5.06.2008

Random Thoughts on Qualifying (Comprehensive) Exams

So, for those of you not in grad school, quals (aka comps) are the stage in a PhD program between taking classes and working on your dissertation. It's like the thesis of the master's-degree-within-your-PhD (in addition to the exams, you often do a working paper and/or dissertation prospectus). I've been working on it for I guess a year or so: putting together my committee, drafting and revising reading lists, reading, annotating, and studying, then writing essay answers to 4 questions and having a 2-hour oral examination with my committee. Anyway, now it's done and here's a few thoughts on the process, looking back...

- The process is about the canon, but it's also about you. My biggest surprise was how much it was reflective, and served to help me develop a much stronger sense of myself, my interests, and my methods as a researcher.
- The oral defense is not just about the lit review. I spent too much time studying every book like flashcards so I could speak to everything on my list. I didn't prepare enough for the broader philosophical questions I was asked about my own beliefs and positions as a scholar. Think about discipline, politics, intervention, epistemology, ontology.
- The oral defense CAN BE a lit review. All it takes is one question on something you aren't prepared for to trip you up. Like the first question asked by the first of my committee member to speak, about a reference I'd put in an answer as a general supporting point. I glossed it over in the essay and didn't review it before orals (It was from a book I'd read a little over a year ago.) I handled it OK, but it was funny that, of all the references (from my lists and outside my lists) that I had reviewed and re-read, he asked me about one of the few that I hadn't.
- Stress: Daily megadoses of all B vitamins plus 500 mg or so of magnesium daily. A good multiple on top won't hurt.
- Anxiety: I turned my oral defense into Top Chef by cooking rather elaborate snacks. (I don't know if other schools do this, at Annenberg you're expected to provide light refreshments for the committee.) It was kind of ridiculous, but cooking the morning of the defense and serving at the beginning of it gave me something to do with my nervous energy, like bartending at a party.
- Stress: Make time to work out, walk, etc. Clear your head.
- I tried to cram too much into my lists. It resulted in too many cursory rather than in-depth reads. It was helpful in that I feel really secure on those areas, now, and have a lot of material for my diss, but I should've heeded my advisor's advice and cut the lists more, saved some of those books for later, especially since now I'll be going back and reading most of them in their entirety.
- I bought an Iris Scanner pen for notetaking. Could never get the damn thing to work, waste of money.
- I often flatbed-scanned introductions and summaries from books, then used optical character recognition to convert to text to put into Endnote, my references database. While this wasn't as good for memorization, it saved my hands and wrists a lot of keyboard stress, and saved time.
- My History of Communication Technologies list and Science & Technology Studies list had too much overlap. I should've combined them into an Approaches to the Study of Communication Technology, with subsets on things like Philosophies of Technology, Cultural Studies of Tech, etc.
- Time spent early in the process discussing your lists with advisors is never wasted.
- I wish I'd had a more systematic approach to triage: figuring out which books were higher and lower relevance/priority, so I could've devoted more and less time to them, respectively. I did this roughly and ad hoc, but there were several books I never cited or discussed -- I wish I could've anticipated that more beforehand.
- I love Endnote. Being able to search for every reference on, for example, genomics, was a huge help.
- I hate Microsoft Word. My version has become really buggy and unstable, which was dangerous while writing. I need to find a better word processing app to work with Endnote.
- Writing the initial drafts took less time than expected. Finalizing them and doing citations (even with Endnote) took much longer than expected.
- Burnout: I had 10 days to write. I used all of them, but was exhausted. I can see the appeal of doing it in 7, even the appeal of the much faster closed-book process where you just go to school and write an answer in 3 hours each day for 4 days.
- I started reading and notetaking last summer, but not in earnest until January. By late March I was pretty burned out on the process.
- I did nothing else this semester, except a research assistantship. No TAing, no classes. I'm glad.
- Backup constantly!
- You can do a lot online: USC had electronic copies of a few books online, I also used Amazon, Google Books, and Questia to do (sometimes limited) keyword searches when I couldn't find what I was looking for.
- I ended up buying about 75% of my books, almost all used. Of the ones I checked out from the library, about half I would consider buying now. Expensive. Wish I had a better strategy for reducing costs.
- Well known and canonical books tend to have outlines and summaries posted online already, as well as reviews. I found these often quite useful.
- The oral defense is a weird mix of conversation and interrogation. I'm sure everyone's experiences are different, but I found it a bit dizzying to be jumping back and forth between defensive and conversational postures so much.

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