in your bibliography. Be prepared to summarize and/or critique them.

Step 5: The Exam

If you are well prepared, the exam takes care of itself. You may be surprised at how easy it seems. This doesn’t mean that the exam really is easy, just that you worked extremely hard to get ready.

Take a day or two off before the exam. Exercise. Distract yourself from obsessing over details by staying active or by forcing yourself to think about other things. You’d be surprised at how effective a couple of days of memory supression can be for ensuring that those memories come surging back.

Don’t rush. When you are writing your exams, be as methodical as you were while studying. Create a brief outline of your answer, list a few bullet points under each outline section, then expand each point. Soon you’ll have a short essay. Divide your time equally among questions.

During the oral exam, stay humble. Your professors will not be dazzled by your brilliance. Their primary concern is to make sure that you can, in fact, complete a dissertation. This means ascertaining your competency in the field and the viability of your research proposal. Many of their concerns will be pragmatic. Be prepared to explain, in practical terms, how you plan to complete your research.

Afterwards, celebrate.