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

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Now onto the topic of scheduling my writing, you might already be wondering how I went about writing the exams. I followed what I found to be a very systematic but easy approach given to me by Carolyn. This is the way she did her exams and so did a few people after her. So I thought, if it worked for them it should work for me as well—and it did! Let me remind you that this approach is meant to fit the two questions, 10–20 page each answer, four-day weekend structure of the Rutgers Comp Lit exam, but I think that the system could work in other cases with a bit of readjustment. Now, in our program, the exam questions are given to us on Friday at 9 am. That Friday, I had plugged in my backup hard drive into my computer. Then, within ten minutes of receiving the questions, I drew a three-column table thinking through the ways to approach each question. This helped me narrow down and select two of the questions. The important thing here is to select the two questions you want to answer right after you receive them and stick with them. Hesitating between the three or dwelling on how to answer each and every one of them can create doubts in your preparation and waste valuable time that could be used for writing.

After I chose my questions, I continued to follow Carolyn’s advice, and I dedicated the whole Friday to outlining each essay. Shawn had emphasized that each outline should be detailed enough for me to (mostly!) not need to go back to anything else to write the essays. Thus, using the Pomodoro technique, I spent half of the day outlining one of the essays, and the other half of the day with the other essay, with a two-hour lunch and a one-hour dinner break in between. I also made use of the Pomodoro breaks for snacking and showers. I used the app called Focus Keeper on my phone, which already has the 25-minute work and 5-minute intervals preprogrammed, but there are many great free apps that you can use to follow the Pomodoro technique.

Along with the thesis for each essay and my focus when answering each question, each of my outlines included the few quotes from the texts that I was planning to use. They also included the division of the essay into sections and the connections I was to make between the sections, as well as things to remember while writing each piece. Some of those things were: to remember to include the page number of the quotes so that I would not have to search for it later; a specific spelling of an author’s name that I kept getting wrong, and to remember to include page numbers in the document itself. These were simple things, but also things that I knew I would probably forget at the editing stage when I would already be running low on time and energy.

After sleeping enough hours, I woke up early for the second day of the exams, which was dedicated entirely to writing both essays. Carolyn and Shawn had told me that I should be writing both essays at the same time because finishing one first and then the other would make one of the essays stronger than the other, and I wanted to give the same amount of time and effort to each question. Therefore, sticking to my Pomodoro method, I dedicated half of the day to one essay, and the afternoon into the evening to the other—the same number of hours for each essay.

When the timer was approaching the end of a writing block, I made sure to include a sentence or two stating what I was to write next time I came back to that essay. These sentences allowed me to keep writing as soon as I got back from breaks and stopped me from spending time re-reading or editing what I wrote. Saturday and Sunday were meant for writing, so editing without having finished the essays would only make me waste writing time.

On Sunday, I did the same as the previous day, but given that most of the writing was done on Saturday, I dedicated the first half of the day to finishing writing both essays, and the last part of the day to editing the essays and making sure that the structure and ideas made sense. On Monday morning, the exams were to be submitted by noon, so I woke up around 6 am to make sure I was able to work on grammar, spelling, and punctuation for both essays, and to double check that each works cited page included all the quoted texts and were formatted correctly. I also had enough time to read each essay out loud twice, which is a method that helps me to edit and which I recommend.

I double-checked the instructions for submission, created a new document where I joined the two essays, and made it into a single PDF file. I sent it to the assigned administrator and cc-ed my advisor and program chair so that they all had a record of the submission. I also added another one of my e-mail addresses to make sure that the submission went through on time. After I sent them, it was around 11 am, so I packed my things and had my celebratory/farewell lunch at Easton’s Nook at noon. I went home later and informed my friends and family I was finished with my written exams.

After my committee read my essays and my oral exam date was reconfirmed, I continued to prepare for the third question and reread my responses. Every oral exam is different because it depends on your committee, your questions, and your written essays. My oral exams were two delightful hours. I was able to have an enriching conversation with my advisor and my two committee members, discuss my ideas with them, respond to their questions, and hear their thoughts while we were all in the same room, an opportunity I will not have again until my dissertation defense. My few recommendations for the oral exams are:

  • Be prepared by going back to your notes on the different texts and your essays.
  • Take extensive notes on your committee’s comments during exams
  • Be confident in your knowledge. At the end of it all, you are the expert on your project, and as my advisor, Dr. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, told me at the end of my orals, “you are the driver of this plane,” so you decide where the plane will land.

Lastly, after orals are done, make sure you celebrate. For many, the celebration has to be planned weeks in advance, but if you don’t have time to plan it, just do something for yourself right after, even if that just means getting to sleep a few more hours than usual.

The process of qualifying exams tends to be mystified, not only by many faculty members but by students ourselves, who tend to forget how we went through the process and succeeded. This is often due to the anxiety that exams provoke and how much we want to distance ourselves from the process after it is over. However, if we talk about it more, and share different strategies amongst ourselves and with other students in other programs, the qualifying exam process could not only be useful for the dissertation project, but even be enjoyable or at least less frustrating. Reader, I encourage you to continue making these conversations a regular practice within your graduate programs, as another way to keep helping each other as a community.

 

 

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