Tag Archives: Exams

Surviving Quals, Part II: The Grind

*This is part two of a series on preparing, studying for, and taking qualifying exams in a history PhD program. See Part I here. After taking my exams in December 2011, I decided to collect my thoughts on the process. The following advice is based on my own experience of taking Stanford’s qualifying oral exams for United States history. The format was a two-hour oral exam, with four faculty members testing four different fields: three standard American history fields (Colonial, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century) and one specialty field (in my case, Spatial and Digital History). Bear in mind that other programs have different purposes, formats, and requirements.*

The Grind

“Preparing for quals is a full-time job, but there is no reason to put in overtime.” This was one of the best pieces of advice I received when I was asking fellow graduate students about the process. More so than perhaps any other facet of graduate school, studying for quals should be managed like a job. This is for two reasons: to keep pace and to keep sane.

Keep Pace

Quals can be thought of as a simple math problem with two main variables. One variable is the total number of books you need to read. The other is how much time you have to read them. If you have an exam date already set, work backwards to figure out how many books you need to read each week. If you have more control over scheduling the date of the exam, work forwards. Using a baseline of around 3-4 hours for each book, determine how many total hours you will need to read them. In either case, it’s crucial to factor in additional time for things like basic chronology, reviewing material, and meetings with professors (roughly 30-40 hours per field, in my case). Schedule in other commitments, weekends, vacations, or time off depending on your schedule. Finally, add in an additional 2-3 week buffer before the exam. This gives you crucial time to synthesize all of the material and, worst case scenario, a surplus buffer of time to dip into if you get behind on your reading schedule. Add it all up and you’ll get a rough sense for what your pace needs to be. In my case, I ended up having to read roughly 8-9 books a week, with around eight hours of additional preparation each week.

Once you’ve figured out what your pace is, you need to keep track of your progress. I ended up creating a spreadsheet with all of my books and estimates for how much time I’d need on each book (usually 3-4 hours for a normal monograph, several more hours for a synthetic tome like Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought). This gave me a running tally of my progress and how much still remained – unsurprisingly, this was a daunting list in the beginning. But checking off books became a daily ritual that lent an all-important sense of moving forward. Having a schedule also gives you added structure for an experience that can otherwise be dangerously unaccountable. There are days when you will be tired, distracted, or just sick and tired of turning pages. These are the days when lack of daily accountability becomes a problem. Putting off a book one morning might seem trivial at the time, but it adds up quickly. Having a schedule forces you to keep working. It might not be pretty, you might not retain as much from that particular book, but knowing that you have to get through it to reach your “quota” for the week allows you to keep grinding.

Keep Sane 

Treating quals-studying like a job that you clock into and out of also helps to keep your sanity. Just reading and reading for hours every day is an isolating and tiring experience in a way that taking classes, teaching, or even research is not. It’s easy to get lost in the world of endless books, and while this can be rewarding in its own peculiar way it’s also not sustainable. Set a daily reading schedule and try to stick with it. By working consistently at the same times each day it will be much easier for you to “leave” your job. When you’re done for the day, actually be done for the day. I found studying for quals to be draining in a very different way from other aspects of graduate school. Whereas I have no problem answering emails from students at night or thinking about research while I cook dinner, it was much more exhausting to think about the two books I had read that day for quals. If possible, try to take at least one day off a week where you don’t touch a book. And all of the other rules about work/life balance apply: have a social life, exercise, think and talk about things other than history. Clock in, clock out.

Learn How to Not Read

Arguably the most important skill in studying for quals is learning how to not read. When you have to read two books a day, you don’t actually read them. You gut them. Graduate school has likely forced you to begin to do this already, but it will soon become a standard rather than an exception. For inspiration, read Larry Cebula’s “How to Read a Book in One Hour.” Although you will be spending more time on each book, the same general principles apply. Below was my own system for reading a book for quals.

1. Use a template. After much debate I ended up using Evernote as my note-taking medium. I created a basic template that I would use to create a new note for each book. This not only saves time but allows you to remember information more systematically. Finally, taking notes digitally also allows for a more robust catalog and search functionality, especially via tagging systems. By tagging summaries of books with their different subjects, I could quickly pull up, say, all the books on my 19th-century reading list having to do with slavery.

*Download my empty template in Evernote format or as an HTML file, or see an example of a completed note.*

Screenshot of note-taking in Evernote, with Tags and Searches highlighted

2. Use book reviews. Read 2-3 reviews of the book and take notes on them. If possible, try to find a mix of shorter (1-2 page) synopses and lengthier (5-10 page) reviews. You will quickly learn which journals are best for your particular field – in US History, for instance, Reviews in American History offers much more detailed reviews that oftentimes place the books within a broader historiographic context. I would usually pair one of these longer reviews with two shorter ones. By reading several different reviews you can usually glean what the “consensus” is on the book’s major themes and contributions and be on the look-out for these while reading.

3. Be an active reader. I’m aware people have different styles. But for quals, I found the best way to take notes was to sit at a desk with my computer and take notes on every chapter as I went. Whereas in classes I had often read books lying on a couch and used marginalia and underlining, I’ve since soured on this approach. Actively taking notes while you read is less enjoyable, but forces you to synthesize as you go. It’s easy to underline an important sentence without actually understanding it. Paraphrasing forces you to actually get what you read. As for content, start with a careful, word-by-word reading of the introduction and take detailed notes. Then move much more quickly through the book’s chapters, skimming and trying to pull out what’s most important.

Quals tend to privilege arguments over thematic content: few people are going to ask for the specific evidence an author used to support their argument in a particular chapter. However, jotting a sentence down that describes the general setting, actors, and subject of the chapter, separate from its argumentative thrust, allows you to recall it better in the future. It’s important to take notes on both arguments and content. Finally, move fast. Flip past pages that are simply listing additional evidence for an argument. Although these are often the most enjoyable parts of history books they are, unfortunately, tangential to why you’re reading the book. Unless the book was particularly long or particularly important, I tried to cap the reading part of the note-taking process at around three hours.

4. Synthesize. This is crucial. After reading every book I forced myself to take 20-30 minutes and write a careful two-three paragraph summary of the book. This is much harder than simply taking notes because it forces you to distill a book into its barest bones. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s difficult to write a summary of a book you don’t understand or remember, so doing this also makes sure you actually processed what the author was trying to do (or force you to at least take a stab at it). As a supplement to this, as I was reading the book I would write major themes or concepts in a bullet list. Once I got to the end, I would go back and decide which of these were actually major themes or concepts and which ended up being auxiliary. The important themes gave me a basic skeleton from which I could then write a more elaborate summary. These write-ups proved invaluable. When you’re reading two books a day, even a book you read two weeks ago can dissolve into a distant memory. These summaries give you a fast and efficient means of recalling what the book was about. Finally, go back and revise them as you read other books. Oftentimes you don’t understand the broader significance of an author’s argument until you’re able to place it in a larger historiographic context.

See an example of a full note here. Also see my full listing of book summaries for my US history fields.*

5. Talk it out. This is probably the hardest step, especially in the beginning of the process. But it’s central to studying for quals. There is something about having to verbally articulate an answer that forces you to understand it in a way that simply writing answers or notes does not. Additionally, one of the most challenging parts of quals is to move beyond simply being able to regurgitate a specific author’s argument and move towards higher-level synthesis. It’s one thing to be able to answer: “What is Bernard Bailyn’s interpretation of the American Revolution?” or even “What are three different interpretations of the American Revolution?” It’s much harder to answer, “Was the American Revolution actually revolutionary?” Answering these higher-level questions out loud is hard, but it is a skill at which you can and will get better. Once again, rely on your fellow graduate students, particularly ones who have already taken their exams. Have them ask you practice questions, pretend you are in an actual exam, and give formal answers (rather than the easier route of making it conversational, as in “Well, I’d probably say something about…”). Practice your own answers, but also ask other students for clarifications about topics or books you don’t understand. Do this as early as possible and keep doing it throughout the process. I found it the most useful way to prepare for the exam itself.

6. Go back to the basics. My grasp of the more factual side of American history was surprisingly weak going into the process. It’s easy to spend all of your time learning about historiography and interpretations, but you need a factual framework to build off. Particularly important episodes demand a solid grounding in chronology – for example, the lead-up to the American Revolution or the Civil War. Memorize things like changing geography, presidential administrations, dynastic reigns, economic depressions, major legal cases, etc. Some books, like those in the Oxford Series in American History, offer more nuts-and-bolts information than others. In this case, be aware of that and take more time to read them in more detail, writing separate notes related to basic chronology or events in addition to your notes on the more interpretive side of the book.

Surviving Quals, Part I: Laying the Groundwork

*This is part one of a series on preparing, studying for, and taking qualifying exams in a history PhD program. After taking my exams in December 2011, I decided to collect my thoughts on the process. The following advice is based on my own experience in taking Stanford’s qualifying oral exams for United States history. The format was a two-hour oral exam, with four faculty members testing four different fields: three standard American history fields (Colonial, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century) and one specialty field (in my case, Spatial and Digital History). Bear in mind that other programs have different purposes, formats, and requirements.*

Laying the Groundwork (Or, Helping Your Future Self)

From a big-picture standpoint, studying for qualifying exams begins as soon as you start your graduate program. I mean this largely in a meta-sense: you should not be constantly thinking about your quals as a first-semester graduate student, but the classes you are taking, the papers you are writing, the courses you are TAing, are all building your knowledge base. On a more logistical standpoint, you should figure out the details of exams early on: what are the requirements, what the process is generally like, what the deadlines and dates are, who serves on your committee, etc. Which brings me to my first recurring theme:

Theme #1: Ask for Help

Talk to students who have already gone through or are currently going through the process. Department guidelines and handbooks are helpful, but actual students can usually tell you exactly what will happen and what you’ll need to do. Is there a department policy that is particularly onerous? Are credit requirements set in stone, or are they more flexible? Talking to students will give you a better sense for what all you need to do in a way that is often more directly relevant than talking to professors or administrators.

In the classroom, it’s crucial that you take systematic notes. This might seem straightforward. It’s not. There will be many, many weeks where you are swamped by papers, reading, or grading. These are the weeks when it’s much easier to underline and scribble just enough notes in the margin of a book to get through the day’s discussion rather than systematically writing it down. Don’t. Two years later these marginalia that made sense at the time are often barely helpful. Similarly, I’ve found that graduate seminars encourage a different kind of analysis than qualifying exams. In courses you usually talk about a book within a few days of reading it, dissect the book in a discussion setting (often with a graduate student enthusiasm for viciously ripping it apart), and then immediately setting it aside to move on to the following week’s reading. Studying for exams is much more about synthesizing and retaining massive amounts of information and big ideas. Which brings me to my second recurring theme:

Theme #2: Get Organized

Qualifying exams are often as much about persistence and organization as they are about intellectual firepower. Each person has different styles of note-taking, but for studying purposes active synthesis is absolutely crucial. To this end, I would taking 15 minutes after you’ve read and discussed a book to write up a short, 2-3 paragraph summary. I cannot over-emphasize how helpful these summaries will be – unless you are blessed with an extraordinary memory, the particulars of a book will often fade in a matter of weeks or months. Keeping the summary short forces you to consider what the major contributions and points of the book are. Take notes in class discussions about relevant context or historiography, and keep these notes alongside your summary. Your future self will thank you immeasurably.

The process of composing your reading lists will vary from program to program and professor to professor. My experience consisted of me coming up with a draft reading list for each field, submitting it to my committee member for review, and then incorporating their revisions. Regardless of the specifics, always refer to Theme #1: Ask for Help. Nobody sits down and comes up with a list from scratch. Go through as many reading lists from older graduate students as you can and you will start to get a sense for which books are part of the “canon” (for instance, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black was on every single list I consulted). For some reference, here were my reading lists for Colonial, Nineteenth-Century, and Twentieth-Century U.S. History.

An important note on this stage of the process: this is the fun part. If you’re in a history graduate program for the right reasons, you will be giddy thinking about all these cool books you want to read. This is wonderful, but don’t get carried away. It is easy to put every book you’ve ever wanted to read on the list. Don’t. Adding an extra book here and there seems harmless, but they add up quickly. And when you realize your exam is a month away and you’re fourteen books behind schedule you’ll be kicking yourself for adding in so many extra readings. This ties into my third theme:

Theme #3: Be Efficient 

To winnow it down, ask older graduate students about which are most valuable. Which books are particularly versatile or useful? Are there books they absolutely loved or hated? A book like Robert Self’s American Babylon allows you to answer a wide range of topics related to post-World War II America: metropolitan development, suburbanization, the rise of conservatism, race and identity politics, spatial history, and civil rights. Do you have multiple books covering the same topic? If so, which one(s) should you jettison? For instance, I included both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint. Both are fantastic books, but in retrospect there was too much overlap between them. For the purpose of quals I wished I had substituted another book on colonial slavery for the seven-hundred page Slave Counterpoint that offered a much more different approach. Whenever you engage in a give-and-take with your committee member for a particular list, be firm. If you really want to include a particular book or think that the list is getting too long, lobby as strongly as you can to change it. Some professors will give you more leeway than others, but regardless do as much as you can to shape the list into what you want it to be. Which is all a part of my fourth theme:

Theme #4: Own It

Graduate students are endlessly warned about choosing a dissertation topic that they truly love. The same advice should be applied to reading for quals. Take the time to really think about what you want to get out of the entire experience. Figure out what the purpose is supposed to be. Stanford’s process is geared much more broadly towards preparing its graduate students to teach American history. Other programs aim to give you a mastery of the literature related more narrowly to your research agenda. Whatever the purpose, think long and hard about what specifically you want to emerge with. This can be as broad as “designing a survey course on colonial America” or as narrow as “finally understanding the Progressive Era.” Quals are an often-onerous academic hoop for you to jump through, so you might as well try to make it as valuable and enjoyable a hoop as you can.