Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Strategies for Reading and Annotating the Texts on Your List (Part 2 of 3)

As with the previous post on this topic, I hope you find comfort, insight, and advice in reading about those doctoral students and candidates interviewed below on their exam process. Where ever you are in the process yourself, may it help you to know others have been there before you and survived, and may these responses also fortify you as you craft your own path to candidacy through the examination process. 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. This second installment will address student’s responses to the process of preparing for their exams. Check out the previous discussion from earlier in the summer on how people approached the list and rationale composition process and keep an eye out for the final installment as students discuss how they approached the actual taking of the exams!

Question: How did you schedule/budget your time while preparing for exams?

Response 1: “I didn’t really have a clear schedule. My goal was to just get through as much as I could as fast as I could. I would have good weeks where I’d get through a book every day or two, then not so productive weeks where I wouldn’t. If I found something was taking me a really long time to get through (what’s up Auerbach’s Mimesis), I would move onto something else and just read that a little at a time. So I think it took me like two weeks to get through Mimesis, reading only a little each day, but I was also simultaneously reading other texts. This seemed to work for me. I made it through everything on all my lists.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I wanted to take my exams as early as possible during my third year. I began preparing as soon as my lists and rationale was approved in late May. We have three lists of texts. I essentially devoted one month to each list. This worked out to roughly a book a day, which I did not accomplish since my literary texts were almost all novels and many of them quite long. I tackled the longer or more demanding works that I had not read before first, leaving the shorter novels or texts I had read before till the end of the month or even till the end of the summer. When I realized how few works I could actually include in my exams, I decided which ones I wanted to write about the most and reviewed or reread those in early September.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I laughed out loud at this question. My reading has been more spread out than most, I think, so it’s hard to give a real sense of a daily schedule. I’m trying to read for at least 4 hours each day, knowing I have “real life” and a wedding to plan that consistently get in the way. Now that wedding planning is over, my hope is to read for at least 6 hours a day. I’ve heard/been told to aim for 8 hours a day, but know that would be physically and mentally draining for me personally. Knowing your own habits and thresholds is really helpful in figuring out a true timeline” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I over budgeted knowing I am a slow reader. I just divided the amount of time I had by the number of texts I needed to read and pretended I would spend a lot less time reading than I actually will. I have been reading for about 6 hours a day 5 days a week so far as I finish up side projects but hope to speed up to 8 to 10 hours a day 6 days a week in the coming weeks as those projects get completed. I am also not working this summer in order to study, something I had to budget for in advance.  I should say also that I have only read about 1/3 of everything and *hope* to reread even those items before taking my exams.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “Loosely. I gave myself particular deadlines to be done with things, but life was too hectic for any schedule to be able to be highly binding. I kept books with me at all times. Whenever I had my computer on, I would make sure to have a PDF open, even if I didn’t look at it. That way the reading was always there, reminding me of its existence.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “I’m trying to adopt some version of the following system. It seems out of order but it’s the only way I can hold myself accountable for all the work: Pick a rough exam date. For me, this is March 2017; A month or so before this, discuss with the exam chair and committee what I’ve managed to read, where my interests fall within the material, and just have an informal conversation with these brilliant scholars about the types of questions I’d like to answer and they’d like to ask of me; Go through the list drafts and determine (with faculty assistance) what they consider the absolute must-reads for your area. The ones that everyone you meet in a conference elevator would expect you to know and chat about for an awkward 3 minutes. Read those. For instance, don’t read that super obscure eighteenth century novel that nobody talks about first and leave Clarissa or Tom Jones for the weeks immediately leading up to the exam; Figure out a handful of texts that really speak to your interests. Read those in between the absolute musts you determined above; Look at the rest of your lists and be honest about what you will actually get to, what you may or may not need to get to, and what could potentially be left on the cutting room floor. Again, your committee members can help you with this; prioritize all of this in a new list and start reading. Accept that reading will vary between hanging on every word and evaluating the introduction and conclusion of texts to pinpoint what will be useful for your exam and dissertation; Understand that things that don’t make the cut for your exam can and likely will show back up for dissertation research; Take time to read the introductions if you’re using critical editions. Familiarize yourself with how these texts have been discussed by previous scholars, the general plot, themes, what have you. You’re reading dozens and dozens of works so any help you can get from prefatory material will benefit you and your notes in the long run; . . . All of this is to say, figure out what kind of system of planning works for you that will hold you accountable to a large portion of your lists in order to demonstrate to your committee you are conversant in your chosen fields and how you have begun to think about your own project in relation to those conversations.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)


Question: What note-taking strategies did you use while preparing for your exams?

Response 1: “I took notes for the exams in the exact same way I take notes for papers. I really didn’t change anything. This means creating a tab for the text in One Note and typing up notes and quotes as I read. I didn’t really see the point of changing a bunch of my approaches or methods for the exam, since I am used to them and they’ve worked for me so far.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I enjoy reading in many locations, especially outside. It is easiest for me to write on papers or notecards that I can tuck inside of my books and take with me. Also, notecards will not overheat in the sun! I realize that electronic documents are searchable, but as many current studies show, we remember more content when we handwrite our notes. I handwrote all of my notes, using sticky tabs for 10-20 key passages. I organized my written notes under a just a handful of keywords. Some keywords for my writing and research were “Phenomenology,” “Architecture,” or “Body.” I never had trouble finding anything while writing.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I have an elaborate note taking system! I use OneNote for all of my notes, with a page devoted to each text. I also have been using Zotero as a database, so each text is entered in there, too. As I’ve been reading and noticing patterns, I’ve been creating different hashtags that I tag within my notes as I go. For example, if I read a novel by Austen and a scholarly text by Nancy Armstrong, and they both have to do with women reading, I’d tag each OneNote entry with #WomenReading. When I’m done taking notes on a text, I then input those tags into the tag function in Zotero. My hope is that this will allow me to simply open Zotero, click a tag, and see all of the works that I’ve said have this thing in them. My system could be brilliant, or it could be totally cumbersome during the actual exams. But, I’m happy to show anyone who has questions any part of this madness!” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I used all hard copies because I am a Luddite, but my notes are digital in the end for ease of cross referencing. Any partial texts, articles, essays, and poems where I did not need to buy a whole book, I found/made into PDFs and had made into course-packs for myself at icopy in the emporium. I try to notice key themes, styles, tropes, ideas circulating, emerging and recurring in the first 25 pages or so, and develop a sort of key from that. This is sometimes informed by my secondary reading and reading of other fiction from the genre or period as well. Then as these things recur and mutate, I track them with designated letters in the margin. This includes such things as W for war, L for landscape, E for empire, or more subtly O for orientation, IO for internal/external tensions, and S for emphasizing surfaces. If there are key terms or phrases that I think may be helpful for quoting later, I just down those 2-3 words as well in margin or underline with an arrow. Once I finish the text I type these out in a word doc for each text which I can search later using “ctrl + F.” This does not take very long since it just looks like so: “E, O, IO, S, melting, 132” as I list things briefly ending in the page number. I also include a link at the top of the document to a full text version online that is searchable for later if needed and available.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “I copied quotes and major ideas into Scrivener, which is the computer program I used to keep myself organized through it all. (Evernote or OneNote would also probably work. I just happen to have Scrivener and have used it for years, so it’s comfortable for me. I also like its split-screen function, so I could have a PDF open in one screen and be typing in another.)” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: Marginalia. Marginalia. Marginalia. Post-It tabs. Slips of paper with page numbers. And corresponding hand-written notes on separate note pads corresponding to different lists or portions of lists. Technology can fail, so [I] back up [my computer] notes frequently. For some of the literary primary texts I’m less familiar with I’ve opted to quickly summarize plot, theme, and central characters for easy reference during exams. For secondary texts (or non-literary primary) I’m trying to write succinct annotations of major arguments or theories and how those relate to other texts on my lists. Really, anything that will make life easier come written exam day so I’m not frantically trying to remember which novel(s) had that male character that went on that journey, which poem had that allusion, which drama killed of a majority of characters, or which theorist(s) made that contribution to the conversation.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

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