Written by Brian Sigmon
When I was asked to write a short reflection on my DQE experience for this blog, I began by writing a brief overview of how I approached preparation for the Doctoral Qualifying Exam. I quickly realized, however, that what worked for me may not work so well for others, since every DQE experience is different. So I decided that it would be best to offer some general advice based on my own observations and conversations with others who have taken their DQE’s, with occasional reference to my own experience. Hopefully those who have yet to take their DQE’s will find this at least moderately helpful.
Do the work. This should go without saying, but it is important enough to say anyway. There is no substitute for reading the material on your bibliographies, internalizing the main arguments, and bringing them to bear on the topics and questions with which you are working. Do whatever you need to do to prepare, and prepare well. A key aspect of preparation is thinking critically about the material that you read. Take the time to criticize and compare arguments, read primary texts for yourself, and develop your own position on the questions you address. A lot of my own preparation time was spent just thinking, staring off into space or doodling in a notebook while I looked at things from various angles.
Work efficiently. Obviously, there is a great deal of material on your bibliographies for which you will be responsible, and nobody expects you to remember every detail of everything that you read. It is also necessary to read at a fairly quick pace, to cover all the material in a timely manner. So, it is best to find a balance that lets you work efficiently without cutting corners, so that you can be as prepared as possible. Get a sense of which authors or works on your bibliography are the most important, and devote more time to them. Read in such a way that you draw out the most important aspects of the books and articles in your bibliography; it is ok to weed out things that are unimportant. In my preparation, actively skimming books helped me to follow and retain the central arguments and main points better than reading every word.
Communicate with the members of your DQE board. One thing that you will constantly hear is that every faculty member’s approach to DQE is different. Some look for a more general bibliography on their topic, while others want to see something more focused toward a specific question. Being clear about these and other expectations will help you to be more prepared and know what to look for when you take the exam. Most professors expect to meet with students at least two or three times prior to the DQE. Take advantage of these meetings. The more you meet with your professors, the less likely you will be to face something unexpected during the written or oral portions of the exam.
Know thyself. The best strategy in preparing for the DQE is the one that gets the job done. Every DQE is different, and every student is different. What works extremely well for one student may be a difficult approach for another. The important thing is to be aware of what works well for you. For what it is worth, I found that setting periodic, manageable goals was a helpful way to plan my reading schedule; doing so enabled me to divide my preparation time evenly among the various materials on my bibliographies. I also found it helpful to write a brief summary of the main thesis of the books that I read, along with the most central supporting points. Finally, I left myself around two weeks prior to my exam date to organize and outline my notes and thoughts on every question. This helped me to get my bearings in the material, revisit things I had read months before, and articulate my own opinions. These strategies worked well for me, but they may or may not be helpful for you; feel free to use them or ignore them as you see fit. At the end of the day, nobody will see your summaries, notes, schedules, and outlines but you. What your DQE board members will see are the three-hour essays that you write, and how you respond to questions in the oral portion of the exam. Do whatever you need to do in order to prepare for these.
One final note: at some point during your DQE preparations, you will freak out. It is ok. The DQE is important, and the fact that you freak out probably means that you understand its importance and are taking it seriously. Just remember: if you are prepared and have communicated with your board members, you will do well. And as stressful as it can be, the DQE is actually fun in its own way. It is, after all, a total of thirteen hours writing and talking about theology. And isn’t our enjoyment of that the reason we all got into this career in the first place?