Category Archives: Graduate Students

Job Market Series: An Interview with Lina Qu

By Yuanqiu Jiang

On Feb 22, 2019, I interviewed Lina Qu (a recent graduate of CompLit), who, beautiful and glowy as ever, has just been offered a full-time position as a Fixed Term Assistant Professor of Chinese at Michigan State University. Our conversation was about Lina’s experience with the job market. It was mainly conducted in Mandarin. Below is the original conversation and its English translation.

Y: 你在找工作的时候大概的一个经历是什么样的呢?

Y: What has your experience been looking for work?

L: 大概是可能经历了两年的时间。在我把论文写完但是还没有答辩之前,找过一年的时间;然后答辩过后又找过一年的时间。

L: It has been two years since I started looking for work. Between I finished my dissertation and I did my defense, it was one year, and another year after the defense.

Y: 那你觉得答辩对你找工作有什么影响吗?

Y: Do you think the defense had any influence on your job-hunting experience?

L: 我觉得可能那些教授他们,就是those who have been on the search committee, 他们都会说可能现在只会邀请已经答完辩的人参加他们的interview。但是我自己的经验的话,我也没有觉得有那么明显的差异,因为那之前那一年我的论文已经完成了,在等待答辩的状态。然后那一年也是有一两个interview,然后这一年也是一两个interview。但是大概你在进行了第一轮的interview以后,在考虑下一轮的shortlist candidates的时候可能会考虑……因为跟你竞争的人很多,不仅已经答辩完成了,而且还已经工作了一两年。

L: Those professors who have been on the search committee probably would tell you that they only interview candidates who have defended their dissertations. But I personally didn’t feel a big difference because in the second year [of looking for work] I got a couple of interviews; I got a couple of interviews in the first year too. But perhaps after the first-round interview, when you are in the shortlist, you should know that some of your competitors might have already defended, and some of them might even have been working for a few years.

Y: 刚刚讲的那个search committee是什么呢?

Y: What is the search committee you just mentioned?

L: 就是对方学校他们教授组成的一个招聘团队。

L: It is a recruiting committee formed by the professors from your target school.

Y: 那个shortlist像是类似于经过一轮筛选之后的名单吗?

Y: Then is “shortlist” the list of second-round candidates?

L: 对,因为一般现在第一轮面试都是电话或者是Skype。这一轮可能会有10-15个人。哦当然还有另外一种是,像我们这个专业去MLA进行那个MLA interview。这三种形式的interview我都经历过。第一轮之后就会有那个shortlist,大概一般是三个人。然后如果是tenure-track,甚至是有一些fixed-termposition,他们会邀请这三个人去campus visitCampus visit可能会让你去做一个lecture,或者是一个lesson demonstration。但是有一些职位它是没有这个第二轮的,它可能在选出这个shortlist以后就会考虑一下其他的因素。比如说目前对于我们international students来说可能最重要的就是你需不需要sponsorship

L: Yes. Generally, the first-round interviews are phone interviews or Skype interviews. There are 10-15 candidates. Another type of interview is, for programs like us (Comparative Literature), they will do interviews through Modern Language Association. I have been interviewed in all the three ways. There are usually about 3 people in the shortlist, and if it’s a tenure-track position or fixed-term position, they will invite the three people to visit the campus, during which they might ask you to do a lecture or lesson demonstration. But for some positions, there’s no second round, so they will consider other factors to decide which candidate from the shortlist they will hire. For international students, I think the most important factor is whether you need sponsorship or not.

Y: Sponsorship是什么意思呀?

Y: What does sponsorship mean?

L: 就是你的那个working visa

L: It’s related with your working visa.

Y: 哦哦,像如果你是需要一个working visa的话会不会对找工作有影响呢?

Y: I see. If one needs a working visa, will it have any influence on finding a job?

L: Legally他们是不能做这样的discrimination的,但是这应该是一个非常重要的factor。比如说我这个工作它是有所谓的probationary year,试用期这一年他不希望你需要sponsorship。所以你需要用你的OPT

L: Legally they cannot discriminate like that, but this is a very important factor. For example, this job they offered me, it requires a probationary year. During this year they don’t expect that you need any sponsorship, so you will have to use your OPT.

Y: ——,所以说你去Michigan State第一年是用OPT吗?

Y: I see. So you’re on OPT for your first year in Michigan State?

L: 对,然后它后面会给我H-1B,这已经是非常ideal的状态。因为我这个职位不是tenure track,如果是对于tenure track的话这些问题可能不是那么严重。可是我另外一个今年做的tenure track的一个positioninterview,我跟它interview之后,就还发邮件跟我确认我需不需要visa sponsorship,就是应该说这个对他们来说一个非常大的concern。有一些广告会specify说你必须有working authorization才可以申请,这个working authorization就是指你eitherOPT,或者是有其他的green card什么的。然后你自己需要make sure you have working authorization。然后一般你在网申的过程当中他们就需要问你这个问题,就会说“do you need visa sponsorship”

L: Yes. Then they will give me H-1B. This is already a very ideal situation because this position is not a tenure-track position, for which visa might not be of that much an issue. However, after an interview I did for a tenure-track position, the university still sent me an email to confirm whether I needed visa sponsorship or not. I think it means sponsorship was still a huge concern for them. Some job advertisements may even specify that you can only apply when you have working authorization, which means you should either be on OPT or have something like a green card. Then you have to make sure you have working authorization. For this type of jobs, they will ask you “do you need visa sponsorship” when you do their online application.

Y: 你觉得在找工作的过程中对你最有帮助的是什么?

Y: What have you found most helpful during the process?

L: 老师给了我很大的帮助。

L: Professors, they helped me a lot.

L: 就是我觉得申请工作当中虽然更多的是看你个人的表现,但是其实它是一个teamwork。比如说首先就是你的教授要跟你写推荐信,你要跟他们去把deadline的这个事情处理好,因为其实他们很忙。而且很烦的是不同的工作它们的application process完全不一样,它们用的portal,就是那个门户网站也不一样。有的用学校自己的employment的一个网站,有的用通用的那种interfolio之类的,然后有些会要求你把所有东西都发到一个email address,就是非常混乱的一个状态,完全不同的申请的方式。那你自己可能要把这个work out,怎么能让教授更明确地知道这些方式,然后明确的deadline可能要提醒他们。因为他们能在deadline之前及时帮你提交推荐信,这个是一个非常重要的因素,很多工作会说在你的材料不齐全的情况下,包括你的推荐信,它是不会review你的申请的。所以在这个方面它其实是一个teamwork。另外就是当你得到interview invitation的时候,可能你去准备的过程中,老师帮你做一个mock interview,或者是你的peers能够帮你做mock interview是很有帮助的。因为你自己的perspective是非常有限的,他们可能会指出一些你没有准备的东西。比如说我在interview之前宋老师,Janet,还有Jorge他们都有帮我做准备。因为他们很有经验,所以他们知道一般interview会问什么问题。然后他们就听一听我回答当中有什么好的和不好的地方,能够帮我变得更好一些,甚至帮我想一些应对各种问题的策略。另外我同时也跟我的朋友,就是把我准备的东西讲给他们听,然后他们去帮我润色一下。

L: I think though your own performance matters the most, applying for a job is a teamwork. For example, you need recommendation letters from professors. You have to coordinate the deadlines well because professors are busy. Also, different jobs have completely different application processes. They might use different portals: some universities have their own employment websites; some use websites like Interfolio; some will ask you to send all your materials to an email address. You need to work out a good plan: let professors know about these portals; remind them when deadlines are approaching. Some employers will not review your materials until you have all the required ones, which means you should really make sure the professors submit the recommendation letters in time. Another thing I’d like to mention is that when you get an interview invitation and are preparing for it, it is helpful to do mock interviews with your professors and peers. Your own perspective is limited; other people can point out certain aspects that you neglect. For example, before I did my interview, Professor Song, Janet, and Jorge all helped me prepare for it. They are very experienced and know what questions are generally asked in interviews. Also, they can help me know the good and not-so-good aspects of my responses, then I can improve them. They also helped me to devise strategies to deal with various questions. My friends were really helpful as well. I rehearsed what I prepared in front of them, and they helped me polish it.

Y: 你可以给其他要进入就业市场的比较文学系的学生提一些建议吗?

Y: Could you give a couple of suggestions for other Comp Lit students about to enter the job market?

L: Just try your best but prepare for the worst.

Y: OK.

L: 这个我觉得这个心理的建设其实是很重要的。要不然你的过程当中会有太多的自我怀疑,然后你在自我怀疑的时候其实是不能够最好地表现自己的。那你去避免这种情况最好的方法就是你先有一个心理建设,先把工作市场搞清楚,把你自己的期待明确,在你不断遇到挫折当中很快地调整你的心态,去准备下一次的申请和面试。当然最重要的就是要在way before你需要的时候就build up your resume.

L: I think preparing your mind for the difficulties is very important, or you will doubt yourself very often in this process. When you doubt yourself, you will not be able to demonstrate your talents properly. To avoid this, you really need to be prepared: know the job market as well as your own expectation, adjust yourself quickly after setbacks and start to prepare for the next application or interview. Of course, the most important thing is to build up your resume way before you need it.

Y: 你有尝试过申请不是在美国的工作吗?如果有的话,那是一种怎么样的经历呢?

Y: Did you/Have you tried applying to jobs overseas? What was that like?

L: 我自己的话没有特别多的申请的经验,我可能申请过一两个比如说香港和英国的工作吧。因为如果这些它是面向国际招聘的职位的话,流程大概跟美国的学术招聘是基本相似的。而且他们也是都要求是英文的材料,所以至少是申请这个步骤我没有觉得有什么特别大的区别。我也没有进入过面试的环节,所以后面的情况我不是那么清楚。但是,有一个事情就是,因为每个国家的学科分类是不一样的。那比如说每个国家地区对于像什么是China Studies就会有不同的定义,然后它有不同的划分,所以它的这个招聘的条件对于你的要求可能跟美国大学会有一些不一样。尤其是对于teaching这一块可能就非常不一样,因为毕竟是教育体制的不同嘛。所以你的申请材料可能会要非常的不一样。比如说像香港的职位他们就是会让你写非常长非常具体的research plan。然后美国的很多学校会让你写非常详尽的teaching plan。即使是那些research universities它们的工作也是需要你至少是一个balanced的状态。所以可能你准备的时候这些材料的侧重点不太一样。

L: I myself don’t have much experience in this regard. I have applied for one or two jobs in Hongkong and the UK. When they are hiring people internationally, the procedure is very similar with what we have in the US. They also ask for materials in English, so I think at least the application part is not that different. I haven’t been interviewed by international employers, so I don’t know what happens after the application. However, one thing I do know of is that every country classifies disciplines and fields differently. For example, different countries and regions have different definitions for “China Studies”, and they might have different requirements as well, especially in terms of teaching, since educational systems vary as well. As a result, you might have to prepare very different application materials. For example, positions in Hongkong will ask you to write really long and specific research plans. And many institutions in the US ask for really detailed teaching plans. Even for those research universities, they still want that you’re in a balanced situation, so you have to emphasize different aspects of your skills during the application process.

Y: 对于你的新的职业生涯你最激动的是什么?

Y: What are you most excited about regarding your new professional stage?

L: 我觉得可能最让我期待的是你的position的改变给你所带来的从一个graduate student然后到一个faculty的这种职位的改变,可能会给你带来的一些新的体验和启发吧。我觉得虽然我们在读书期间也一直在教书啊,也在做研究啊,但是可能还是更多的以一个研究生的身份,博士生的身份在做这些。那当你的positionality改变的时候可能你会有一个新的视野。你可以更多地去掌控你想要去做的研究方向跟你想要教学的内容啊方式啊。然后这种的话可能会给你一些更多的自由,当然不是说完全的自由,而是说更多的自由,能够让你真正地把无论是你的研究还是你的课变成由自己来掌控的一个经验和工作吧。这个可能是让我最期待,我觉得最不一样的地方。就是你的职位的改变给你带来的自由度。

L: I think I’m most excited about the position change: from a graduate student to a faculty member. I think it will be a very different experience and inspire me differently. Though we’re also constantly teaching and doing research when we’re graduate students, but a different positionality may give me different perspectives, when I have more control on what I want to do research on and the content and style of my teaching. It might also mean more freedom; of course, it will never be absolute freedom, but comparatively speaking, the freedom of researching and teaching of my own will. This is what I’m most excited about and what I think would be the most different experience: the change of positionality and the freedom brought by the change.

Y: 好!谢谢丽娜!

Y: Great! Thank you, Lina!

L: 强调一下international students这块。因为系里面一方面不了解,另一方面他们也没有渠道去了解。但是这是每一个international student要面临的问题。就是如果你的最终的目标是待在美国工作的话,你要思考你怎么样在找工作的这一段比较漫长的时间中去maintain你的legal status。那这是你自己必须要去take care的一些东西,所以如果是我去年就答辩了,然后用我的opt的时间再找工作,那么我现在拿到的这个工作的offer我可能就不qualified。因为他们第一年不想要给我sponsorship,而opt只有十二个月。但是如果你可以毕业论文答辩跟你的工作能衔接上,然后你给自己至少有这个opt十二个月的时间是可以用来工作的,不论是对你还是你以后的雇主来说都会是一个好的选择。

L: I still want to emphasize something regarding international students because our program doesn’t know much about it and doesn’t have the resource to know about it. However, if your goal is to find a job here in the United States, you will face this issue sooner or later: how to maintain your legal status when you are looking for work – this is something you have to take care of on your own. If I had defended last year and used my OPT to look for jobs, I would not have been qualified for this job offer I currently have because they don’t want to give me sponsorship in the first year: OPT will only last for 12 months. If you can streamline the process of defending your dissertation and looking for work and use OPT for actually working, it will do both you and your employer a favor.

Y: 所以你是在拿到这个job offer之后才申请的opt还是之前就申请了?

Y: When did you apply for the OPT, after or before you got this job offer?

L: 我现在的情况是我会五月份的时候才开始申请opt,然后就等于说我五月份正式毕业以后才开始opt,然后opt从八月份开始。我八月份会去那边工作,这样时间就会配合得很好。这样在我的opt有效时期内我可以在那边工作一年,接着他们就可以sponsor我的H-1B。我也希望系里面以后在策略上可以有什么帮助国际学生的地方,关于这一点我要特别感谢Andy对于我的支持。

L: I will only start to apply for OPT in this May, which means I will apply for it after my graduation. And the OPT will start in August, when I actually go to Michigan State and work there. In this way I can work for a year while my OPT is still valid, then they will sponsor my H-1B. I also hope the program can devise some strategies to help international students, speaking of which I have to thank Andy in particular for his support.

“Heaven Rained Millet and the Ghosts Wailed at Night”: The Invention of a Genre Socialist Science Fiction

by Milan Reynolds

It was a red-tinged evening in late October, students and faculty gathered to hear Virginia Conn read and speak about her first chapter – the beginning of a compelling dissertation about socialist science fiction in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (1918-1986). Virginia proceeded to give a fascinating presentation on the linguistic roots and narrative particularities of sci-fi within each country and the ways in which politics and literature reciprocally shaped each other. Beginning from a point of analysis that asserts socialist sci-fi is qualitatively different from non-socialist sci-fi as well as the more widely recognized genre of socialist realism, Virginia described how those differences produced material effects and constructed individual and national consciousness in specific ways.

The constraints imposed on writers by both socialist governments included limiting the scope of works to a “near-future reality” of roughly fifty years and ensuring the plausibility of scientific speculation. Virginia also traced the origins of the genre through the multiple translations that the word “sci-fi” went through in its passage between countries. In fact, China was using the genre category of science fiction before its popular adoption in English literature. These strict writing guidelines served specific functions within the construction of each nation and often caused the literature to be dismissed as propaganda, but Virginia made the compelling argument that it cannot only be viewed as such. The works analyzed display a distinct utopian socialist praxis, predicated by science – romantic, revolutionary, and exceeding the bounds and stigma of pure propaganda.

Linking these themes, Virginia brought a modern term into the mix borrowed from Winfried Pauleit: the photographesomenon. Coming from film theory, it describes the surveillance camera image – an “objective view” of the past whose meaning is then written by the future. This illustrates the way that socialist sci-fi evacuated the past by creating subjects defined by an anticipatory “collective view”. One compelling example Virginia drew on was the use of illustrated guides in China that showed how to grow crops and other quotidian, valuable skills that lead to collective autonomy. She argued convincingly that such texts could be linked to socialist sci-fi in its utopian, near future agenda. This led to interesting questions about how socialist sci-fi complicates the genre category of sci-fi. In many cases, the literature used “science” as an educational tool, and “fiction” as a way to draw interest from a wide audience of readers, including using visual materials for populations with mixed levels of literacy. Soviet and Chinese socialism used sci-fi to self-define towards a collective utopian goal. 

The presentation moved into several questions from guests about the trajectories of the genre within each country and how they paralleled or diverged from each other. Virginia emphasized the dynamic exchange of ideologies and tropes while noting their differences and separate progressions as well. Other questions brought up the tension between science and fiction, at least commonly positioned as opposing elements, and how this was navigated in a socialist setting. As the colloquium came to a close, smaller conversations were sparked over food and drinks, everyone coming away with a richer understanding of the history and possibilities of socialist science fiction. Congratulations to Virginia on an amazing presentation!

Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging

by Duncan MacKinnon

The Decoloniality Workshop held its only meeting of the fall semester on October 17th, 2018, to discuss Haruki Eda’s (Sociology PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) dissertation chapter entitled “Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging.” The chapter examined how some diasporic Koreans in the U.S. draw from embodied, sensorial, and emotional experiences in political organizing and forming a sense of community. In particular, it examined the role of queer diaspora as a modality of community organizing in articulating a different sense of Koreanness that creates other possibilities than those offered by hegemonic, heteronormative, nationalist figurations.

In his presentation, Eda contextualized the chapter and explained further its place within his dissertation project. His dissertation is an ethnography of Korean American community organizing, drawn from fieldwork with a number of community organizations who do largely transnational work (such as taking trips to Japan and Korea to meet with local organizations there and to build solidarity between the movements in U.S., Korea, and Japan). While these grassroots organizations were not formally labeled as queer or feminist organizations, a majority of the members were Korean women and queer people who brought their experiences and critical points of view into their organizing. The project tracks ways in which these organizations resist reifying national boundaries and nationalist identification to instead be more expansive in recognizing those who are seen as less Korean because of their differences, such as being diasporic, LGBTQ, or Zainichi Koreans (the communities of Koreans in Japan). This project instead turns toward the embodied experience of being Korean as at the intersection of the discursive and materialist in grounding the reality of being Korean.

Jeong Eun Annabel We (Comparative Literature PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) served as discussant for this meeting. In her comments, she first highlighted the special atmosphere that the chapter had in its writing, and how this is experienced powerfully in reading it. She noted how the queer Korean organizers of Eda’s ethnography undergo transformations in their understandings of both queer and Korean identities beyond the hegemonic narratives that they couldn’t see themselves in. In light of these processes of redefinition for the participants, she suggested giving more space in the chapter to exploring the moments of realization and transformation. She also asked about the role of ceremony and ritual in this chapter, and how certain practices and spaces within these organizing communities take on spiritual, ceremonial, and ritualistic characteristics. One particular example of this was the way in which the poongmul drumming practice that Eda analyzes in the chapter transforms a political rally space and enacts a collective and spiritual enactment of non-human agency or intersubjective agency.

With these insightful questions opening the conversation, the workshop then had a vibrant discussion of a range of questions and comments about Eda’s chapter and project as a whole. Some of the major features that came up in this discussion were Eda’s methodological contributions in approaching this project in the way that he does, reflecting on the theoretical engagements in the project, suggestions of different literature to bring into the project, and the project’s place within sociological scholarship.

The Decoloniality Workshop is an interdisciplinary space for scholars in training to present work in progress in a relaxed academic setting committed to the transformation of standard academic practice. Please visit https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/ for more information about past and future events.

Mariana Mora and Antonio Carmona Báez on ‘Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean’

By Amanda González Izquierdo

For the fourth event of the “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, the Center for Cultural Analysis, and the Program in Comparative Literature were proud to host Dr. Mariana Mora (Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, México) and Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez (President, University of St. Martin, St. Maarten). On the morning of October 25, Dr. Mora and Dr. Carmona Baéz gave a talk titled “Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean.” This was the first talk in the speaker series that featured two scholars in conversation and listening to them side-by-side allowed us to understand that even though there are commonalities in the experience of colonization, we should be careful not to make generalizations and should instead be mindful of the nuances and particularities of the distinct modalities of colonialism and their effects on different communities. 

Dr. Carmona Baez, co-editor of Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom (2018), focused on St. Maarten, a constituent state of the Dutch Kingdom. He opened the discussion by highlighting the dichotomy of servitude vs. ownership that he has witnessed at the University of St. Maarten. The university specializes in hospitality, which is directly related to the fact that revenues from tourism are the backbone of the island. However, the business program is growing steadily because students are interested in owning corporations. This is due in large part to colonial powers and investment banks creating a market for international entrepreneurs.  This is often followed by the emigration of qualified students, which Dr. Carmona Báez describes as a brain drain to the island, or, unsustainable recovery and development. To offset that, Dr. Carmona Báez proposes a decolonial sustainable recovery and development, which is based on brain gain. This means creating the conditions for the “return of the diaspora”:  the return of the knowledgeable people that have left the island. He also proposes the use of local research and community-based development. He closed his portion of the talk by talking about jollification: a celebration of collective efforts. This celebration occurs as members of a community build houses and the elderly sit with children to tell them their histories. For him, a big part of decolonial recovery and development is precisely this kind of activity, where action and celebration happen not separately but simultaneously and, most importantly, in community.

Dr. Mora, author of Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities (2017) discussed the form her research took in writing her recently-published book. Dr. Mora opened by saying that academia is not absolved from neo-colonialism and explained how academic research has colonial overtones: it is seen as an extractivist knowledge wherein base/raw material that takes the form of oral histories provided by subjugated peoples is provided to a researcher, who then makes meaning out of that information by classifying and systematizing it in writing. Though the Zapatistas accepted that Dr. Mora do research in their communities, they redefined the terms of that research. First, they rejected Dr. Mora’s plan to conduct individual case stories in favor of a collective story in the form of group interviews. They also rejected Dr. Mora’s proposal to do a deep study of two communities, since they believed that this would silence the rest. Instead, they required that she go to at least twelve of the thirty-five municipalities. In their most decolonial action, they subverted the notion of extractivist knowledge. During Dr. Mora’s interviews, the Zapatistas themselves prepared their own synthetizations of their own histories, which they then read out loud, thus destabilizing the oral/written dichotomies and the suggestive power of the binary. This allowed them to have an active role in the production of knowledge and in the process situated themselves as subjects of their own histories. 

The exchange challenged us to think about coloniality and decoloniality across geopolitical frameworks and reminded us that the effects of colonization are still being felt and require radical praxes. It also provided us with original, context-sensitive responses from agents actively fighting colonial epistemes and redefining knowledge in their day-to-day lives.  

 

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.

 

 

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]