In the weeks leading up to prelims, I was studying, reading, note-card-making, and Google-Sheet-organizing. But, I was also searching “How to pass prelims” more than a smart person would. Unless the websites that contain the magical answers have terrible SEO, the Internet doesn’t hold all the answers.
This is one step toward remedying that.
Each university, each program, each department administers the tests you must pass to earn a Ph.D. differently. In my program, each of the five people on your committee asks you one question of their choice, sets the time frame, length expectations, and topic area. That person also grades it pass or fail. Students must take all five exams within a 10-day time period. In preparation for the exams, students set reading list in cooperation with the committee member. In some cases, faculty expect you to only read what’s on the list. In other cases, the list serves as a guide but are expected to know the entire body of literature.
I survived – barely. And, so will you. But, to help you survive with minimal misery, you can learn from others. I also solicited comments from other people in my department who recently took the exams. Three people were kind enough to contribute: Catasha Davis, Mallory Perryman, and David Coppini.
Catasha began studying at the start of the semester term and complete her prelims (all 8-hour, open-book format) in mid-July. Her research focuses on health communication with a particular focus on minorities and intersectional identities. She uses mixed methods, though her methods question came from quantitative studies.
Mallory began studying at the start of the summer term and completed her prelims (all 8-hour, open book format) in mid-July. Her research focuses on presumed influence and she uses quantitative methods.
David took his exams during the summer after months of studying. His research focuses on public opinion and public participation in democracy.
How did you manage gathering your lists?
Megan: I met with each of my committee members in person and suggested a topic area that would combine their specialty with my intended dissertation topic. When scheduling this meeting, I asked committee members how they wanted me to prepare. Most of them said to come with a list ready. I put these lists on Google Docs and shared them with the committee member. After our in-person talk, the lists were revised and I started reading.
Catasha: I met with my committee members, individually, at least once. I set a date with each committee member about when I wanted to have the reading list finalized. I emailed the list to each member. They all sent back comments at least once, some even sent comments backs two and three times.
Mallory: Putting your lists together and meeting with your committee members takes time. I had an initial meeting with each committee member to discuss the area they would ask me about – then I created a list based on that conversation. I divided the readings on each list into categories. For example, one of my prelims covered media contributions to social perceptions, so my categories were schema and social cognition, framing, priming, agenda setting and cultivation. For each topic, I included seminal pieces, a couple of empirical studies, applicable chapters from books like Media Effects (Bryant & Oliver), and meta-analyses, when available. Do the list-building task during the semester, so when it comes time to start studying, you can dive right your daunting – but complete – lists. My committee members appreciated my lists being broken down into categories, and they each added only a few items.
David: For me, this was BY FAR the most stressful aspect of preliminary exams and it took me a long time to finish my lists. If you’re not the most organized person in the world, do start this aspect much in advance because otherwise it will drive you insane. At least that was my experience.
How did you study? Keep notes? Organize your information?
Megan: As I read each article, I filled out a single note card with the main point. I tried to remember that in the time I had I wouldn’t be writing extensively about a single article. Then, when I was done with a list, I typed my notes into a Google Sheet with the in-text citation and the full citation. Typing that way at the end helped me study even more. For books, I put sticky notes with my thoughts at relevant passages. I also typed up those notes.
Catasha: I studied for 6 weeks. I made outlines. I printed all the articles and I organized my material into binders by subject area.
Mallory: Best advice: Be organized. Use a system that works for you, but do use a system – lest you plow your way through your lists only to find that five weeks have gone by and you have no idea what you just read (and then you start over, when research has shown that re-reading does little to aid in learning).
- Storing your readings: I kept all my work organized in Mendeley.
- Getting access to everything on your list: The library is your friend. I used the interlibrary loan or Uborrow system to request materials unavailable in our library. Sometimes I needed articles or book chapter that weren’t easy to find, so I’d put in a request with the library and they would find it, scan it, and email it to me.
- Taking notes: I created a Word document for each prelim and had section headers for the various subtopics I identified while reading. For example, my prelim on message processing had sections like affect, cognition, affect + cognition, affect + behavior, etc. Instead of taking notes on each of my readings separately, I would log my thoughts or observations in the appropriate category in my notes. It helped me see how things fit together, and I was able to add new pieces to the puzzle as a I read through the list, rather than trying to put that puzzle together at the end.
- Using time wisely: I didn’t give every reading an equal amount of attention either – part of the process is identifying what is important and what is just sucking up your precious time and energy. I call it “thoughtful skimming.” I gave myself five days for each list. Once the time was up, I moved on.
David: I am not a note person at all. However, I had notes about the main books and articles for each question. I also relied on memory a lot and went through some articles during all the exams. It took me about 6 weeks to go through my lists. During the study preparation, I read, read and read, rather than focusing on note taking. I read several articles outside of the lists. I also tried to think about the general themes associated for each question.
What did you do in the final weeks?
Megan: For me the final weeks of studying were the only weeks that I devoted entirely to prelims. I checked back in with my committee members as the spring semester wrapped up and got a few hints about what the question might be (or so I thought). Based on that, I returned to my notes and put together a few sentences or outline of how different authors had defined key concepts, key conflicts in the literature, and obvious gaps in the literature related to my dissertation topic.
Catasha: It was stressful, but I tried to study for about 6 hours a day. I also set daily goals about what material I wanted to read each day. I also set a schedule for each reading list. I gave myself 7 days for shorter list and about 10 days for longer list. (There was some overlap in my list so it worked out). With my schedule, I had a extra week before beginning prelims so I had the opportunity to go over material again. Additionally, in order to relieve some stress, I decided that I would do some studying while taking prelims. I scheduled my prelims over two weeks (taking a longer break before the second week). I took three prelims the first week and two exams the second week. I studied/reviewed for the prelims during the second week over the weekend.
David: I tried to re-look at the most important readings for each question and focused on my notes and thoughts about them. I also tried not to stress to much about it. I went out with my friends and tried to relax. The psychological aspect is probably the most important part of preliminary exams in my opinion, try to relax as much as possible and to somewhat enjoy the learning process if you can.
How did you negotiate terms with committee members?
Megan: This was actually the easiest part for me. Several committee members asked me what I wanted. Others use the same format each time, so there wasn’t room for negotiation. My goal was mainly to communicate to committee members specifically where I was headed with my dissertation so they could do their best to make the questions something that might be helpful for me to study and think about.
Catasha: The first thing I did was read the graduate handbook. I received lots of different information, so I decided to read the handbook in order to know, for sure, the prelim requirements. Second, I had a discussion with my adviser and the graduate adviser. Between those conversations, I had a good understanding about the deadlines and the types of test I wanted to take and each committee member’s question area. I set up meetings with every committee member. I asked them about the test type, topic area and list deadline. My committee members were pretty open to doing the things I wanted. They all agreed to 8 hour open book test. They all agreed to a deadline to have the prelim list finalized.
Mallory: I believe everyone gets to decide which dates they take their prelims and the order in which they take them. I was not planning on studying any more after I started – I felt as prepared as I was going to get- so I wanted to get them over with in the shortest amount of time possible without running myself into the ground. I took five exams (all 8-hour tests) over eight days. My days off were stressful as I felt I was just biding my time until the next exam, so I’m glad I got it over with, while still giving myself a few days off to rest my brain. I saved an exam I was very comfortable with for my final day and I’m glad I did.
What was the actual experience like?
Megan: So, when I got handed the first question on the first morning, it asked me to address four specific articles. Two of those had not been on my reading list. I decided to take a beat and just spend the first 45 minutes of the exam period just reading those articles. I thought getting fewer words on the page would be better than getting wrong words on the page. That day was pretty awful. But, that meant everything was better after that. The meal prep, scheduled bathroom breaks, and occasional stretch were key to making my life the most efficient it could be. Also, my friends checked in on me in the afternoon with caffeine and even gave me a ride home when I couldn’t remember which way I lived. Basically, it’s just as exhausting as you might expect. Doing things ahead of time to make it less awful are key.
Catasha: It sucked! It was really stressful. I was very nervous before each test and it was hard to get sleep the night before a test. I went through a variety of emotions. I would say that the thing that help was I decided that i would eat healthy and I tried to get some exercise in, but I was intellectually exhausted after each test. I took the test at the same time as other grad students, which was helpful. Support from others is really important.
David: I went in very relaxed and confident about my first question. I wrote a lot during the first 4 hours, even too much and I was exhausted but then I just powered through and ate a lot (I ate A LOT of sugary stuff, it works for me, just find the food that helps you and motivates you.). The process itself is really tiring and exhausting, but it was also great to be able to write a decent question and every time I finished a question I felt I had given all I had.
How did you manage your time during the exams?
Megan: Mostly, I got the question and wrote succinct one-sentence answers to each part right away. Those sentences served as the topic sentences for the main sections. Then I went back and filled out my thoughts. I wrote the introductions as the last section. As I did that, mentally labeled each part of the question and tried to match it with the section of the paper that answered it. I tried to reserve the final hour for editing and organizing. But, honestly, that didn’t happen. In my final exam, I intended to produce a sample survey instrument and even mentioned it in the paper. I flat out ran right up to the deadline with that exam, though, and never got to put the instrument questions in the answer. That’s an example of bad time management.
Also, I took a 72-hour exam, which was a much different experience than the eight-hours. The first day I worked from 10 to midnight. I wish I wouldn’t have. I would advise others to cut that first day off a bit sooner. Because by the third day I was staring blankly. However, I got the bulk of my writing done in the first 48 hours. The third day was mostly editing and adding in citations. I even turned in the exam in more than 12 hours early.
Catasha: Another grad student told me that when you get the question, you should take the first 30 mins to outline the question, which was really great advice. During first 30 minutes I made sure I understood all parts of the questions and outlined the question. I placed sub-heading in my documents to help organize my writing. During every test I included an introduction where I explained what I was going to argue.
David: I just went right into the question and tried to write a decent introduction. After, I did do an outline for three of the questions, while I sort of wrote first and then organized for other two. For me it really depended on the question.
How did you deal with the unexpected question?
Megan: I had two questions I didn’t see coming – the first was the two readings that hadn’t been on my list. The second was just a topic area that I had read very, very little about. But, after I took a deep breath, I realized that while I knew next to nothing about the historical development of a concept, I’ve been in school long enough to know the techniques and methods of analyzing any social science concept. Yep, I read new articles during my eight hours, which is something I had been told was a no-no because it’s so inefficient. In that experience, I proved to myself that I’ve developed enough tools and broad knowledge to put together a logical answer even on topic areas where I’m not an expert.
Catasha: Honestly, when you get a question you just need to take a deep breath. Even when the question was unexpected, I knew that I could find the answer. You have to put your nerves aside and focus on putting together the things you know and determining where you might find the answer.
David: One question was very unexpected but doable. I did go through some extra readings during the eight hours but it was not that big of a deal. Another question caught me a little off guard because it included an area of research that was not an important part of my reading list. I just wrote what I remembered from that area of research and, in the last 2 hours or so, I made some additional research.
What technology issues helped/hindered you?
Megan: I was digital everything. My notes were digital. I didn’t print my articles. I got all books that were available digitally instead of print. I’m a person who will remember the concept or a specific line from a reading but not have the faintest idea which reading that was from. I envy people like my officemate who can recall citations without effort. So search-ability is key for me to locate the things I know.
Catasha: Several grad students told me to use google doc to write my prelims. Google docs was great because I didn’t have to worry about my computer crashing and losing my work.
What was most surprising?
Megan: I was most surprised how much my friends were willing to support me – and how vital that was to me making it through those two weeks. I like to think of myself as an independent gal, but I was super appreciative of rides home, people willing to take walks outdoors with me when I needed fresh air in the evenings, and surprise pop-ins.
Catasha: I was most surprised by how exhausted I was after each prelim.
Advice? What would you do differently?
Megan: I would definitely do more thinking about how to answer questions in advance. Writing answers in advance is cheating, but knowing how you would answer the expected question isn’t. I was pretty silly for not designing a study in my head for my methods questions. Of course my methods question was going to ask me to design a study. I also wish I would have stopped writing earlier during the eight hours exams and spent more time editing. One of my committee members pointed out afterwards that having poor sentence structure or grammar/mechanics makes me look just as unintelligent as not having the right answer.
Catasha: Educate yourself about the process of taking prelims. Talk to the graduate adviser as well as your program advisor. Read the grad handbook. Make a plan and stick to the plan. If you make plans to take prelims stick to the schedule. Do your best not to reschedule your prelims. Plan something fun right after prelims so that you have something to look forward to!
Mallory: First, I’d say that you absolutely can complete prelims in the time between the end of the spring semester and the mid-summer deadline. I read and took notes for five weeks, reviewed for two weeks, and then took my exams. I’m not a genius, I just got my crap together and accepted that the first eight weeks of my summer were going to suck. Don’t sell yourself short: You can do it.
Second, mastering self-discipline was more difficult than mastering the material. The process is exhausting, mentally, emotionally – and honestly, sitting around for that many hours every day ends up being physically taxing. I did my best to eat well, stay on a strict sleep schedule, and get out and move as much as I could, but it’s still a difficult process. It consumed two months of my life.
But it was only two months. As hard as it was, the finish line was never that far out of sight. I kept close to friends going through the prelim process alongside me, and it was helpful, once we’d gotten through the readings, to discuss our ideas and talk through stuff we didn’t understand.
I’m not sure I’d call the process rewarding – that’s painting it a shade too rosy – but in the end, I did feel like I had earned something. The exams are humbling in that I saw the massive scope of knowledge that exists in my chosen field, but empowering in that I now know I have something to contribute.
Third, do what you need to do to get through exams. Take others’ advice and adapt it to what works for you. Don’t compare yourself to others: Who cares if your reading list is shorter – or you take more days to take your prelims – or your prelim answer is only 10 pages – or it takes you twice as long to read through a list? Everyone has different ways of doing things, and the only “correct way” to get through prelims is to get through them. Surround yourself with people who encourage you – and in return, try and encourage others who are in the same boat.
David: Do what you think it’s best for you, at every step of the preliminary process. Listen to everyone if they have advice but then follow what you would usually do for a regular exam, it’s only longer and more stressful. For example, I don’t work very well with notes and organizing them stresses me out, so I didn’t do much of it, I did some but just what I knew was enough for me.
I would definitely start the list building process in advance, especially if you’re not extremely organized and don’t like preparing lists. As I said, for me it was a terrible experience, way worse than studying per se.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed studying for the exam. It gave me a lot of ideas for research projects and dissertation, it’s a moment where you have the opportunity to really reflect on what I study and learn a lot. Then, the exams are what they are, it is an exhausting process and you need to be aware of that, but we have to take them, so I tried to have less anxiety and stress possible.