Tag Archives: academic writing

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]

Organizing Your Writing Projects: A Review of Scrivener

By: Shawn Gonzalez

If you’re looking for a practical holiday gift for the dissertation-writer in your life (or yourself), consider the word processing software Scrivener. Scrivener is designed for drafting large, complex projects that involve frequent revision and rearranging. It differs from other word processors by allowing the writer to easily move between the note-taking, planning, and drafting stages of a project.

Most word processors offer a single way of looking at a project: sequentially, from start to finish. However, Scrivener allows writers to compile a variety of documents related to a single project and look at those documents from different perspectives. In Scrivener, you can easily shift between notes, outlines, draft sections, and comments within a single window. The program also offers a variety of split-screen options that are particularly useful to writers working on smaller computer screens.

I would particularly recommend Scrivener to students just beginning the first draft of a dissertation. The ability to compile all of your research and notes in a single location is especially helpful when trying to figure out where to start. My one caution would be to avoid doing a lot of formatting in Scrivener, because elements like footnotes sometimes transfer poorly when you export your completed document to another program.

Scrivener offers an extended free trial, and then costs $40 to download. It is available for Mac and Windows.

Book Review: Eric Hayot’s Academic Writing Advice

By: Carolyn Ureña

The first time I taught a course on academic writing, I was assigned Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s The Say, I Say as the core text for the class. As I read through this small book filled with practical advice on how to write clear transitions and build an argument, I was thrilled by its clarity but also incredulous that I had somehow managed to get by without it. I mean, why had no one handed me this book when I was in college?

This was the same feeling I experienced upon reading the first few pages of Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style. As graduate students, we are often tasked with teaching others to write, having become relatively adept at doing so ourselves. And yet, the difference between writing a college seminar paper and your first graduate school paper (or publishable article, or – gasp – your dissertation) can honestly feel as daunting as making that initial transition from high school to college writing. While there is no telling whether graduate education in the humanities will include a course on writing, the good news is that Hayot’s book has emerged to fill that void, helping to assuage the fears of anyone who has ever felt unsure of how to start, push through, and revise an academic writing project.

Part pep talk, part practical advice, The Elements of Academic Style offers readers concrete suggestions on essential topics such as: how to create and maintain a writing schedule; how to transition between the paragraphs, sections, and chapters of your project while also building an argument; and how to effectively engage sources. Deciding how much to “show your iceberg” –that is, determining how much of the research you’ve done you really need to show your readers (versus, say, placing those ideas in footnotes and letting your synthesized ideas show in the main text)— can be a major challenge when working with large bodies of work, and Hayot’s careful explanation of when to show what has already proved incredibly helpful to me as I engage in revisions.

One of the great strengths of Hayot’s book is his ability to position himself as a fellow writer throughout, offering advice from the perspective of someone who is constantly telling you not only a) this is what I actually do, but b) this is not the only way, just what has worked for me. I for one always appreciate when my mentors share with me their process as well as what they still find challenging, and for this reason Hayot’s book stands out as the best book on academic writing I have read to date. I’ve already been returning to it as a reference, recommending it to teachers, tutors, and students alike, and I highly recommend you give it a read, no matter where in your graduate career (or beyond) you find yourself.