The Best Advice I Have to Give about Qualifying Exams

One of the disciplinary traditions of graduate study is the exam which allows a student to advance to candidacy. In theory, it’s not a bad idea: a little ritual to help indicate to your committee that you know the intellectual terrain well enough to get into your research and writing full time. In reality, the process tends to be obscure, and, for many students, can become an enormous source of anxiety. I benefited from a committee that provided a lot of structure for my exams, and so if you have a committee that isn’t particularly structuring (or even if you do), some of these practices might help. Qualifying exams are really just another test — and, if you’re lucky, they’ll be the last tests you ever take.

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Is it wrong to use an image from the Milgram experiments to talk about qualifying exams?

I’ve experienced two different forms of qualifying exams (or comprehensive exams, or whatever else they might be called): the timed exam and the open-ended exam (or the acute and the chronic). The first comes in a couple different varieties — sit in a room for a day or more and answer a question (or set of questions) or sit at home for several days and answer a set of questions. The second comes in a couple forms too — write a literature review of a set of texts or write a chapter or two of your dissertation (which are based on a set of predetermined readings). In each case, the exams are based on a collection of readings that have been determined by the student and the exam committee, with more or less direction.

I’m a big proponent of the ‘several questions over several days’ method of testing for a couple of reasons: short exams tend to be not very productive for the testee, and they tend to not be very good to read for the testers. The result is that they tend not to be especially indicative of what a person actually knows — just what they can cram into a one-day writing session. I’m also not a big fan of either of the open-ended options: they tend to drag out forever, leading to students taking a long time to advance to candidacy, in no small part because the implicit expectation is that they will in fact be ‘comprehensive’ (which is impossible). In both cases, students end up turning in exams that don’t do enough because they can’t — or which try to do too much without actually needing to. But that’s all neither here nor there — in any case, you have a reading list to generate…

Making the Reading List

Your reading list will be made of a certain number of readings as proscribed by your committee, and that list will be broken up into a set of smaller topical and thematic lists (usually 2-3). Usually, these lists are also keyed to a specific member of your examining committee, who is tied to the list (and your exam) by a shared speciality. So try this:

First, go through all the syllabuses from the graduate (and maybe undergraduate) classes that you’ve taken (you did keep them, didn’t you?), and come up with a list of all the topically and theoretically important stuff that you’ve already read. There might be additional stuff on these syllabuses that you haven’t read, but you should, and so this would be a time to do so.

Second, come up with a list of all the stuff you feel like you should know for your exams. This can be theoretical stuff, topical stuff, greatest hits from your discipline, historically important stuff for your specific field, etc. If you aren’t sure where to start, take a look at the Annual Reviews website and read through some review essays on topics related to your dissertation — they can be a great source of citations to mine. If you haven’t taken classes related to your dissertation topic, you can email professors who have taught relevant courses at your institution and other institutions and ask for syllabuses, which are also a good source to mine for citations.

In both cases, you don’t want your list to be too specific. I recommend to students that they should think about the classes that they’ll eventually teach and come up with syllabuses for them — they should be populated with texts that you would include on your reading lists. Most people don’t go through their careers teaching highly specialized courses, i.e. I don’t teach classes on sleep medicine in the 20th century; I teach classes on medical anthropology and the biology of everyday life. ‘Sleep medicine in the 20th century’ is too narrow for a exam list, but ‘medical anthropology’ of ‘the biology of everyday life’ would be good places to start.

Now, take the list of readings and sort them into thematic and topical clusters. Try and get each reading into two or more clusters, and try and make sure that each cluster has at least five readings in it. If a cluster doesn’t have enough in it, cut the cluster. If a reading can’t fit into at least two clusters, put it on a reserve list — don’t cut it, since it might be important, but put it into storage.

To make this a little more concrete, here’s a pretend dissertation to work with: nationalism in South Asian superhero comics, with fieldwork focusing on their creators and fans. (If you want to write this dissertation, let me know: I have a box of Indian comics waiting for the right graduate student.) So, to start with, our imaginary graduate student is going to have a few obvious clusters: South Asia as a topical region, theories of nationalism, and studies of popular culture, its creators and fans. There are going to be readings that fit into more than one of these clusters right off the list — readings about nationalism in South Asia, readings about popular culture in South Asia, and readings about nationalism and popular culture.

But each of these clusters is going to be comprised of a bunch of smaller clusters, so, for example, the popular culture cluster can probably be broken down in relation to kinds of media (film, novels, newspapers, TV, comic books, music, etc.). It might also be broken down in relation to the topical approaches of the authors, so you might have clusters focusing on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. The student might also have clusters around fandom and creator-oriented approaches.

Again, you should be able to sort readings into multiple clusters. For the first draft of your reading lists, it’s not bad to have the same reading appear more than once (as long as your committee knows that you’re doing and not try and artificially inflate your reading list). At this point, it’s worth going back to the Annual Reviews database and looking for reviews of each of these clusters, and again mining them for citations. At the end of this process, you should have a pretty significant list of readings.

Once you have your clusters in place, it’s time to check in with your examining committee. What they should be doing is offering suggestions on other readings to fit into each of the clusters — and they might want to remove some stuff as well. Committee members can be especially helpful in identifying recently published stuff that may not have made its way into Annual Review essays yet, and they might also know scholars working in your field that are under recognized.

These suggestions from your committee should move your lists to being pretty finalized, and at this point you should work on organizing your clusters into their master lists and removing redundancies. (But you might keep a master list of your clusters so you can see where readings crossover into other clusters, which may be helpful as you write your exams.) You might also find that your list topics change in this process — that our imaginary graduate student moves from lists on South Asia, nationalism, and popular culture, to ‘nationalism in South Asia,’ ‘ethnicity, gender, and religion in popular culture,’ and ‘theories of mediation.’ (Frankly, any of the starting points of these lists was too broad to begin with — they should narrow and deepen as you work on them.)

With your finalized lists in hand, it’s helpful to write introductions to each of the lists. These introductions should be short, say 4-7 pages, and will lay out what your interests are in the overall topic of the reading list as well as the individual clusters that comprise the list. These introductions are helpful first stabs at thinking systematically about how the clusters in the list work together and what continuities exist within and across them; they are also very helpful for you committee, who may use your introduction to come up with questions for your qualifying exams. These introductions also help to serve as a guide for you as you do your reading, which, as you get into it, might start to feel overwhelming. But, if you know why you’re reading what you’re reading, your introductions can focus your attention to key questions and concerns in the texts.

Remember that your reading list is a contract with your committee: you can’t be held responsible to know anything not on the list, so when it comes time to write your exams or discuss them during an oral defense, know that the exam limits your committee too — at least in terms of what they can choose to ask you about and expect you to meaningfully engage with. If someone asks you something about a text that’s not on your list, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look it up.’

Reading & Writing the Exams

When it comes to the actual reading, it’s helpful to break the texts into two groups: things you need to spend a lot of time with and things that you can read in a cursory fashion. The cursory stuff might be things that you can read the introduction and a chapter or two from just to get a sense of where the author is coming from, where the project fits into the literature, and what the project looks like. You probably shouldn’t spend more than a day with any of the cursory material. In terms of the more intensive stuff, you’ll want to plan on reading it in its entirety and taking careful notes, with the expectation that you might spend two or three days with it. Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is identify similarities and differences between the approaches taken by authors — to that end, you should work on grouping authors and texts so that when it comes time to write answers to the questions you’re given, you can summarize kinds of approaches and trends in the field (it’s also helpful to plot historical transformations and continuities in how topics have been thought about).

I can’t imagine what your committee will ask you by way of exam questions, but, generally speaking, what committees are looking for in an answer is that you can cite as much of the relevant reading list as possible in a meaningful way — which is often structured around how scholars have addressed a set of central concerns in the field. So, for example, I might ask our theoretical graduate student how nationalism has changed based upon transformations in forms of mass media from the late 19th to early 21st century. The student could then have a few approaches: by historical period, by media form (newspaper to radio to film to TV, etc.), by theoretical approach — or some admixture thereof. What I’m looking for when I’m reading an answer to a question like that is a thorough engagement with the ideas embedded in the texts on the reading list; a cursory citation doesn’t really count. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a full paragraph about a single book (especially the cursory stuff), but it might be a full paragraph about a shared approach or topic, built of sentences that each refer to a reading or two.

Qualifying exams aren’t usually a place to do creative writing; they’re really meant to demonstrate to your readers that you understand the fields you’re participating in and that you’re on your way to being an expert. If you can find a compelling way to approach your answer, that’s always more enjoyable than a dry recitation of a comprehensive body of literature. But a dry recitation is better than a wildly creative non-engagement (which may appear evasive to your readers). Exams aren’t fun, and they really aren’t meant to be; but handled well, they can be productive and give you a solid piece of writing that you can go back to when it comes time to write literature reviews for your dissertation or articles.

Let’s Fund Every Graduate Student for 7 Years

Several years ago, I had an incidental conversation with a senior colleague, Ken George, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He had come up with an idea to fund graduate students for seven years, and not through some enormous endowment, but through state funded education. It’s been a decade, and to my knowledge, no university has tried out a scheme similar to what George devised. So I want to put this idea out into the world and see if any institution will take me up on it — it’s a worthy experiment, and one that might radically change the way we train graduate students, how students experience graduate study, and the integration of undergraduates and graduate students on the contemporary campus.

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My memory of the conversation with George was that he reasoned that the average time to Ph.D. for an Anthropology student was seven years. So, to be a competitive program, Madison would need to fund all of its incoming students for at least that long. The kernel of the idea he pitched to me was that students would receive teaching  or research assistantships for years 1-3, then receive a fourth year that was fully funded — so they could conduct research unfettered and without the need of securing external funding — and then return to the university for years five-seven, during which they would serve as primary instructors for their own classes. The funding they would receive in years five through seven would be reduced to pay the university back for the research year. There were probably more details to the plan, but these are the parts that have stuck with me — including George’s mention that he had discussed the plan with a university financial officer who told him it was feasible. And, after almost a decade of teaching at state universities, I think it might be the necessary future to address many of the concerns faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates face.

During their instructor years, I’m assuming that graduate students are teaching two to three classes per year (probably three), basically a reduced tenure-track teaching load and not-totally-abusive adjuncting teaching load. Like faculty, most of the graduate student’s commitment during the school year would be to teaching, but he or she would also have time to write up the research from year four — and work on other professionalization matters. More importantly, they would receive a living wage, which would support them for three years and also provide them with security of employment so they could spend their summers writing and not seeking a new job.

I don’t want to be evasive, but I also don’t know the math. I’ve tried to puzzle out how this all might work, but every institution is different and what they pay instructors who are ABD vs. Ph.D. varies, as well as the cost of health benefits. But the basic idea is this: income should be consistent over the 7 year period, adjusting for inflation. So whatever one is paid in year four — the research year — should be the same as what one is paid in year five. It’s probably not going to be great — it might be the equivalent of $20,000 each year — but it should be reliable.

But if you just want some numbers to think about, consider that it might cost a university $40,000 per year per graduate student (including stipend and benefits), and that three, 20-student classes generate about $60,000 per year (assuming students pay a relatively cheap $1000 per class). Now, most graduate students don’t cost that much, and most undergrads pay more than that per class, so even if the margins are tight, the university would still be operating with a profit, which can go towards facilities, administrators, and all the other gears that need to be greased to make a university run.

One thing I’m always asked when I bring this proposal up is: what does a department do about a student who takes the fourth year funds and then never returns? Again, I don’t know that there’s one universal bureaucratic right answer, but basically the funds would be converted into a tuition fee and the student would need to pay it back. Likewise, if a student decided not to stay for the full seven years — say she or he gets a tenure track job somewhere — she or he could pay the prorated remaining balance from year four off. So, if a student takes a job at the end of year six, she would need to pay one year’s worth of the forward funding back to the university for year four (about $7,000). Students could also decline the research year and just proceed to the instructorship or pay off the research year with an external grant. It shouldn’t be a form of entrapment, but rather the kind of security that provides at least partial liberation from base anxieties (like paying rent and buying groceries).

The big challenge I see is having classes for the returning graduate students to teach. Given a modest graduate program of six graduate students, this would mean that during any given year (not adjusting for attrition), the department would have 18 instructors teaching a total of 54 new classes. Some of these courses might be in the major, but most of them would need to be channeled elsewhere. And this is the crux of the proposition as I see it — where does all this labor go?

My best guess is to create a new requirement for every major on campus, namely a two part writing or communication class that’s major-specific and taken during year one or two of an undergraduate career. For example, in an anthropology department, majors would be required to take a two term sequence in Reading Anthropology and Writing Anthropology. The first would teach them how to identify theses, supporting arguments, the use of evidence, basic genres of social scientific writing, etc. The second course would focus more squarely on getting students to write as novice anthropologists, with all of the expected generic conventions in place. Both of the courses would help them in their major, and benefit them overall with more intensive critical reading and writing training that could be applied in other courses they take, in and out of their major.

There’s another basic math problem, which is that the number of graduate students in any particular program might be out of proportion to the number of undergraduates enrolled in the department’s major. One way to handle this would be to have graduate students from cognate programs teach at the undergraduate level in departments with excessive majors. So, for example, biological anthropology Ph.D. students might teach the Reading and Writing Biology courses in the Biology department, freeing up graduate students there to do the laboratory work they are needed for by faculty in Biology.

The tougher question is what to do about majors like Computer Science, where conventions of communication vary significantly from other disciplines. But courses could be offered to train graduate students in the necessary skills, and there might be significant monetary incentives to lure them into teaching in these programs. Each institution would need to figure out what the roadblocks are and address them with local resources — or, potentially, start new interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to meet the needs produced by new requirements.

In any case, the course content should be determined by the instructor to reflect her or his areas of confidence and strength, but assignments across iterations of the same class should be similar so as to ensure that standards are being met. Teaching critical reading and writing skills to undergraduates also benefits instructors, whose own reading and writing skills tend to further develop through teaching. And such intensive teaching helps graduate students gain confidence and skills in one of the primary skills they’ll need in their future as educators.

There are some significant reputation dividends to be gained with a program like this for departments and universities: the university can brand itself as especially dedicated to undergraduate reading and writing skills, and in a landscape where graduate training seems precarious if not exploitative, the university can cast itself as ethical and intensely focused on the professional development and economic security of its graduate students.

If you convince your department or dean to experiment with a 7-year funding plan, let me know. And if you can think of any thing I missed, let me know that too…

The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.

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Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.