Comprehensive Exam Preparation

This is my exam semester. When I began my PhD in West Virginia University’s program “exams” existed in an intangible future; now, they are here. No matter the format, no matter the number of texts on your list, the comprehensive exams are one of the legendary hurdles of obtaining a literature PhD. Critical to your success, exams help prepare students to tame the beast that is the dissertation. At various conferences over the past 6 months I’ve discussed exam format with peers from Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon—all over the country in a range of programs and concentrations; each institution formats their exams differently. The exam narrative, however, is largely the same: a feeling of dread coupled with excitement about the prospect of reading the materials related to their project for those who have yet to take exams and for those who have completed exams: relief for having them behind them but a knowledge that the dissertation holds its own challenges and intellectual rewards. It is a rite of passage that seemingly few would ever choose to relive. As I’ve prepared for my exams the process has been incredibly educational—not just because I’ve immersed myself in critical discussions regarding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Romantic and Victorian England or varying theorizations of ‘error’ but also because I’ve (re)discovered a great deal about my work process and ability (and sometimes lack thereof) to deal with the anxieties and stresses of examination.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand or did know, but lost sight of in the process:

1. Keep track of how you spend your time.  One thing I found frustrating about the exams was the absence of tangible progress. Yes, I could cross a book off of the list. Yes, each book I read helped me to further understand what I wanted from my scholarship. Yes, I now have a clearer idea of what kind of book I’d like to publish in the future. All of these things are well and nice but they aren’t very helpful today. Reading and taking notes for your exams can feel like running in place sometimes. I like the tangible outcomes of my work, and I am sure I am not alone. A seminar paper, an article, a presentation, a talk, a curriculum: these are all concrete productions of the work many of us do. The comprehensive exams are disconnected from their outcome: passing the exams, writing the dissertation. To help you see how much work you are doing and how you are spending your time, keep a work log. A spreadsheet in Google Docs is ideal because you can access it anywhere through your Google account. It has been helpful for me to see how many hours I’ve devoted to exam preparation (and to other things like course preparation, grading, publication, conferences, etc.).

2. Letting yourself down is not the same as failing. When I wrote my reading schedule last February my plan was to finish reading by late May. I poorly estimated how much time it would take me to read the texts for my exams; I found the reading process to be different than what I’d experienced in the past. I wasn’t prepared for the additional hours I’d spend taking notes, trying to synthesize the texts and write cogent summaries that would serve to refresh my memory months after completing the book. I couldn’t have known about the reading rut I would hit in April. When I crafted the schedule in February I was enthusiastic about reading 12 books on the history of England from 1789-1850…and the semester had just started. My enthusiasm waned around book 7 and mid-terms distracted me with a seemingly never-ending stack of grading. I didn’t meet my schedule. I had to learn that this was okay. I had plenty of time to finish reading; I had plenty of time to study before my exams. I had not failed (even if I felt like I had). I’ve discovered through this process that while knowledge of the material is certainly important, the knowledge gained regarding my own habits as a worker, reader, writer, teacher, and scholar has equally useful and important value.

3. Help yourself avoid distraction. When I first started reading I found myself wandering down various research paths inspired by my materials. Rather than finishing a chapter I would investigate a footnote or, curious about a possible gap in research, look for scholarship on the topic. In other words, I would find seemingly productive (even tangentially related) ways to pass the time without actually working on the task at hand (finishing the book, preparing for the exams). About half way through Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines, the third book I read for my exams, I decided to keep a “Distraction Relocation” journal. It is a just a spiral bound notebook but in it are all of the questions and future projects that I’ve identified during my exam reading. Rather than finding all of the scholarship on errata sheets, a distraction I full-heartedly considered while reading Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self, I jotted down a note about how it might be interesting to investigate how errata sheets were used in Romantic print practices (and whether their use differed between literary periods). The thoughts I’ve labeled here as ‘distractions’ are important and I’m certain that at least two things that made it into my “Distraction Relocation” notebook will find a place in my dissertation project. My notebook helped me to keep track of these thoughts without allowing them to derail my progress.

4. Stay in touch with your community. During exam preparation it can be easy to excuse hermit-like behavior. Fight against the impulse to hole up in your office or house; instead, stay in touch with your community. Do not feel guilty for spending time at lunch with friends. Keep in contact with your director(s) and mentor(s). Talk to people about the process and find out what works/worked for others.

5. Find healthy ways to release the stress and pressure of exams. Exams can cut off your social life if you let them; they can also be a catalyst to putting you at the bottom of your to-do list. It can be easy to excuse poor health habits because you are so busy: skipping out on your exercise routine, foregoing fresh food choices for easier, quicker options. I learned to love running as I prepared for my exams. It gave me a place to clear my mind, to release any of my anger, frustration and anxiety, and reminded me that exams are not everything (which can be a difficult thing to remember in the middle of the process).

6. Schedule the exams. Concrete dates on your calendar and on the calendars of your committee are an effective way to keep yourself in check. The earlier you do this the better, for at least two reasons: 1) Once the dates are set you can’t go back, motivating you to stay on schedule, and 2) Your committee members have busy schedules; the earlier you schedule your exams the more availability they will have.

7. Your committee is on your side. You have selected a group of people to support you and your project, to provide feedback and offer critical suggestions to improve your scholarship. They are all rooting for you; they want to see you succeed.

I’m sure there are other things that should be added to this list. What do you wish you knew about the comprehensive exam experience before you took/take them? Do you have any bits of wisdom to share?