Sunday, November 21, 2010

More than You Wanted to Know about Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive Exam Advice (if you have four written exams and they're open-book take-home and simultaneous):

Preparing for your Exams:
1) Make your lists as early as you can. Then go over each with your professors at length. They will mention a few of the authors and works you've listed and may suggest other books. FOCUS ON THOSE. The questions will be based around the works your professor knows best and what they think is most important. Even if you disagree with the importance of those texts, expect that the question might refer to those texts or the ideas in them. Read the rest of it for yourself. Don't believe for a second that they will go find and read the books you think are the most important.
2) Add your bibliographic info from the exam lists into your word program or biblio software as early as possible. Wasting time on that during your exam period would be so silly.
3) If you're really worried what the professor will ask, make some questions based on your list and then go meet with the professor. "As I was preparing I thought it would be useful to think about what sort of questions I expect from this list, but I've never seen an exam question. Do these questions seem reasonable?" Listen carefully to their advice. Leave them a copy of your list and email it as an attachment, too. If you're lucky, you might get (potentially reworded) one of those questions. And thinking of the list in terms of a specific question will help you prepare. I ended up doing this for all my exams, because one professor asked me to do this as an exercise. It helped SO MUCH. This is really how to make sure reading your list will prepare you for the type of question that professor wants to give you. It's your insurance that the question won't be about Kuwait when you're studying Korea.
4) Sometimes a professor will practically assure you they will ask a question about X. Start pre-writing. What is an introduction for X? What are some main ideas about X that you will deal with in your research? Don't write a whole exam answer (unless you're really sure what the question is) but why not 5 pages? Those pages can be expanded during your exam period.
5) Talk to your chair about length of the answers, especially if one of your professors likes longer answers than you're prepared to write, the way to get around this is to have your chair specify to all professors that your answers should be approximately G number of pages. Your chair is important especially for dealing with professors from outside the department who might not know how your department does exams. There really is a big difference from one department to another.
6) If you have an exam on the topic of 'identity' then as you read make a file with awesome quotes about identity. Then when you write your exam, you can just copy and paste the quote into your exam without having to go back to the book and find that specific page again. I have a giant file with TONS of useful quotations at this point. It also defines some weird academic terms. I have them all in alphabetical order with all their reference info. I also have some files that sort of outline some key books and articles and their main points, but usually the key quotes can bring back the main point for me, anyway, so I find that writing mini-book reports is a waste of my time.
7) Stock your fridge and freezer. I ate SO much sorbet during my exams. And soy ice cream. I could eat anything I wanted during my exams, so long as I kept writing. I also allowed myself silly things I don't normally, like buying a packet of stew that you just dump into your pan and heat up. It's better than spending too much time cooking or not eating.
8) MOST IMPORTANT: Write your dissertation proposal. This proposal should include references to the ideas in all four exams, and use many of the key texts. The proposal can become the basis for some exam writing, most of all it can shake loose the ideas that are percolating in the back of your skull. You can edit the proposal after you write the exams, but if you don't know what your dissertation is about, your exam answers will be MUCH less useful for your dissertation. Don't spend a lot of time writing something you never want to think about again and won't be able to use at all in your future.

While Writing your Exams:
1) Remember that you have to get a lot down on all four. Don't polish what you've got, just move to the next one. In the last few days of the exam period you can edit what you wrote, but the last thing you want is one perfect exam and three lame rushed ones.
2) Get someone to read for coherency for each exam. I had my mom read one. I had an undergrad read one. No one knows what you want to say on this subject except you, but you need someone who can catch typos and tell you if you appear to be repeating yourself or if you're actually making sense. You don't want heavy editing. You do want a second set of eyes.
3) The exam tests your command of your resources. Resources include your peers. Of course you want to come up with your own answer, but it's not cheating to have a chat with someone about the ideas circulating in your head, especially if you're the sort of person who does better brainstorming out-loud. Some professors give you a question that seems a little like it came out of the blue, if you don't want to spend the next two days just trying to get at their meaning, you might want to talk with another student who works closely with that professor.
4) Length is different depending on your committee members, your chair, and your own ability to churn out pages. Don't get hung up on length. Don't try to force yourself to go for length just because you know someone else who wrote a couple of books worth during their exam.
5) Footnote/endnote/add the credits as your write. Your loose-end catching will deteriorate as you get more frazzled. Maybe you already do that (I mostly do, but if I'm too much in a thought stream to search for the biblio info, I leave a highlight in the text so I can catch that loose end later).
6) Cannibalize paragraphs from grant apps and papers you wrote before; if those papers are relevant to the exam question, they can be a great starting point. One paragraph in a grant app can turn into three pages in your exam in no time, because it's already stuff you've really thought about.
7) If the ideas are yours, the person typing was you, the reading you cite is reading you did, then it is certainly not cheating to paste in a paragraph from some paper you wrote last year. Why reinvent the wheel?
8) Don't make the answer that professor might want. Make the answer you want. You have a committee to make sure that you don't get failed just because one professor is piqued you didn't copy his/her stance. If you answer the way the professor wants you're wimping out and you may have an easier time now, but how will you ever become a citation-worthy academic?
9) Remember the professors want you to pass. They're on your committee because they think you're a winner, interesting, intelligent, capable of producing good work. That's why some students have such a hard time finding committee members. If someone can't find members or their committee member dropped out on them, part of the time it's because of a lack of confidence in that student. If you have a solid committee that supports you, they are all invested in you passing the exams. The last thing they want is to fail you.
10) Remember that this is an amazingly productive period of time and in the end you will have a BIG START on at least one of the chapters in your dissertation. Isn't that awesome? You're being forced to the limits of your physical and mental endurance for this ten day period, but when it's done and you've gotten some rest it's just fabulous to see how much you accomplished.
11) Make yourself exercise at least half the days, or you'll go nuts. I rode my bike almost everyday. I didn't do 4 hour rides. I did get on my bike and ride like there was no tomorrow for 45 minutes or an hour or a slightly more leisurely two hour ride.
12) I know a lot of friends who've made little altars or whatever to inspiration and all that. I prayed to Manjusri (Buddha of scholarship) and lit candles on my altar. Do whatever you need to feel like spiritual stuff is on your side.
13) In a worst case scenario you'll just be totally stuck for some reason. I think you'd better email that professor as soon as you can and explain what's going on. I actually had to do this for my exam, because I got my questions on that Tuesday morning and PANIC!!!! One professor had sent me questions that seemed like they belonged to another student. I emailed him/her and it turned out we'd had a mix-up.
14) Don't answer aggravating emails or phone calls, or let anyone screw with your cool and concentration. You can tell them later that you turned off everything during your all important exams.

Notes on Oral Exams:
1) For some reason professors have historically really freaked out their graduate students during oral exams. This means that some of your exam members may feel either that it is traditional to freak you out, or that it is the only way to do an exam, or they are still trying to slough off their horrible experience by subjecting you to something similar. You may have a committee where everyone keeps their kid gloves on. I hope you do. I did not. Although I have five lovely committee members, it was horrible. Just because they're nice to you every other day doesn't mean they will be in a room full of other professors (they may have as much to prove as you do, you never know...).
2) There are five (or four or more) really respect-worthy academics with more chops than you on the other side of a table and they are all staring at you. Right there that's pretty freaky. My chair said "this will be a great opportunity to get a bunch of great heads together and talk about your research, this should be one of the most useful conversations ever." I wish. It was intimidating (and I don't intimidate easily). Go into your exams hoping my chair was right, but don't be surprised if it's not the case. I've talked to people who've experienced what I did, and I've talked to others who felt it was a cake-walk. I actually was traumatized for a few days afterwards.
3) Expect unexpected questions. Expect them to be hung up on something that was just a side note to you. It's likely someone is going to be demonstrating that he/she really knows all about what you wrote about. A professorial amount. More than a doctoral student amount. Try to compliment them on their knowledge and not get hung up on how they're actually pretty much -wrong-. Otherwise you'll be stuck on that one point for far too long and they're never going to admit you know more than they do in a room of other professors.
4) Hope that your committee gets along. I have a committee where people either like each other or don't know each other, I'm lucky. I've heard horror stories from people who simply had to include professor A and B on the committee, but they wanted to disagree so badly with each other that the student was caught in the cross-fire.
5) Think about how you could explain everything you said in your dissertation proposal (mine was well over 40 pages long) in two minutes or less. I had to spend a fair amount of my three hour exam explaining stuff that is essentially background to my exam and my research proposal, not the meat of the matter. I had expected that they would have read my proposal (or at least the abstract, intro and conclusion) and be prepared to talk about it already. At least some of them had not. Those who had not seemed to need to be led through the entire thing before we could have a real discussion.
6) In the stress of the orals I had a hard time remembering names of authors, dates, terms, etc. This was worse because I was over caffeinated. I heard later from another grad student that they took some sort of relaxant drug (like half a sleeping pill) or something before their exam. That probably would have been a better choice. Certainly that much caffeine did not help me be articulate.
7) After I stepped out of the room so the committee could confer I was so keyed up I couldn't remember that the professors wanted me to pass my exams. I couldn't stop to think that in fact even if things hadn't gone as I'd wanted (hoped/expected) that still I'd managed to answer their questions and show I wasn't an idiot. At that point I would counsel any other student to NOT freak out. Just cause I was a ball of caffeinated nerves sure it was the end of my academic career doesn't mean you have to feel that way. Look at the big picture. Did you actually say something wrong? No. Then don't be me. Take a deep breath and wait until they call you back in.

Other random things:
Q: How long were your lists?

A: One of my lists was over 200 books and articles. That professor told me he didn’t care what was on my list, he cared that I used a large number of relevant materials in my answer. All of my lists were well over 50 items long. I usually had a ratio of two articles to each book. But my work is not very historical, so a lot of the most relevant scholarship is recent.

Q: How did you structure your exam topics?
A: A lot of people recommend that you have one related to your area, one related to methodology and two related to different theoretical questions/concerns. I don’t think it has to be that way at all. However, somehow, my exams ended up being on 1) Korean Performance 2) Ethnography/Participant-Observation (esp. related to research on Asian Performance) 3) Globalization and Transnational Cultural Flows (focused on Asia) 4) Heritage, Authenticity and Memory. People in majors like history must have one on modern Korea (if they do modern Korean history), one on traditional Korea, one on modern Japanese or Chinese history, etc. My department doesn't define more or less what exams have to be on, I'm lucky.

Q: Doesn’t it all flow together after more than a week of extreme lack of sleep?
A: Yes. I ended up with citations of a single text on all my exams (yes, it’s really key), and the ideas definitely bled into each other. The examples for the theoretical questions were the studies from the methodology exam, some of the studies from the methodology exam were my Korean performance related writings… trying to keep four exams completely distinct seems like a pipe dream to me. However I know some people who do it. I read several exam answers (a department where each professor requires two essays) for one good friend who almost didn’t repeat citations at all!

Q: Is it just an academic hoop to jump through?
A: In a way it is, it’s a really effing stressful hoop, but I honestly can tell you my dissertation will include large chunks from my exams. Yay!

Q: Did you read anything during your exams?
A: Sadly, I think it’s unavoidable. As I worked I suddenly got these great ideas and insights that needed me to open another book or article. So I did actually do some new reading during my exams, but I think that reading made my answers stronger. The one thing to avoid is going back to re-read your key texts that you’ve already read a couple times. They are super awesome, rich, and thought-provoking, but don’t let yourself get too influenced. Cite what you can remember and the quotes you’ve already harvested into your quotation file.

Q: So how many pages did you actually write?
A: I wrote over 150 pages including my biblios, but I know someone who wrote 50 pages for each of his exams, and knowing him they’re probably 200 pages of amazing depth and complexity. I actually went to the copy center and had them bound into double-sided books with all four exams (and a list of key Korean terms) together to facilitate the professors reading all four exams, not just the one for them. I don’t know if my plan worked, but I thought it was cool.

Q: Did you do anything else during your exams?
A: My exams started during the break, but I was enrolled in classes for the next term (I’m funny that way), and I went to the classes during the last week of my exam just like normal. I didn’t ask for special favors or stay home from school during week 1 of that term. It was nice to have an excuse to get out of the house, besides I rode my bike to school so I got exercise, too. Your life doesn't end just because you're taking your exams.

Q: What did you serve the professors?
A: As for the ever-present question of what to prepare for the professors for the exam, I scheduled morning exams and prepared coffee, tea, various pastries and fruit. I got the coffee and the pastries from one of the best places in LA (Amandine) but some professors have felt a bit uncomfortable with big meals and especially when students bring alcohol (champagne sort of seems like you're assuming you'll pass, doesn't it?). Coffee, pastries and fruit is available at a lot of morning meetings, it didn't put a weird burden on the group.

Photos: I documented my exam period:
Day 2:

Me with the most important book (during my MA period, too)



What I looked like on Day 10:


  1. Great information, CedarBough!

    I second a lot of what you said. I always pass along two pieces of advice I got that really helped me.

    1) You'll never know "enough," so you could actually do your exams tomorrow if you need to.
    2) It will be the most productive period of your graduate career.

    Some other misc. advice I always give (some repeats from CB):
    1) prepare your writing space, including organizing all your materials for easy access; I also made an altar in my writing space that helped me remember WHY I was doing something so crazy
    2) have plenty of healthy food you like in your fridge - stock up!
    3) exercise everyday! I made myself a "Ten Days" playlist full of energizing songs and I listened to it every morning as I walked or ran to get me fired up.
    4) sleep normally - don't pull all nighters!
    5) take breaks - even see some friends!
    6) have a good support system in place - friends who will call to check in, be an ear when you need it, etc.; I also taped messages of support around my workspace
    7) have a lot prewritten; those writeups on books are vital!
    8) clean your apartment, do your laundry, etc. before you begin so that you can't be distracted by little tasks
    9) pace yourself! remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint! plan a schedule of about 2 days per exam.
    10) have fun, let it remind you why you love your topic, and celebrate heartily when you finish!

  2. i'd say i went with most of what you said here, except I pull all-nighters all the time, and did during my exam, too. In my normal UCLA life I sleep 4-5 hours a night, at that time I was sleeping 2-3. but I actually think I operate well with lack of sleep.