Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Crafting your Lists and Rationales (Part 1 of 3)

Each year in our program a new cohort of PhD students undertakes the task of beginning to craft themselves in earnest as individual scholars as they leave behind the highly structured environment of coursework for the freer yet more daunting grounds of comprehensive exam preparation. This summer, as I prepared for my own exams in the fall (fingers-crossed), I decided to interview some of my fellow PhD student community (both within and outside our own program) on how they approached the comprehensive exam process. Below you will find the result of these ‘conversations’ with students as they reflect on the process during and after its completion. We have a wealth of successful candidates here at URI, but I stuck to those for whom the process was most recent and fresh on their minds. Whether you be at the beginning of this task in forming your lists, in the throes of exam prep itself, or even a newly minted doctoral student wondering what the process will be like when it falls to you to undertake it, I hope this piece can offer a little comfort and a lot of insight and advice, if not allowing you to see exactly how the process will look for you, because as you will see it is different for everyone, then at least preventing some of the fear and paralysis that the unknown can evoke. This first installment will address student’s responses to the process of preparing your lists and rationales. Check back throughout the summer for the upcoming discussions of how people prepared for the exams and approached the exams themselves!

Question: How would you describe your process of working with your major professor and core committee to form your lists and rationales? How long would you say it took before you started reading in earnest? How many drafts would you say you went through?

Response 1: “Because my area for my rationales was a bit outside my major professor’s area, I made up an initial list on my own, just thinking about what texts I thought were important. Once she had a chance to look at that and the rationale and get a better sense of what I was thinking, we actually almost completely changed what I was doing (for the better!), incorporating more of an historical review approach. After that the lists stayed pretty much the same apart from me needing to cut a few works or decide between two different texts and polishing up my justifications. I’d say I went through about three or four major drafts of the rationale. I really enjoyed the rationale writing process. I thought it was incredibly helpful in articulating what I wanted to look at and why, and how my lists made sense.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “Once I understood which specific areas I wanted to research for my dissertation, I wrote my lists in accordance with my related questions and concerns. I primarily consulted with my major professor and co-chair of my committee when I was looking for additional or related texts, as well as recommended specific readings within a text. I took my exams in the early fall of 2015. I began reading very little during the previous spring. I read most of my texts beginning in late May and ending in early September, so it was roughly a four month period of intense and regimented reading. I wrote a draft of my lists during my first year, but it wasn’t very specific to my area (since I did not have one yet). After I rewrote it according to my research purposes, I think I revised it once. My committee was content with the first draft of my rationale.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I worked mostly with my major professor to form my lists, and the process was fairly smooth. I presented her with way too many sources on the first draft of my secondary sources, and we whittled away from there. She was really instrumental in helping me choose texts for my primary list since the topic I’m studying/researching isn’t something I have delved into before, and current scholarship doesn’t quite hit on it. I’ve gone through maybe four or five drafts of my lists, but with only one major overhaul to my primary list. As far as a timeline, mine got thrown off course for personal reasons, so my experience isn’t typical. When I thought I was taking my exams in February, I started really getting down to it in October.” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I think my process was gradual and dialectical. I would put something together, show it to my major, we would meet and I would be give feedback. Then I would revise, send it to my second, get feedback, revise, send it back to my major, and we would meet again for feedback. I started with just lists, then, in conversation with my committee, as they narrowed I started to think about what heuristic I was using to make the keep/remove decisions and wrote up my rationales. Further adjustments to my list were via revisions to my rationales. I met with my major 4 times and my second and outside core member once each, but got additional digital feedback from them.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “First, I met with my advisor for advice on the whole process and thoughts on the scope and shape of the reading list. Then, I hashed out very very rough drafts of each list and met with the examiners for each. Some had more to say than others. Then I did another, more final draft. Most accepted those, one sent me back for more revisions. I started reading core stuff (what we called “the unavoidables”) right away.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “While I was told time and time again my exam chair and committee would mostly dictate what appeared on the lists, this was not the case. Ultimately I compiled lists of works that felt broad enough to satisfy expectations of my areas of research while feeling specific enough to my own interests. Rather than expand the lists my exam chair helped purge superfluous entries so that things seem more manageable. She also assisted in rearranging the rest of the committee so that there are clearly defined roles rather than unchecked dynamics with the potential to over-determine the trajectory of my exams and dissertation. Though it felt daunting at the time, the entire process of researching, compiling, editing, and submitting drafts (without rationales) took roughly a month and a half.  With the drafts mostly completed, barring input from a faculty member abroad without reliable internet, it took another couple of weeks before I started reading in earnest. If I were to do it over again I would try to think in terms of the dissertation or what I imagined the subject of the diss could be given my progress in the program and reverse engineer the list with those subjects and questions in mind.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

Question: To what degree did you keep you exam prep distinct from your dissertation planning and research?

Response 1: “I didn’t? Most everything from my exam will likely in some way, shape, or form make it into my dissertation (even if it’s just a footnote). And you can’t really start dissertation planning or research until you’ve done your comps. While my overall area didn’t change, my understanding of what my diss would look like and what, specifically, I wanted to do absolutely did.” (Kim Wickham. Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I thought of all the reading for my exam as general preparation for the dissertation. As I read, I looked out for general trends in writing about architecture and fiction. This allowed me to easily and quickly contextualize my dissertation within a body of work while writing my prospectus. It also allowed me to identify how I would contribute to the discourse, what was not being said by current scholars, and how/why my perspective was needed.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I honestly haven’t really thought about my dissertation. The extent to which I’ve started planning for it is simply having a section of my OneNote Comps Notebook called “Diss Research” where I plop potentially useful sources. I’ve heard many people say the direction of their research changed after they took their exams: the exams helped them see things differently, or tweak their topic. With that in mind, I’m focusing on one hurdle at a time under the assumption that the exams will help me get a better idea of what I’d like to write about for the dissertation.” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I was advised to think of the lists and rationales as laying out a field whose boundaries I was able to draw for myself both across and on top of existing disciplinary perimeters but which was a more general space from which my dissertation would carve out a niche to examine with specificity, rigor, and depth not possible for the whole of my exam areas. In this sense my exams would of course inform my dissertation, but not in the sense that my engagement with texts as I read should be informed by how helpful they might be in that regard, however much I might think I already know what I would like to write on. I keep a separate notebook for dissertation ideas and will scribble something in there if it strikes me to return to later. In my exam notes, I sometimes star something or put a comment in brackets if I am unsure if this is key for my exams or dissertation research. In the end I tried to read much more broadly than I would for my dissertation in terms of ground covered and to consciously ask myself to stay focused on what these texts and their most distinguished commenters and critics have said is important about them, saving any nontraditional cross examinations for the dissertation.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “Completely. I gave myself the freedom not to think about the dissertation while doing exam prep. I did keep notes, though, on things that would be useful for the diss. But they were just quick notes and brainstorms, nothing I ever thought much about. The exam was my task, not the diss.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “In my admittedly limited understanding of the exam process, you’re examined on your general knowledge of the state of your major and minor fields, how the works you study emerged, differed from what came before, and how they do or do not relate to each other. Having a foundation in established primary texts is significant, even in, or especially in, a time when the idea of the canon is being called into question. Finding a balance between canonized and marginalized works or authors will allow you to speak to the field as it stands while beginning to insert your own expertise (derived from minor lists) into that conversation. So for me, prioritizing and balancing the canon with lesser known works and even my minor areas of study is where I begin to differentiate exams and dissertation. They should inform and build from each other to a degree while remaining distinct enough so during the exam you can speak to the established fields in terms and examples recognized by your committee without losing sight of what you imagine to be the beginnings of the dissertation.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

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