November 27, 2012 by Amanda Visconti

Info Dump: Humanities Ph.D. Exams Advice

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:

Pile of index cards used in studying for my examsThe epic stack of index cards I used to force my knowledge to be declarative.

  1. Each department differs, so know what exam format to prepare for early in the exams reading process. What is the required length of the presentation (if any)? Can you bring slides and brief notes? Ask a fellow student or your advisor to give you a few mock exams questions early in your readings so you know how you should be reading.
  2. Ask your committee to sign off on your reading list early in the process so that you can create and hold to a reading schedule. I knew I would have a week before the exam to develop a presentation on a question prepared by my committee, so I made sure my reading was done before that week.
  3. Try to schedule time after your reading is finished to process everything. I used two weeks to brainstorm a list of every question I felt I should be able to answer eloquently: drafted them on a whiteboard, then put them on index cards that I could flip through whenever I had a few spare minutes. In retrospect, this overprepared me for the exam, but I'd do it again—it prepared me just the right amount for what comes after the exam (you can't know too much about your area of study, right? or about the types of questions you should be asking and have an opinion on?).
  4. Figure out where and how you’ll get your reading done. Earplugs plus getting on the campus bus going the wrong way from work gave me a solid fifty minutes, twice a day, in which I couldn’t do anything but read or go through my stack of index cards.
  5. While you're anticipating questions, start thinking about where you want to take the experience. What are the major questions you want to talk about, and how will you steer conversation that way? How will the backgrounds of your committee members direct those discussions? You can probably start to outline points your presentation will cover even before you get your presentation question.
  6. Take paper notes during reading if that's useful to you, but schedule yourself to digitize these regularly (don't let them pile up...). Most of your readings will influence your dissertation, and you'll thank yourself when you're able to do a keyword search for some great phrase you half recall—or export a citation list quickly—instead of hunting through a stack of papers.
  7. Don't just digitize your notes: put them into citation management software as you create them. I use Zotero, which is free and syncs to Zotero's servers; there's the option to share your citations (and also your notes on these) if you're willing, but you can also keep things private. If you use the Zotero browser plugin, you can take snapshots of articles you're viewing online and link these to your citation.
  8. Know your exams room. Will you have a podium to stand behind? Do you have the correct dongle to connect your computer to the projector? Also think about the layout of the room and what makes you comfortable, since you'll have time to rearrange tables and chairs before your committee arrives—choose whether a more formal or conversational layout makes you most comfortable.
  9. If you're like most people and have some public speaking anxiety, know how you're going to deal with that stress.
  • 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!