Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: The Prep is Over and the Hour has Arrived, On Taking the Written and Oral Exams (Part 3 of3)

As with the previous two posts on this topic, I hope you find comfort, insight, and advice in reading about those doctoral students and candidates interviewed on the 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 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 final installment will address student’s responses to the process of taking the written exam and preparing for the oral one. Check out the previous two discussions from earlier in the summer of how people approached the list and rationale composition process and prepared for the exams!

Question: How did you and your committee decide when you were ready to take your exams?

Response 1: “When my major professor approved my rationales and sent them out to the committee, she had set a general date a few months in the future to plan for the exam. So that’s what I stuck with. If I have a deadline, that’s the deadline for me to be ready, so that worked for me. There wasn’t really much discussion.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “I told my committee in the spring that I would want to take my exams by a particular date in the fall and they were gracious enough to make sure they were available around that time. I made it a fixed date in August, and I made sure that I was ready.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “We set a date and stuck to it, because trying to schedule us all at another date would have been a pain in the ass.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

Question: What approach did you take to completing your written exams? What had you done in advance to make writing easier? Did you outline before composing? Free-write? How much time did you leave to revise?

Response 1: “I’m not much of a “pre-writer” so I again wrote my exams in much the same way I write papers. I chose which texts I wanted to use for each question (this was maybe the hardest part, because I had multiple texts that would work for multiple questions, so deciding which one they would be “best” for was a pain), then I just sat down and wrote. I had a general timeline. I wanted to finish each paper in two days, then have a day for revising, and I stuck to this. I actually finished the first question in a day, the second in an easy two, then the third in two and a half. It was more that I was just tired of writing, so writing fatigue is definitely a thing. I hate reading and editing my own work, so I really just read through them once or twice. Others might not want to replicate that. It’s perhaps not the best strategy.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “I wrote a very brief mock essay for a research group in the summer before my exams, but that did not help me much. That writing is coming in handy now, as I am writing my dissertation. My advice is just to read and take notes while preparing. For the exams themselves, I made a very rough bulleted outline with some key texts and references included. I mostly just wrote freely. It was important to have a thesis and make sure that all of my points related to that thesis. For the first part of the written exam, I wrote roughly 6-8 pages a day for 6 days. I worked a full workday each day from 8-5pm. In the evening, I ate dinner with my husband and watched TV. On the last day, I just read through and edited the 45-50 pages I had written. It was intense writing, but it doesn’t have to be stressful or dramatic if you budget your time accordingly.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “I wrote as much as possible beforehand. For two of the three questions, I had a good idea of what the question would be, and so I wrote lots of rough material for those questions in the week or two before the exam. I took a guess about the question I knew nothing about, and though most of what I wrote for it wasn’t useful, some was. Before the exam, I’d say I wrote about 7,000 words and used maybe 5,000 of those words for the exam itself. Some just sentences or fragments, some whole paragraphs. Then I wove them together during the exam and expanded on them, for a total of something a bit over 13,000 words, I think. A bit long, but I didn’t edit or revise. My examiners told me it had a sort of chatty feel at times, and that was purely the result of my typing without looking back, because I thought it would be more important to show them that I really did know what I was talking about, and it was the ridiculous exercise itself that was getting in my way. It was coherent and academic, it showed I knew what I was talking about, but it made no pretense of being polished writing. It was me typing as fast as I could and never looking back. (This led to a little bit of anxiety at the oral exam because I’d forgotten what I’d written about a few things, and examiners would point to specific passages and I’d have to try to reconstruct my thoughts. But it worked out okay.)” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

Question: Once you had passed your written exams, how did you go about preparing for your orals?

Response 1: “I really just read through the papers again and thought about stuff that I had wanted to say but hadn’t had a chance to, or stuff I wish I had said differently. My orals opened with me giving a short ten minute intro where I could lay out how I thought the exams had helped me, what I had discovered in writing them, what I wish I had done differently, etc. so I kind of got to set the tone for what we focused on. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t get some questions asking me to clarify or pushing me on some of the points that weren’t the focus of my intro, but it was nice to kind of set the goals for the oral.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “prepared for my oral exams by simply rereading what I had written. My major professor also asked that I give a ten minute presentation to the committee. I discussed what I would revise if I had more time and any other thoughts or considerations I had about the questions. I also had talking points on my writing process and any discoveries I had made during the exam.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “I went to New York City and didn’t think about any of it until the day before, when I looked over a few books I thought might be useful. The questions told me what the examiners were looking for, and I felt that my preparation had been strong in those areas. I figured that if I wasn’t prepared at that point, I never would be. It’s not something you can really cram for, or at least I didn’t think it was something I could really cram for, nor did I want to. By that point, I knew my fields, I knew my own perspective on my fields, and I had opinions about things. I was able to have a conversation about my fields with other people who were well informed. It was actually a lot of fun. But I also don’t have a committee of people who wanted to trip me up with irrelevant trivia. We were a group of academics having an informed conversation about what we care most deeply about in our academic lives. I’m grateful for that experience.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

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