I took my candidacy exams for the Ph.D. in English at the end of September. The exam itself was fun and immensely validating (especially as someone coming to the Ph.D. with a non-literature master’s degree), and the experience of preparing for the exam is one of the great overlooked reasons for getting a doctorate. You'll never have this much time to devote just to reading, reading, reading—or if you do (well-funded sabbatical?), sticking to a reading schedule and forcing yourself to develop extensive declarative knowledge to this extent require a truly iron resolve and a high-stakes final platform for proving yourself. (Okay, that sounds an awful lot like writing a book or any other major research project. But rarely will you be this free from other obligations and this strong an impetus to succeed—I’m holding by the idea that preparing for the candidacy exam is a special time.) Managing exams is a great way to figure out how you do your best research—a trial run for the dissertation. And even the stress of exams is good: it will force you to make declarative and nuanced ideas you’ve been flirting with for years.
Here's my reading list (covering works on and from the digital humanities and textual scholarship) and rationale for what's on the list. And here's a list of everything that helped me before and during my exam:
The epic stack of index cards I used to force my knowledge to be declarative.
- Don’t think about the exam as a quiz or trial—you’re being asked to talk about what you know and how various issues relate to things you care about. You can practice a standard answer format if that helps you out (your answer, three examples from the reading list that connect/critique/juxtapose, and address possible quibbles with your argument), but you probably won’t consciously rely on this structure—your exam should (one hopes) turn more into a conversation than a test. You could think of exams as a way of making well-structured responses automatic.
- Starting off with a well-practiced presentation will help you feel in control and relaxed enough to enjoy the rest of the experience.
- You should know your research areas well by now, and everyone in the room is just looking for ways to let you show that expertise. You’ll rarely get this many smart people in a room to spend hours talking about your interests, so enjoy it!
- One more practical thing: plan on getting to campus early—you don't want to worry about traffic or missing the bus the day of your exam.
10. Things to bring to your exam:
- a paper copy of your exams reading list for consultation during Q&A
- a watch (to know how much time you have)
- a flash drive with copy of presentation slides and notes (my laptop experienced surprise death 48 hours after my presentation; be prepared to use someone else's computer)
- a water cup (not bottle, which is more difficult to drink from when standing)
- a couple pens and a lot of blank paper (ideally, a spiral; I used about ten sheets during the Q&A to jot down bullet points for my response as the questions were being asked)
- the location of the room where you'll be presenting
Good luck and have fun!