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How to prepare for qualifying exams (or, how to read too many books in seven months)

Few aspects of pursuing a PhD are simultaneously as mundane and as Herculean as preparing for qualifying exams. What makes this task rather unexceptional is that it generally consists of a fairly basic task: reading books and articles. But what transforms this into something of an ordeal is just how much reading you’re expected to do, in how little time you’re expected to do it all, and how much of the reading you’re expected to retain so that you can prove that you really did all of the reading in your actual exam. What makes the process much more difficult is that it is constructed in such a way as to turn you into something of a cloistered hermit for a year – perpetually shut away with a stack of books that somehow never seems to get any smaller. And even in those moments when you sneak away from the stack of books you’ll find yourself plagued with guilt, as you know that you probably should be reading. Furthermore, it tends to be a process that is marred by there not really being “one right way” to go about it, meaning the best way to prepare is to solicit advice from those who have survived the process, while recognizing that what worked for others will not necessarily work for you.

Thus, in that spirit, what follow are some suggestions on preparing for qualifying exams.

Before jumping into particulars it must be acknowledged that different departments handle qualifying exams in a variety of ways. The sort of exams that the following tips most directly apply to are those featuring a year of intense reading punctuated by periodic meetings with the examining professors, capped off with a multi-hour oral examination. And it should be noted that these tips are most relevant for those preparing for qualifying exams in the humanities. These comments are, hopefully, still applicable to other sorts of exams and other disciplines.



Make your lists, but don’t carve them in stone

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this whole process is drawing up the reading lists. After all, this can be an opportunity to gather together all of those books that you’ve been meaning to read, and it can be exciting to see all of them listed out. Though it gets a bit less exciting once the task of actually reading through them all begins. It can be tempting to view the lists as finished, definitive products – but you’re better off viewing them as living documents. Or, to put it another way, you’re better off having multiple lists for each list. There will be the official list that you share with your examiners, and then there will probably be at least one lengthier list that is filled with dozens (or hundreds) of others books that seem relevant/interesting but which don’t make it onto the final list. Often, the final list (the one you work off of) will have books broken down into a variety of subcategories (for example: within a history of science list you might have a Cold War subcategory) – you can pick the smaller set of works to put on the final list from the larger set of works you have on the larger list. It should be obvious that the larger list is one that will continually be growing – every time you see an interesting book mentioned in a footnote you can add it to the larger list, every time a friend recommends a book on the topic you can add it to the larger list, and so forth. Nevertheless, if you can, it’s worthwhile to treat your main list with some flexibility too. Over the course of doing this massive amount of reading you’ll likely find your interests and your priorities shifting, and you should treat your lists as being able to shift accordingly.

Also, it must be noted, the professors you’re working with will quite likely have their own ideas about what you should and shouldn’t read – and you should be prepared for them to alter your list.


Your lists can always be longer (that’s not necessarily a good thing)

There are few things that make it clearer just how many books there are too read than amassing a massive list of books to read. And attempting to read fifteen books on a given subcategory is to always invite the question of why these fifteen books and not some other fifteen books. All of which is to say: there are always more books you can read. In terms of the broader wealth of knowledge, this is rather wonderful. In terms of trying to keep your reading within bounds, this is terrible. Or, to put it more clearly, let’s say that your department suggests you do at least three lists with the suggestion being that there should be between 80 and 100 books on each list. Most departments aren’t really going to stop you from having your list hitting 103 or 113 or 130. Similarly, if your department allows you to lower the overall number of books on each list if you opt to do four lists instead of three – they’re probably not going to stop you from reading 80 to 100 books on each of those lists. All of which is to say, if your department says your lists need to total 240 works – read 240 works. If your department says your lists need to total 300 works – read 300 works. But if your department says you need your lists to total 240 works, don’t decide you need to read 400 works.

Graduate education is often a story of martyrdom and masochism – if you want to do much more work, you always can. But it may not be worth it, and in all likelihood no one is going to give you kudos for reading a ton more than necessary. There will always be more to read. Always. And sacrificing your mental health for the sake of reading another fifty books is, in the long run, not a wise strategy. Luckily, you’ll still be able to read after you survive the ordeal of your exams.

Find out the number of books you’re expected to read, and stick to it.


Start reading early

Part of what makes this endeavor such a challenge is that you’ll need to read a lot of books in a very short amount of time. So an excellent way to deal with this is to start reading early. The June, July and August before your exam year officially kicks off can be an excellent time to get an early start on your reading. One tactic is to use those summer months to fully read some of the works that you’re most interested in (which otherwise you’ll have to speed through). Anything which you can do to give yourself more time to read is going to work out to your benefit, and is going to give you some more flexibility once you’re in the thick of things. You’re going to have to make good use of the time you have available, so you’re best off trying to find as much time as possible. Which brings us to the next point…


Stock your lists with things you’ve read before

Don’t be afraid of putting things on your lists that you’ve read before. Look back over the syllabi of classes you’ve taken, and (where appropriate) pepper your lists with those works. Also, consider the various works you’ve read out of personal interest or for other research, and (where appropriate) put some of those works onto your lists. There’s a way of taking the previous suggestion (“start reading early”) and using it as an organizing strategy to argue that you’ve actually been working on your lists for years already. Especially if you completed a Master’s degree before pursuing a PhD, you may have a hefty number of works that you can reuse here. Granted, you’ll still need to revisit these books in order to refresh your memory about the core arguments of these works – but this can be an excellent way of filling up your lists in a manner that will give you more time to focus on the books you genuinely haven’t read before. No claim shall be made here about what percentage of books on a given list should be wholly new to you (though your department may have some ideas on this). Nevertheless, if you’ve been reading on a subject for years, this is your opportunity to formally benefit from some of that work. Works you’ve already read can be an excellent cushion – though you should be wary of using such works as a way of pushing your totals above the required limit (remember – just because you’ve read it before doesn’t mean you won’t have to revisit it for a few hours).


If you can, put a few “fun” books on your list

I had a book about Bigfoot on one of my lists. Really. It was awesome. Both, because the book itself was great, and because it was a really great mental break to read a book about Bigfoot. Obviously, this will vary depending on what you’re working on, but if you can sneak a few books onto your list that are “fun” it will boost your spirits. Squeeze in a novel, work in a play, find a good graphic novel – you’ll be thankful you did.

Of course, there are many scholarly/academic works that are well-written and enjoyable reads. But wonderfully written books  about toxic waste, or nuclear weapons proliferation, or genocide, or disasters – can still leave you in a bit of a rut.

Sometimes you just need to read a book about Bigfoot.


Make a schedule and try to stick to it

Given the enormity of this undertaking, and its capacity to continually grow, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and to feel like you’re a bit lost. A realistic schedule with weekly quotas can help. This can be particularly important early on for setting a general pace. After all, it’s easy to start slow, only for this to come back and bite you later when you realize that you wasted September and October. Similarly, if you aren’t planning ahead it can be easy for you to get thrown off course by a conference, a family event, a case of bronchitis, or an attempt to have a social life. Having a weekly goal, such as 14 books a week, can set the pace for you. And it can also provide you with the structure necessary for planning ahead. There is something frustrating about reducing this work to just checking off a number, but this turns the massive quantity into manageable quantities. Also, it allows for satisfying moments whenever you complete your weekly quota ahead of schedule. Granted, here too, you must remember that there will always be the temptation to exceed the quota and get ahead. That can be good when you know that you’ve got other things coming up, but it’s also okay to hit your quota and just say enough.


All that being said…remember…you can’t really read all of these books

Generally, students are told they need to do exam lists for at least three fields. And each of these lists is expected to consist of somewhere between 80 and 100 books (with that number decreasing if a person opts to do four fields). Or, to put it more clearly, preparing for qualifying exams usually involves reading somewhere between 240 and 300 books, in slightly less than a year (more on that later). From the outset you should disabuse yourself of the notion that you can really read that many books in the amount of time allotted. True, the graduate work that you did before getting to the exam stage almost certainly involved reading multiple books in a week, but there’s a big difference between reading three books in a week and reading fifteen books in a week. Make your peace with this fact, especially if you’re the type of person who feels like you need to read every word in a book before you can claim that you’ve “read it.” You aren’t really going to be able to read all of these books, you’re going to have to gut them. This means there are books that you’ll want to go back to at a later date and read in full, and it also means that there are books that you’ll realize you don’t need to read in full. The quantity of books you need to assimilate is still intimidating, but it’s worth remembering that you don’t need to read two books a day you just need to “read” two books a day.

So what does this kind of “reading” look like?


Know what to look for in each book

Given that you won’t be reading every single word; you still need to have a plan for what you’re looking for in each book. Here are some ideas:

  • When the book was published – seemingly a banal point, but essential for placing a work in the broader context of the period in which it was produced (and the state of its discipline at that time).
  • The core argument of the book – if you’re going to claim to have an understanding of a book, you have to understand its main argument.
  • The way that each chapter contributes to that argument – it’s important to understand how each of the chapters supports (or doesn’t support) the larger argument. The core argument may be stated quickly in the introduction, but the chapters are where the actual work is done.
  • The way this book started/contributed to/challenged its field – a slightly nebulous point that might only be clear when you step back from this book and consider it in terms of the other things you’re reading.
  • Core historical subjects/theorists/organizations/objects – again, this may appear simplistic, but if a book has a lot to do with how several specific people working for a particular governmental organization built a particular thing, you’ll want to know those specifics. And you’ll want to know which theoretical lenses are being used to analyze it all.
  • What this book doesn’t do – this is another point that emerges most clearly when considering the book against other things you’ve read, but you should recognize what the book didn’t accomplish. Admittedly, when you’re reading very quickly this can be easy to miss.
  • The primary sources being used in the book – understanding where the author got their information is essential.
  • The secondary sources being used in the book – important for locating this work in terms of a larger discipline. This can also be an excellent way of discovering other works that you’ll want/need to read.


Figure out a reading strategy before you start reading


Considering the number of things you need to look for, it’s easy to conclude that you’ll simply have to read it all. You won’t, you just have to know where to look.

  • When the book was published – copyright page
  • The core argument of the book – the introduction or conclusion, often can be found with a sentence that starts with the words “in this book…”
  • The way that each chapter contributes to that argument – table of contents, chapter breakdown in the introduction, in many academic books the author will have a section in the introduction where they’ll provide short summaries of each chapter
  • The way this book started/contributed to/challenged its field – read the quotes from other scholars on the book jacket, authors will often spell out their contribution in the introduction
  • Core historical subjects/theorists/organizations/objects – look at the index
  • What this book doesn’t do – take the introduction, conclusion, and table of contents and consider what is missing
  • The primary sources being used in the book – footnotes/endnotes/bibliography
  • The secondary sources being used in the book – footnotes/endnotes/bibliography

Of course, the best way to ferret out those details varies. One good approach though is to read the introduction, the conclusion, the first paragraph of every chapter, the last paragraph of every chapter, and devote some real time to looking through the bibliography and the index. Reading the first sentence of every paragraph can also be a good strategy if you have the time for it. Reading reviews is another option (but more on those later). If you go into each book with a clear sense of what you’re looking for, you should be able to confidently put the book down once you’ve found the things you need. The more practice you get at reading books this way, the faster you’ll be able to do this.


Stick to a note taking strategy

Some people are blessed with a perfect memory that allows them to instantly recall every word that they have read. For such people, it’s easy to remember the core argument and supporting details of every book. But, to be frank, most people don’t have such extraordinary memories. And something which makes remembering even harder is when there are a ton of things you’re trying to remember. Hopefully before you start this process you’ve already figured out a note taking strategy that works for you. But here are some other strategies to consider…

  • Index cards – on one side of the card put the title, author, copyright information; on the other side write a short summary of the book. You’ll need to be careful not to lose the cards. One of the nice things about this strategy is that it’ll allow you to sort the books into different stacks at a later date. It may be advisable to type up these notes.
  • Notebook – set aside the first few pages of the book for a table of contents (so you can minimize flipping through the notebook in search of notes on each book). At the top of each page write the author, title, copyright info. On each page write your own summary of the book (shoot for somewhere between 400 and 500 words – this will largely depend on the size of your handwriting). It may be advisable to type up these notes.
  • Spreadsheets – give each book a line, make each element its own field. The point of a spreadsheet is to give yourself access to some of the other functions (sorting, searchability) that such programs provide. Generally speaking, spreadsheets are most advisable for people who already feel comfortable/confident working with spreadsheets. If spreadsheets give you a headache, consider a different approach.
  • Write in the book/on the article – assuming the book is part of your library and not borrowed from a library library (or from a friend’s library) – it can be good to actually write your notes in the actual book. Highlight, underline, fill the margins, use tabs, use sticky notes.
  • Apps – there are numerous note taking applications that you can run on your computer/tablet/smart phone. Chances are if you have one in mind it’s because you’re already familiar with it. These all have their pros and cons. But, honestly, I don’t feel qualified to recommend or not recommend any of them. That being said, if you’re thinking about going this route, you should get some practice with the app ahead of time. You don’t want to waste a month trying to figure out the functionality of an app.
  • Keywords – regardless of the note taking strategy you pick, it can be useful to jot down between 5 and 10 keywords for each book. Just as a quick refresher and as a quick way of connecting various works. This can also be a great way of reminding yourself that a given book had a useful chapter/section on some particular area. Especially if you are using a more high-tech note taking method, keywords can be a great way to search.
  • Synthetic summary – many professors will require that you periodically write these, but it can be useful when you finish a subcategory to write a short lit-review of sorts in which you pull out core themes and consider intersections between books. The point here is not to produce a polished piece of which you are proud, but just to get you thinking.

It should be noted that the above strategies are not mutually exclusive, and you should feel free to combine them as you see fit.


Be wary of book reviews

Faced with the task of speeding through books, a common strategy is to turn to book reviews. Academia is filled with academic journals, and academic journals are filled with book reviews. Such journals may not have reviews of the newest (just came out) books, but it’s likely that you’ll find quite a few reviews, in a variety of journals, for the various books on your lists. A book review can seem like a wonderful tool here. After all, a review is likely to include a restatement of the book’s key argument, a decent summary of the work, and some comments that situate the book in terms of the broader field. Isn’t that exactly what you need? Yes, but be careful. The danger about turning to reviews is that they can go from being useful supplements, to simply taking the place of reading the actual book. Given the comparatively little time required to read a review, it can be tempting to just read two reviews and call it a day. The main problem here is that when you’re relying on reviews it can be too easy to accept the critiques offered by the review writer as accurate, when you might come away with a quite different analysis of the book yourself. A review can certainly be a good entry point into a book, and it can be a useful assistant if you’re stuck in a rut with a difficult work – but it’s risky to be too reliant on reading reviews.


Last, but most importantly, try to have some balance

As you prepare for your exams you will almost certainly have a moment when someone invites you to do something and you have to reply “I can’t, I have to read.” Perhaps you’ll be saying that to get out of going to something you’d rather avoid, but it’s probably more likely that you’ll be saying that because you genuinely have to read. This process can take over your entire life if you let it. As has been said previously, there’s always more to read. So you might find that you sometimes need to force yourself to stop reading. Hobbies, friends, relationships, family, cooking actual meals, fitness, pets, staring off into space…anything that can keep you from becoming a hermit is going to be good. If you allow your physical and mental health to fall apart you won’t be able to complete the work.

This is a rigorous process. It, by design, isn’t easy. But you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.


Good Luck!



More (real) Advice

Things I learned working as a reference librarian

Things I wish I had known before I applied to PhD programs

Things I learned during my first semester of teaching undergrads


About Z.M.L

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on April 29, 2019 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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