My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part One)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Last May, I took my Ph.D. exams, and I’ve got to say, they were a lot of fun. I know that “fun” would not be the preferred word for most to describe the experience of Ph.D. students taking their qualifying exams, and of course, I faced moments of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress along the way. But what follows is a brief account of some of the steps I took to make the best out of my exams. Most of the things I share and recommend here apply specifically to students in the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature due to the nature of our exams. However, I think that any Ph.D. student who reads this post can benefit from some aspect of the process and preparation.

I was able to develop some practices that helped me create a healthy rhythm before, during, and after my exams because I had three amazing graduate students—now doctors—giving me advice: Dr. Carolyn Ureña, Dr. Shawn Gonzalez and Dr. Enmanuel Martínez, who also went through the same program as I did. They were incredibly generous and kind to share their experience preparing and taking the exams. In different ways, they helped me to organize myself and reduced some of the anxiety that the exams provoke. Thus, all the steps I took for my exam preparation are no more than a combination of their suggestions and my ideas. I am very grateful for their counsel.

I should begin by saying that I am not a very good exam-taker. Ever since I can remember, I tend to freeze when taking anything that resembles an exam or that relates to the word ‘test.’ My mind goes blank for at least the first ten minutes, and sometimes I need to do some breathing exercises to avoid hyperventilating during any standardized test, or even during a class quiz that I know I’m prepared for. I know that many will relate to this feeling. Exams are anxiety provoking for me, which makes it more important to carefully prepare for them and develop strategies that allow me to succeed, without having a minor mental or emotional breakdown.

First, start reading before your lists are finalized. If you know that there are books or articles that must make it into your exam questions and/or project (or that are required, or that you have discussed with your committee at some point), get a head start on them, because the process of finalizing the list and getting it approved might take longer than you think.  After you have your approved list of texts, which you have agreed upon with your advisor and/or committee, make sure you add up the number of pages each book has (or the length of each film). This will help when you create a timeline of what-to-read-when that fits your weekly schedule. For example, if you teach and go to meetings on Tuesdays, you might not be able to read as much as another day when you don’t have to commute to campus. Therefore, on Tuesdays you may choose to read the three 40-page articles instead of the 500-page novel. You will be able to gauge that schedule division if you know the length of your texts in advance.

On note taking: While reading for exams (or for anything really!), I realized that making marginal notes on pages of the text proved to be unhelpful, especially considering that you have a limited time to write down your exam answers. Shawn’s advice was that I type down a few key quotes from each text on a searchable document (Microsoft Word document was her and my way to go!), as well as my thoughts about them. Creating this document was useful when searching for particular terms and connecting them with the respective authors and their texts.

Another piece of advice that came from both Carolyn and En.Mar. was to write down my thoughts on my readings at the end of each reading day. This helped me make connections not only between the texts but also between my own ideas, and it also generated a record of what I had read. This also proved to be useful given that the more time passed, the more difficult it was to remember what I had read. My notes helped later to recall the main arguments of each text, along with my impressions of them.

As you begin to conclude your readings and the exam date approaches, you will start to see which texts are the most pivotal in developing your ideas, and which others will serve the more extended project of the dissertation but not necessarily be cited directly on the exams (because you cannot cite the dozens of texts you read!). This shorter list will help you to make sure you have those texts at hand during the time of the exams, and that you extend that book reservation at the library!

As I explained before, exams are anxiety provoking for me, so knowing this, I decided early on that I needed to take my exams in a space conducive for writing with the least possible amount of distractions. This “space,” of course, might mean different things for different people. For me, as moving preparations had filled my apartment with boxes for a few weeks, at that point it meant a place outside my home but not too far from it. I also did not want to deal with cooking during my exams, but at the same time, I knew I needed healthy meals to fuel me throughout that weekend. Thus, I knew I needed to find a place where I would be provided with homemade meals and snacks throughout the day, and where I could easily schedule moments of rest.

This place also needed to be spacious enough to allow me to change rooms when I needed to walk away from my desk. I found Easton’s Nook, which met each one of my requirements (and more!). I made a reservation for the weekend of my exams a few months in advance and saved enough to cover the costs. Nadine and Jacquie, the co-owners of Easton’s Nook, are simply wonderful. Nadine’s cooking and company made my stay unforgettable and created a peaceful and motivating environment that helped me push through the mental exhaustion that writing for long periods of time can bring.

If for you that writing space means home, a/the local library or somewhere else, make sure that for that weekend (or week) you do meal prep a few days before, so that cooking takes you the least amount of energy and time. Also, make sure that you have some tea and/or coffee around and some of your favorite snacks for in-between meals. A colleague of mine had different family members bring her homemade meals to her writing space at scheduled times during the day, and they did this for the whole weekend. They would leave the food at her door and walk away!—and return to pick up the containers later, so she didn’t have to deal with cleaning either. If you have family or friends nearby, talk to them and see if you can figure out something similar for your exam period. If these are not possible options for you, many food delivery websites now allow you to schedule your deliveries days in advance from your favorite take-out places, and this could also be a possibility. Otherwise, if you plan your time well, you might be able to take care of all aspects of your food yourself, but just make sure you think through your schedule ahead of time.

[Series to be continued]

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