Preparing to take one’s doctoral qualifying exams is a unique experience for the graduate student. I’m not sure what these exams are like for students in the sciences, but for the humanities, the amount of reading involved is grueling. In the theology department at Marquette, the examinee compiles five separate bibliographies with five separate professors. The bibliographies typically range in length from 1-3 (single-spaced) pages, including a nice mixture of articles and books. I once heard from a fellow student in the department that each bibliography was supposed to include roughly 1,500-2,000 pages of text. I never bothered to count the pages in my bibliographies, but this estimate seems accurate.
Opinions are varied with respect to the ultimate goal of qualifying exams. Some will say that they afford you the opportunity to synthesize material from your coursework, while others will say that they allow you to demonstrate your mastery of the field. Some will say that they provide one final chance for your professors to put you through the ringer (before the dissertation defense, of course). I would argue that they do all of these things.
Preparing for qualifying exams has an additional function which can only be seen in hindsight: the process trains you to write a dissertation.
Graduate-level coursework teaches you (or at least should teach you) how to compile sources. After you have chosen a topic for your term paper or research project, you journey to the library and begin sifting through the sources with which you need to be in dialogue. When you begin reading these sources, you ultimately encounter more sources that you add to your list. This skill is of course invaluable when constructing bibliographies for the qualifying exams. Yet, the knowledge of how to put together a bibliography does not necessarily translate into the knowledge of how to read a bibliography. When I first began studying for exams, I was confident that I knew how to read. After a few weeks, I realized that I was mistaken. I knew how to make sense of words on a page (obviously), but I had yet to master the type of reading required for writing a dissertation (or taking qualifying exams). That is, I had yet to learn that it is impossible to read every word of every book or article that you’re going to reference. The key is learning how to make your way through a text efficiently, gleaning the relevant points and leaving aside the “fluff.” There are certainly some texts that require closer reading than others. Many, however, demand little more than a cursory overview (on this point, see Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book). Because you are subject to a deadline while preparing for your exams (assuming you set a deadline for yourself), this type of reading emerges from the sheer force of necessity.
Preparing for qualifying exams also teaches one how to take and organize notes. Graduate coursework introduces one to this rudimentary skill, but the qualifying exams sharpen it. When you are dealing with roughly 10,000 pages of text, you have no choice but to get and stay organized. Sink or swim, I suppose. Only when I began studying for my exams did I realize how awful and disorganized my note taking and organizational skills were. The problem was that I began each semester of coursework with a different “strategy” for staying organized. I tried three ring binders, legal pads, word files, etc. Nothing really seemed to work. In the process of studying for exams, I realized that I needed to pick a method and stick with it. I gradually moved toward a system that worked for what I was doing. I made a folder for each of my “topics,” and everything related to those topics went into it’s proper folder: articles, notes, observations, question drafts and the like. I still use the system for organizing my dissertation chapters: each chapter gets a folder.
Preparing for qualifying exams also helps you learn how to get words on a page. This last point I suppose varies with the student. When I was studying for exams, I spent at least an hour a day practicing writing. I knew that in the end I was going to have to sit, by myself, in front of a computer for two full (six-hour) days, without notes, and produce something intelligible and (mildly) intelligent. My daily writing practice involved choosing a random topic on which to ruminate by writing. The topic didn’t really matter. Sometimes it was as broad as, “Give an overview of the current status of biblical studies as it relates to Christian ethics.” Other times it was as specific as, “Compare and contrast the viewpoints of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on Christology.” (Ok, so I never wrote on the latter topic, but you get the point.) The goal was not to produce polished prose, but rather to begin synthesizing the material I had read and what I already knew from previous work. It was somewhat akin to “free writing.” The result was often less than stellar (I feel confident that no one will ever take interest in my practice writing sessions). All the same, at the end of an hour-long practice writing session, I often had 5-7 pages of text that I could reread, learn from, and often expand. Sometimes, you may even stumble upon an insight not previously seen.
I began work on the dissertation not long after I passed my exams, and I was shocked to see how much my work flow had changed. I never thought of my studying as some sort of habit-building activity, but this is precisely what it turned out to be. If you are entering the qualifying exam portion of your graduate career, you are embarking on a journey about which you will have mixed feelings. Part of the journey is obviously learning the material you have been assigned. An equally important part, however, is learning how to perform efficiently the craft of scholarship. You don’t have to love the journey, but you would be crazy not to learn from it!