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.

7 thoughts on “Surviving Quals, Part II: The Grind

  1. Your experience and tips give me confidence that, yes, you really can read effectively enough to pass Qualifying Exams AND efficiently enough to actually finish Quals. prep. in a decent amount of time. Thanks! I needed that!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this valuable tips. I am at the beginning of preparing for my exams and your advice is very useful. I wish I found this post earlier. Thank you again!

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