Tips for Passing your Ph.D. Qualifying Exams

In January 2022, I passed my Ph.D. qualifying exam and officially became a Ph.D. Candidate. For those who aren’t familiar with the Ph.D. process, this means that I am ABD, which stands for “All but dissertation.” This means that all that’s left in my program is for me to write and defend my dissertation. A small feat, right?

Now that I’ve had some distance from the examination process, I’d like to reflect on my experience and share what worked (and what didn’t) for me.

Note: No two qualifying exam processes or journeys are the same. Even within my program, each member of my cohort had a slightly (or drastically) different experience. What follows is true to my experience only.

About the Qualifying Exam

The qualifying exam is a staple in Ph.D. programs in Canada, but it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for students. The qualifying exam is designed to assess your knowledge of your subject area and related fields–it’s intended to ensure you’re ready to move on to your dissertation, as well as your ability and promise in research.

In my program, students had to complete a Secondary Area Qualifying exam (SAQ) in their first year (which I completed a bit later on given I was a part-time student) prior to moving on to the Primary Area Qualifying (PAQ) exam. The PAQ is our official qualifying exam and it entails completing two written exams, one on your topics list and one on your field list, a 20-minute oral presentation, and an oral exam.

Committee

To start the process, you first need to have assembled a committee. I modified my committee slightly from my SAQ to my PAQ, but my committee members were all people I knew, trusted, and had worked with previously. I truly believe that having a good committee is one of the most important aspects of any part of graduate school, including the qualifying exam.

In my program, your selected committee assesses and provides feedback on your written exams, but when you get to the oral examination, you drop one committee member and add an external member from within the department and an external member from outside of the department.

The proposal

Once your committee is assembled, you need to write a proposal that outlines your field(s), your project, and what your reading list(s) will focus on. Many departments have specific guidelines for what needs to be included, and some will have examples that you can follow. If your department doesn’t have guidelines outlined somewhere, make sure you ask your advisor or committee before you get started.

My proposal included two reading lists: one for my topics list and one for my field list. My field list was focused on Canadian Literature written in English, with a focus on digital Canadian poetry, and my field list was focused on digital humanities research methods, practices, and theories. My proposal was approximately 5 pages single-spaced, and each list had approximately 60-65 texts included.

Once my committee had reviewed and approved my proposal and lists, they went to the graduate committee to be approved. Once approved, I was ready to get reading!

Reading

When I began reading for my PAQ, I wanted to ensure that I had a way to keep on track. Reading 120+ texts is a lot of work and it can be easy to procrastinate or get off schedule. So, the first thing I did was estimate how much I thought I could read each week (balancing my full-time job and other life priorities) and create a reasonable reading schedule. The schedule had three columns: week, readings, and notes.

WeekReadingsNotes
Week of…Text 1
Articles 1 & 2
This week, I’m thinking about…

I created the schedule in Google Drive and shared it with my advisor. We agreed to meet every 2-3 weeks to discuss the readings and what I was thinking about, and I used the “Notes” column to flag any questions or texts that I wanted to focus on during our discussion.

In addition to the notes in the reading schedule, I kept detailed notes in my OneNote app, including any key quotes that I thought would come in handy during my dissertation. Partway through my reading process, I also began to map out certain topic areas and associated texts that I was interested in or that could become parts of my dissertation.

The practice exam

When I had nearly completed all my readings, I met with my advisor to sort out when I could sit my practice exam. The practice exam has to be scheduled with the department. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I completed my practice exam at home. The practice exam is designed to assess whether you’re ready to progress to the actual exam. This is important because if you fail your qualifying exam, you have one more opportunity to pass the exam within six months and, if you don’t pass the second time, you can’t continue in the program.

I wrote my practice exam in mid-to-late December of 2021 when I had just completed all of my readings. It was a bit of a time crunch for me because I was also preparing to leave my corporate job and focus full-time on my studies, although I’d been a full-time student since September. Within about a week, my committee had reviewed my practice exam and let me know I’d passed. They provided feedback on how I could improve my answers for the actual exam, and I spent the next three to four weeks studying and preparing for my exams.

The exams

Once you have passed your practice exam, you can proceed to your qualifying exam. In my department, there are rules about how much time is allowed to pass between your practice and qualifying exam. You also have to sit your oral exam within ten days of your last written exam.

My two written exams were scheduled for the second week of January–one on Monday and one on Thursday–with my oral exam the following Friday. My written exams were three hours in duration each, and I had to write two essays (of three essay questions) for each exam. This year, the department decided to allow the exams to be open book, which meant I was able to incorporate quotations and didn’t accidentally mix up authors and texts (which, unfortunately, had happened on my SAQ).

Once my two exams were completed, I focused on drafting my presentation for my oral presentation and exam. I had to give a 20-minute presentation at the beginning of my oral exam. The presentation guidelines said to include an overview of your research project and discuss elements of your written exams. However, when speaking with my advisor, she said that I only needed to address my written exams if I thought I had forgotten anything or needed to expand on my answers further. So, I primarily focused on showcasing my project and making a case for why I was ready to move ahead in the program.

I know many people do not like oral presentations or exams, and I am usually one of them, but my oral examination felt…fun? I enjoyed it, and I definitely didn’t expect to. Sure, there were some tricky questions that I had to address, but my committee was supportive and genuinely interested in my project, and they made the experience enjoyable and relatively stress-free.

And, at the end of the examination, they deliberated for a few minutes before bringing me back into the Teams call to let me know I had passed. Phew!

What worked for me…and what didn’t

One of the most helpful elements when getting started on my proposal and my reading list was seeing examples from upper-year Ph.D. candidates. Sometimes it’s helpful just to see how someone else has formatted a document, articulated the rationale for their project, or what they have (or haven’t) included.

Much of my reading was completed over the spring and summer, and a few times my advisor invited me to sit in her backyard or go for a walk with her dog while we chatted. I loved this so much, and it allowed me to relax a bit more and think things through organically, versus feeling like I needed to have all the answers.

I also gave myself flexibility when I was reading. If I was struggling with a text or it wasn’t resonating with me at that point in time, I swapped it out with something else on my list. And, if after a few tries I still couldn’t get into a text or see how it fit into my project, I didn’t force myself to read it. I simply put it on my list of things to read later. I think forcing myself to read something that wasn’t working for me would have just taken up additional time and left me frustrated instead of inspired.

This may seem counterintuitive, but while I was reading and studying for my exams, I wasn’t actually focusing on the exams. What I mean by this is that I wasn’t worried about memorizing texts or reading to provide that I had read something. Instead, I was reading with the intent of shaping my dissertation and figuring out what sources would help me get where I wanted to go with my project. This helped me better understand what I was reading as well as where my research project fit within existing literature and in the field, and this was integral to helping me prepare for my exams.

How to get through it

The qualifying exam process is gruelling and challenging in many ways. It’s a test of your knowledge, your ability to create and stick to a schedule, and it’s demanding of your mental and physical health.

My biggest piece of advice is to lean on the people around you–your cohort, your loved ones, friends, pets, whatever. Find what works for you, pivot if you need to, take it at your own pace, and try not to be too hard on yourself.

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