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.

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