Written by Anne M. Carpenter
Doctoral Qualifying Exams are like snowflakes: every one is different. The topics follow the same general lines, but their particulars are always unique to the student involved. Every bibliography is distinct. That is why finding good advice about DQEs can be so difficult: no one else’s experience quite fits your own, no one has an identical board, no one has the same strengths. So what I give you now is no attempt at all to teach you how to pass your exams, or to give you an exact sense of what it will be like. That is impossible. I will say only what worked for me in the hopes that it will help you.
(1) Be organized.
It is impossible to stress this first point enough. Be communicative and organized with your board of professors, and be disciplined and organized with yourself. A lot of people make reading schedules for themselves, although they never stick to them. Scheduling is nevertheless important, because it gives you a strong sense of how much time you have and how much you need to do in that time. More important for me was keeping track of what I had read – I made a note on my bibliography when I had finished a book/article, and I kept good notes on each item. I also re-organized those notes into more coherent sets of information, instead of lists of data stacked on top of one another. When in doubt, be more organized than is necessary. This will help you keep your head together when you begin to forget what you’ve read, and when all that you have read begins to run together.
(2) Be concise.
When I took my notes, I tried to take notes that would help me remember the breadth of the article/book along with important details. I did not take notes beyond that. Otherwise, I feared that I would overwhelm myself with extraneous information. This turned out to be an excellent strategy, because it forced me to ask myself vital questions about what I was learning: “What is important about this article? How does this fit in with my bibliography as a whole? How does this relate to what I have discussed with my professor?” These questions are forms of early preparation for when you are actually confronted with real questions you need to answer on the spot.
(3) Read your notes more than once, but in different ways.
The human brain is strange and fascinating, and the ways in which it learns are many and varied. You are going to learn better the more angles you put on the notes you have taken. This was true in my case. I quickly grew tired of staring at the same sets of notes, so I re-organized them. I placed them in patterns – by theme, by problems, etc. – and I continually distilled them to a fine-point analysis. Again, this helped me to ask good questions about what I was reading and it also helped me link my information into a coherent chain of logic. This is always better than rote memorization.
(4) Be prepared to freak out.
As I have gone through the PhD program and observed my fellow comrades in arms who dove into the fray before me, and as I myself followed them, I learned one eternal truth about DQEs: you will freak out at least once, without provocation, and that’s okay. You’re stressed. Exams are stressful. Don’t get all disappointed in yourself when you feel terrified and exhausted.
(5) Practice thesis statements and essays.
This point was probably most effective for me when I really got down to asking myself how I would go and write essays without notes. I wrote a lot of thesis statements for potential essays, which was for me a way of thinking about what I had read. A nice, compact thesis statement – easy to loosely memorize! – is a great tool to have on hand. You can write it down and then unpack it into a full essay. It’s like having a set of ready-made essays in your head. I also practiced a few essays, just to see how fast I wrote and what sort of information I remembered/forgot. I didn’t practice all of the essays I ended up writing, and this worked for me, but you might feel like spending more time on this if it suits you.
(6) You have enough time.
You will not feel like you have enough time – enough to study, enough to write, enough to talk – but you do. Just…breathe.
(7) Make judgments about what you have read.
I often wrote little notes about points I liked in a book I read, or something I thought to be flawed, or a pattern I noticed between two works. These short notes, not quite thesis statements, helped me to judge what I had read. This helped me not only to remember it, but also – and this was important for a shy type like me – it helped me to be organized about the way I answered questions during my oral exams. Your board wants to see you think on your feet and make judgments, and it is always helpful if you have already asked yourself hard questions about what you read.
(8) Ask clarifying questions.
During your discussions with professors before exams, and especially during the oral exams, be clear about what you’re reading and be clear about what you think you’re answering. If you’re confused, it’s better not to pretend. Sometimes professors go fishing for specific information. Don’t guess. Ask them what they mean by their question so that you can answer their question and not your imaginary question. It’s more annoying for them to hear answers to questions they didn’t ask, and it’s more frustrating for you. So, don’t ever hesitate to clarify what you are discussing and why.
(9) Show no fear.
Exams are pretty terrifying. Don’t show it. Especially during your oral exams. Marquette has spent years training you to do this, and you’re good at it. So show them. And smile while doing it.