Written by Eric Vanden Eykel
Offering advice for the DQE process is difficult, as each person will undoubtedly approach the process differently. As I have reflected on the time I spent preparing for my own DQEs, as well as on the time spent talking with others about their own preparation, I have tried to come up with some helpful tips that are generic enough to be useful to everyone embarking on the journey.
- Start preparing early. Your first semester of coursework is not too early to start thinking about DQEs. It might be too early to start preparing bibliographies and choosing topics, but it is not too early to start thinking about when you would like to take your exams, as well as the professors that you might like to have on your board.
- Don’t panic. When you start having DQE-related conversations or putting together your bibliographies, there is no need to panic. You will (probably) not feel very smart (or capable) at the beginning of the process, especially when you finish up the first couple of bibliographies, and that’s OK. That’s what studying is for.
- Make a plan. Each person will be different in terms of the plan that they set out for themselves. My plan involved reading all of the articles on my bibliographies before moving to the books. I did this so that I would be able to spend a little time each day on each topic to avoid getting bored, frustrated or burnt out. It also allowed me to quickly check off lots of items at the beginning of the process, which made me feel good. What worked for me may not work for you, however, and that is (obviously) fine. The important point is that you make a plan for yourself and try to stick to it. Making a plan involves the order in which you will read, as well as determining the point at which you will stop reading. Yes, you have to stop reading at some point to allow yourself some quality time to think through and synthesize the material.
- Learn to read. This sounds like a stupid piece of advice – you’re in graduate school, so presumably you already know how to read. That might be true for you. For me, it was not. In the process of plowing through my DQE materials, I found that I was gradually learning how to read better and more efficiently. The only way that you will make it through all of your material is if you read efficiently. This might involve skimming a chapter here and there, maybe even skipping a chapter or two. You will be amazed at how much you can tell about a book from reading the introduction and conclusion and skimming the index. If you need some practical advice, check out Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book.
- Learn to take notes. Again, this sounds like a stupid piece of advice, right? Maybe, maybe not. I found once I started reading and noting my DQE material that my note-taking style was way too elaborate. The notes I took at the beginning of the process were long and exhaustive. The notes I took toward the end were much shorter, and were often no longer than one handwritten page. Try to get into the habit early of summarizing each piece in a couple of sentences – “So and so says X, and this is why that’s important/why I don’t agree.” Try to connect each article or book with at least one other article or book you’ve already read. This will prove invaluable as you start synthesizing material, and you will thank yourself later.
- Don’t panic. When you’re in the thick of reading and whatnot, you’ll likely feel the urge to panic. You will think that you’re making good progress toward your goal, and then you’ll look at the number of books/articles that you’ve yet to make it through and you’ll think that you’re not going to have time to finish. There are a couple of styles of panicking that warrant mention. One is to become paralyzed. The paralyzed one will sit among mountains of books and papers and not know where to start. This is not helpful. Another is to start planning all-nighters. Those who choose this style will resolve to consistently burn the midnight oil in an effort to get caught up. This also is not helpful. You will quickly find yourself deprived of sleep, and this will lead to burnout and sickness/fatigue, which in turn will lead to your not being able to do your work, which in turn will lead to your being more stressed and panicked. See where I’m going with this? If you feel the urge to panic, it might be time to alter your plan slightly, and this is fine. Maybe even allow yourself to panic for a little while, but don’t allow your panicked state to change your course dramatically. Slow and steady is the key.
- Act like a sane person. This piece of advice is related to the last. I’m a believer in the old quip, “Attitude follows action.” The DQE process is stressful and often overwhelming. If you want to feel like you are maintaining a grip on reality, then act like someone who is maintaining a grip on reality. This could be as simple as continuing to make time for your hobbies or non-school related activities. It could even be as simple as telling people that you’re feeling good about your exams even when you’re not feeling so good about your exams. Don’t deceive yourself, of course, and don’t allow your extracurriculars to hinder your progress, but don’t allow your exams to consume your life to the point where you neglect those things that make you happy and give you some release.
- Talk to your board members. Make sure to schedule some regular meetings with your board members so that you can talk through your material. Meetings are helpful in a few ways. First, meeting with the members of your board will demonstrate to you (and to them) that you really are absorbing the material with which you are spending so much time. Second, meetings with your board will demonstrate to you (and to them) the connections that you still need to make. Perhaps most importantly, meeting with the members of your board will force to synthesize material along the way and vocalize your concerns and observations about what you’ve been reading. You might also enjoy (as I did) receiving some occasional positive feedback concerning the work you’ve done so far.
- Leave a couple of weeks to practice for the written portion. Everyone is different in terms of how they will practice for the written portion of the exams. For me, practicing involved sitting down (with notes, at first) and just writing about the material – no real structure to speak of, just stream of consciousness reflections. The process was slow at first, but I found that as I wrote more the exercise helped me to articulate the material in different ways, and that it helped secure the material in my mind. I have talked with others who did not practice writing before their written exams, but who found it more helpful to simply outline some possible essays. Regardless of what you do, I think it is universally helpful to formulate thesis statements in response to questions that you think you might get on the day of your written exams. For most of us, coming up with a thesis statement is one of the most difficult parts of writing. If you’ve already got a few floating around, you’ll have an easier time.
- Don’t panic. Again? Absolutely. As your exams draw closer, you will find yourself more and more inclined toward panic. Being nervous is one thing, but panic is another. Especially as you get down to the last week or so, you’ll find all sorts of opportunities for panic. What if I don’t get the questions that I think I’ll get? What if one of my board members decides to throw me a curve ball? Here is an example: Two days before my written exams, I convinced myself, in the confines of my research carrel, that I had not adequately prepared for a certain topic. I also convinced myself that on the day of my written exams I was going to be forced to answer a question on this particular topic. My solution was to rush down to the stacks and grab three rather large books (one of them in French) off the shelf in an effort to “cram.” That’s right, I was going to cram two days before my exams started. I checked them out, ran back to my carrel, and started to plow through them. This lasted about ten minutes, and then I chuckled to myself, took the books back to the circulation desk, and continued to focus on my notes from the past three months. As you near the end of the process, and you have been diligent about doing your work, trust in the work that you’ve done. This might sound sentimental, and perhaps it is, but remember that you are absolutely the worst judge of your own performance, especially when you are in the midst of performing.
I hope you find value in at least a few of these observations and tips. The process of preparing for DQEs is both exhilarating and exhausting, and it is characterized by a series of ups and downs. I found the “secret” to DQEs to be in consistency and steadiness from start to finish. Do you work, do it well, don’t panic, and do your best. All in all, the DQE process is enjoyable, but that is only something that you can truly claim in retrospect.