Comprehensive Exams: Reflecting on my Experience

On September 9, I officially passed my comprehensive exams. In terms of degree requirements, this means I am ABD: All but Dissertation. Mind you, I still have a ways to go before completing the degree because I still have to research and write the dissertation, but finishing the exams is a major milestone as it’s one of the last things you do before being cut loose to research and write. Today then, I’d like to reflect on the exams and the process I took to prepare for them.

For graduate students: I’ve included my lists as downloadable PDFs at the end of this post, so if you’re putting together your own reading lists and seeking inspiration, please feel free to download and consult them.

How I felt after finishing my written exams.

In the American Studies Program at William & Mary, the exam consists of both a written and oral portion. The written section is taken at home over four days, one day for each list. On the morning of each day, you receive a set of questions for a specific reading list. You then select two questions to answer from that list and spend the next six hours writing two essays. This means you write a total of eight different essays over four days, with the length depending on your typing speed and loquacity (I wrote about 88 pages total). Most of the questions lend themselves to a standard essay format, but there are usually a few creative options as well, such as drafting a proposal for an exhibition or undergraduate course. Regardless of the format, you’ll answer the question by citing appropriate readings from your respective lists.

The oral section is considerably shorter. Once you hand in the exams, your committee reads the essays. About a week later, you’ll come together for an hour or so to discuss the essays in more detail. I’ve heard of some programs having pretty intense orals, but my experience at W&M was more laid-back. It’s less an intellectual grilling than an opportunity to expand on your arguments or discuss points that you wanted to address but didn’t have time to delve into due to time constraints. Historically this part is done in person, but given the circumstances of COVID-19, we did it over Zoom.

I’ve heard nightmare stories about exams, but mine went about as smoothly as one can hope. I had little difficulty answering the actual questions or thinking of appropriate readings to reference, and I was able to articulate myself during the oral part. My committee was also positive and supportive of my work and ideas, which made the process much easier. The hardest part was maintaining the physical and mental stamina to complete the essays, as sitting and typing for hours on end is pretty draining. For each day of writing, I found that setting aside one of my allotted hours to outline each of my two responses really helped. Writing the introductions and conclusions for each essay first also made things easier, as it meant that regardless of how much I wrote, I had an articulate beginning and end to each piece.

What else enabled me to pull this off?

A significant part of my success stems from privilege, which made the whole process easier for me to complete. As a white, able-bodied, childfree, cisgender woman with a decent economic standing, I could focus on reading without worrying (relatively speaking, given the state of everything) about my personal safety, my bills, the well-being of any children, and so forth. Since Brandon does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, moreover, I didn’t have to spend all of my downtime on domestic labor, which meant that I could recharge from my reading through exercise, pursuing different hobbies, or resting (again, relatively speaking, all things considered). All of this meant that I entered the exams feeling adequately rested and prepared.

Previous experience also influenced my results. I’ve had to discuss my academic work before at committees, whether for my undergraduate thesis (not necessary to graduate but I was an overachiever) or the qualifying paper for my M.A., so the idea of talking about my work with faculty doesn’t intimidate me as much as it could. My work experience at museums has also demonstrated that I am capable of doing a lot of different things, whether supervising the day-to-day logistics of a curatorial department or conceptualizing and completing a large exhibition, so I felt confident that I could handle this too. In other words, the more you do, the more comfortable you feel with doing other things.

The most significant contributing factor to my ability to complete the exams though, was the preparation itself. I spent eight months getting ready, with the last month alone focused on reviewing, so I had a good amount of time. I’ve always been pretty good about scheduling my work time and staying on task, so setting up a regular reading schedule and sticking to it was also doable. To keep myself from burning out, I worked only during the week, taking the weekends off to relax and spend time with Brandon. My previous coursework had also helped my refine my note-taking skills. For each book or article, my notes included subsections discussing argument, methods, evidence, and relations to other readings, an approach I picked up in my Mobilities seminar last year. In addition to these notes, I wrote flashcards that I later used for daily reviewing. Readers of this blog will also remember that I wrote posts about each of my reading lists and the sublists within them, which let me reflect on the readings both individually and as a group.

The month I spent reviewing was especially helpful. I reread the notes I took on each text, which enabled me to get reacquainted with general arguments as well as remember key details or case studies. I also reviewed my flashcards regularly, which meant that for the last month, I reviewed each text at least once a day, five days a week. I also created mindmaps identifying major theoretical or topical frameworks connecting readings not only within individual lists, but across the four lists as well, encouraging me to think through a more interdisciplinary lens. This meant that when I was writing my essays, I could not only connect them to their specific reading list, but could also discuss texts from other lists, or even previous courses, which demonstrated that I was not thinking about these readings in isolation.

Perhaps most significantly, I knew what to expect from the various members on my committee. Throughout the reading process, I met with each faculty member at least three times, with each meeting discussing a different group of readings. During these meetings, we would brainstorm potential questions in addition to discussing the texts, which gave me a sense of the angles each faculty member would likely take. Some sent me practice questions to get me thinking about how to group readings, and for my infrastructure exam, I actually wrote my own questions, a process that really encouraged me to think about the major themes and ideas of that list. In short, by the time I took the exam, I was confident that I could answer the questions because I knew what to expect and had plenty of time to get comfortable with the readings.

So what did I get from this process, aside from reading about a lot of cool different subjects? Basically the exams are there to help you get acquainted with the major questions and debates of your fields of interest. You won’t come out knowing everything, of course, but you’ll have a better sense of the context for your academic work. Since all research builds off of other scholarship, it’s important to have this contextualization. Beyond the broad strokes of the field, you’ll also a better sense of how different scholars put their arguments together, what evidence they use and how they use it, and so forth. You’ll also start noticing which scholars you tend to admire or not, and which ones you’d like to reference or emulate moving forward. Basically, the exam preparation helps you to better understand your place in the field, and what kind of intervention you’d like to make. Of course, this process is ongoing, but it’s an important beginning.

At least, that’s what I’ve gotten from it. I can’t speak for everyone who has undergone this process, but for me, it was worthwhile. After spending years working on exhibitions, focusing on day-to-day museum tasks, or more recently completing required coursework, it was a refreshing change to just read and think about scholarship that speaks to me and my specific research interests. I was definitely ready to be finished once I took the exams, but overall I’m glad I did it. Now on to the next phase, writing the dissertation prospectus!

Reading list downloads for anyone interested:

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