Comprehensive Exam Advice, Part 1: The List!

I began this blog as a way of preserving my sanity during my comprehensive exam preparations, and so far I guess it’s working (depending on how you define “sanity,” “preservation,” and “me”).

Way back in November, I had an oral defense of my first swath written comprehensive exam answers (found here, here, and here). In those posts, I call it a “four-hour, no-notes nightmare exam” and note that I am not particularly proud of my answers, because who writes scintillating prose covering sixty books on a range of topics in four hours? Somebody probably does, but I am not that body (or pony).

Rather than lament, in the interest of Those Who Will Follow (specifically, anybody pursing their PhD in Canadian Studies at Carleton University, or possibly Trent), I would like to offer this commentary on my experience with the comprehensive exam process (with apologies to my loyal non-doctoral student readers*). As a person who enjoys writing and public speaking, I would like to outline how I failed to showcase my skills in either area during the exam process and provide some suggestions for surviving your own exam process, should you proceed down this mishap-strewn path.

For the record, I will note that I fell bass-ackwards into my PhD program. This may not be a Good Thing to confess in the public forum of The Internet, but it is an honest statement. After completing my undergraduate degree, I wanted to move home to be with my partner and get a job. After doing that, I decided I wanted to go back to school. After doing that, I really, really wanted to move home to be with my partner and get a job. After that, I did some more school and I have stuck around The Ivory Tower, trying to balance job stuff with school stuff and the geographical disarray that is my partner’s job and school stuff with the geographical disarray that is my job and school stuff.

I offer this confessional to showcase how I have gone from not knowing  the sequence of high school grades (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior in the United States – one of the disadvantages of being the oldest sibling is that you are a trailblazer, often in the most mundane sense) to knowing (and sometimes fulfilling) the exact requirements for a PhD in Canadian Studies. For a long time, I did not understand the purpose of a graduate degree, and, sometimes, I still have moments where undergraduate me from the past mocks graduate student me in the present (usually in a cuttingly accurate, insightful, and not altogether off-base way).

The thing that turned me off to graduate studies the most was the idea of comprehensive examinations. I did not understand why someone would want to read so much and then complete what seemed to be a perfunctory and somewhat ridiculous exam on such a broad range of material. After going through the process one and a half times so far, I still don’t think I fully understand the comprehensive exam process, and that is where my first piece of advice comes in:

Make the process work for you.

I am on a bit of a time crunch here, as an international student in Canada (hooray for deregulated tuition fees! We don’t vote, so we don’t count!). Unfortunately, this means that I am trying to fit what is potentially an eight- to ten-year program into approximately three years (but shhh, don’t tell my advisor).

This also means that my exam lists may not have been particularly well thought out. I say this with the benefit of hindsight, but going in to the process I was quite enthusiastic, and I still feel like it was a worthwhile exercise (or hazing activity, as some professors prefer to term it). I feel smarter than when I started, or at the very least I know a lot more, and that is bound to come in handy for teaching and writing and all the Good Things I will get to do Later. (For now, I just have to keep doing more exams.)

To compile my list, I looked over the reading lists of a few other students, cut a few items and added a few of my own, solicited recommendations from professors, and off I went (to get all the books from the largest public university library collection in the world).

For the most part, this worked out fine. I had a list, I got the readings, I read them, I wrote responses, I sat the oral defense, and I passed (the first time! And barely!).

However — and each program differs on this point — it would have been more useful to have more content for the exam directly relate to my dissertation (or at the very least find its way into my bibliography) Having read a range of texts, I have learned quite a lot. But it is my job to learn, synthesize, and analyze information, so getting more of the dissertation trifecta out of the way would have been very helpful.

It also would have been more useful, to me, if I had started reading, found my stride, and then revised my reading list. As it was, I wasn’t sure what would be useful for my dissertation when I started out (which is part of the benefit of reading such a broad range of material), and I came across some great citations in the readings I did that would have suited my exam list quite well, but I had already filled the list with Other Things.

So, to make the process work for you, I would suggest (a) adding more dissertation content to your list and (b) generating a shorter list initially and adding interesting things from the reference lists of the books you read.

Adding dissertation content runs the risk of giving you too narrow of a focus, but the entire purpose of an academic career is to research and expand your horizons, so getting The Diss done will enable more (and better!) work in the future. I think the benefits outweigh the costs. This will also free up your time to publish articles, write book reviews, and find other ways of contributing to scholarship that aren’t just reading things that are Very Interesting and then slowing down your entire dissertation process and, thereafter, Life in General. (I am not saying to only put material related to your dissertation on your list. I am saying to weight the list in favor of items that will be useful to your dissertation so you can stop being a graduate student and go Do Something already.)

Adding material from the reference lists of books already on your list runs the risk of narrowing your list to authors who agree with each other, which doesn’t really teach anybody anything. However, the Good Things about going back to the sources of authors you have already read are two-fold. First of all, you may have a different interpretation than either of the authors on a given topic, and their research can inform (or perhaps transform) your analysis of said topic. Secondly, the author citing the original source might have gotten it wrong (or been slightly off-base), and finding out how is key to avoiding that mistake in your own scholarship. So it is a useful notion, and may lead you unexpected places, which is one of the best parts of research (I love surprises!).

Something sorely lacking in my exam lists was any semblance of balance with Indigenous scholarship, feminist work, research written in French, queer theory, and content by underrepresented academics. (I didn’t even have gender parity in my exam committees, although I tried.) Despite the primacy of my concerns about representation in my exam lists, I am putting this item last because I don’t know exactly what to recommend to other people. I know how I want my dissertation bibliography to look (representative!), and I recognize the importance of citing young, underrepresented, or otherwise marginalized scholars. I just don’t know how to integrate it into the process of becoming a scholar (particularly through comps!) in a way that is meaningful (but still fulfills the requirements of rather limited, if seemingly expansive, exam fields). However, to other people constructing exam reading lists, I would definitely suggest that you conduct a meta-analysis of your own list and consider the voices that need more representation. I’m sorry that my lists are not exemplary in this regard. I think that Canadian Studies has a lot of potential to grow as a field (please note: none of that potential is financial). As the field grows, I hope we will collectively develop better guidelines for more representative exam lists.

That wraps up Part 1. Up next, I will be writing about note-taking, studying, written answers, and the oral defense. I’m sure this has been scintillating for everyone.

* I hope that you enjoy reading. If statistics can be trusted (and research shows that they cannot), then I have three loyal readers, and I offer you a tip of the hat.

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2 Responses to Comprehensive Exam Advice, Part 1: The List!

  1. I am in the later stage of preparing my list for my second comp (and actually starting to read some of the hundred-odd items on it :S) at one of the institutions you mention (mysterious, yes?). I want you to know that I (one of the three?) sincerely appreciate your suggestions and insight into the process. Thank you and good luck!

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