Qualifying Exams III: How-to (The Advice Post)

At one point, I decided not to write an advice post on quals. People seemed to have wildly different experiences. I didn’t think I could present my experience as typical; does a “typical” quals experience even exist? I’d also received advice that just didn’t work for me; maybe my advice wouldn’t work for other people either.

But nothing about graduate school is really “typical.” Individual experiences vary too much. Too often this feels to me like an excuse to justify a lack of structured, quality education and training. I’m not in a position to improve graduate student training, but I can share my experiences.

I finally understand why older students who have been incredibly helpful to me over the past three years have told me, simply, “pay it forward.” In some sense, “paying it forward” is all we can do. It also seems that academia couldn’t survive without individuals being willing to “pay it forward,” and we could talk here about sustainability and inequality and who is more likely to take on this “expected” labor. But that’s not what this post is about.

The one piece of quals advice I can confidently recommend to every student is to talk to many different people, from faculty (to understand the expectations of your readers) to other students. You can think of this post as a conversation with me; when other students have asked me about quals, I found myself repeating what I’ve written in previous posts or what I’d planned to write in this one.

This post moves chronologically through each stage of the qualifying exams. I start with the reading list, move into preparation, and end on the exam itself. I’ll share what worked for me and what I would do differently. Take what sounds useful to you.

Context: Exam Format

By “qualifying exams,” I’m referring to a written exam in a Sociology Ph.D. program. My department requires students to write 30 pages answering 3 questions in 3 days (72 hours). My previous posts describe what the exam was like for me (part 1) and why I didn’t find it to be a useful or effective form of assessment (part 2).


Building Your Reading List

  • Don’t start from scratch.
  • Don’t spend too much time on your list.
  • Get feedback from your readers.
  • “You will have read half your list before you begin reading.”

Don’t start from scratch.

Part of the qualifying exams process is building your reading list. There are typically three standard sections covering theory and major areas in your subfield and a fourth section of “specialized interests” tailored to your research interests.

In my department, all these sections change slightly depending on the student’s interest, but foundational literature remains the same. You’re also tasked with adding any influential new articles or books in your subfield.

This post from Matthew Wolf-Meyer has a pretty good section on building your reading list. But I would add, in my department at least, that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You should never build your list from scratch. Start with older students’ reading lists as a base and add your specialized interests.

Don’t spend too much time on your list.

Building your reading list can be a rabbit hole. It’s easy to place too much importance on your list and striving to get it “just right.” But in the end, you need to cover foundational readings and what your readers view as important. As you read, you’ll develop more of your ideas of what is and isn’t important, but during this stage, it’s fine to rely on them.

You’ll also be doing a fair amount of reading to build your list. I’m sure this varies based on your first reader’s approach, but I felt like I was expected to curate of a list of readings that I hadn’t read and then provide justification for why these books and articles I wasn’t familiar with were important. I read a lot of abstracts, summaries, and tables of contents. A few pieces I fought to include ended up being not that great. That’s okay.

Get feedback from your readers.

Building the list itself can feel a bit like a test. It’s not. Get feedback. Your readers need to approve your list and they are experts in your exam area. I didn’t really discuss my list with my second reader until I was close to seeking final approval. She ended up having a lot of feedback. I left that meeting feeling like I’d done a poor job on my list because she requested so many additions. But looking back, that was just her job. In retrospect, I’d tell myself not to be so attached to my list (or not to attach any worth to how well I built that list) and treat it like a living document.

“You will have read half your list before you begin reading.”

My first reader told me this early on and I didn’t believe her. But if you haven’t significantly changed your research area during graduate school, and you’ve taken graduate coursework in this area, you have a solid foundation. You’ve done reading for your own research, course papers, and most likely a master’s thesis, so you aren’t starting from scratch.

Reading for Quals

  • Consider getting organized up front.
  • Develop a timeline.
  • Approach notes like you’re building a database.
    • Use a template.
  • Read strategically.

Get Organized

You need to get through a list of 100 articles and 30 books. Or if you have more books, some other configuration that amounts to three to four articles per book. For books, I made another version of my list with “access notes.” I looked up each book beforehand to see if it was available in my library as an e-book, if I could check it out, or if the pdf was widely available online. I purchased a couple that weren’t available, and I wanted to own anyway. As I was reading, it was such a relief to have all the books I needed on hand (or online).

Develop a timeline

You’ll mostly likely do this with your first reader but work backwards from your intended exam date to develop a reading schedule. Since my first reader was open to monthly meetings even in the summer, we calculated when we could discuss each section of my list and left the month before the exam for practice questions and feedback.

If you prefer more detailed scheduling, down to calculating hours, I’d recommend taking a look at Cameron Blevins’ second quals post. Personally, I work well with more flexibility.

On my own, I kept a loose weekly reading schedule. In the beginning, I’d calculated that I needed to read three books and six articles a week, from May to mid-August. In reality, these numbers were a lot more volatile. I only got through three books the first week and had to load up on articles in week two. From there, I modified how much I needed to each week. Naturally, the weeks right before each meeting had the heaviest reading load.

My quals reading schedule. I didn’t always consistently track my readings, but this was good enough to keep me on track. The blue gap from June to July was a busy time for me personally; tracking wasn’t a big priority, but I got through those readings somehow.

Approach notes like you’re building a database.

Your notes are most likely the only part of quals that will matter after the exam. While I found the exam itself to be frustrating and hope to never look at it again, I was surprised to find myself referencing my quals notes to work on a paper. While my notes are helpful, looking back I would have been a little more structured and consistent.

Approach your notes like you’re building a database. Use a template that captures the main argument(s), methods, and evidence. I agree with Matthew Wolf-Meyer, who distinguishes between readings you skim relatively quickly and those you read in more depth. The latter includes important theoretical pieces and research that’s close to your own interests.

Using a template. In my department, students share an excel template for quals note-taking. You can download a clean version of the notes template here (Excel file). The headings include:

  • Type (book or article)
  • Author
  • Year   
  • Title                
  • Research Question     
  • Theoretical Framework         
  • Methods         
  • Conclusion     
  • Evidence to support conclusion         
  • My assessment           
  • What use can I make of this?
  • Additional Notes:

Personally, I don’t care for Excel. I like to have more space for writing. So taking the advice of another student, I used Word and organized my notes with the headings feature. Since Word can display all your headers in a “navigation” sidebar, I made all my section titles H1 headings, and each article title an H2 heading. I took bullet-point notes with the following:

  • Keywords
  • Research Question
  • Argument
  • Methods
    • Qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods?
    • What method?
  • Contents / Evidence
    • For books, brief synopsis of each chapter
  • Reflection
    • Do I agree with the argument? Why/why not?
    • How does this apply to my research?
    • Notable connections to other readings?

Read strategically.

When I told faculty or research staff that I was reading for quals, they often gave romanticized accounts of how wonderful it had been to have dedicated time to just read. (Curiously, students I spoke with never echoed these sentiments.) I came away with the inaccurate assumption that I’d have time to read slowly and deeply, unlike the skimming students have to do to keep up with class readings. I was wrong.

There’s far too much reading for quals to be slow or relaxing. Life doesn’t slow down or stop either. During this period, I was still finishing coursework, working as a research assistant, doing hourly work to supplement my stipend, preparing for/teaching a summer class, and coping with a second pandemic semester.

I also found this type of reading more difficult than reading for class. You’re reading not just for the main argument and a couple interesting points to discuss with classmates, but to place each reading in conversation with an entire subfield.

You still need to skim. The reading strategies you learned to survive graduate coursework still apply. I’d recommend these resources for reading quickly but still getting the information you need:

During the Exam

  • Decide on question order.
  • Organize your thoughts in a way that works for you.

Decide on question order.

Our qualifying exam consists of three to five questions (three being typical, but five being possible). You get to choose the order in which you answer the questions. The advice I received was to start with the hardest question and end on the easiest. Now, knowing how exhausted I was on the first day, I would have done the hardest question on the second day, but still left the easiest question for last.

Organize your thoughts in a way that works for you.

Outlining. Outlining is important but at the same time, the outlines I made on my first day were useless. I wasn’t ready to outline that day; I needed to get my thoughts in order first.

Prewriting/Freewriting. Writing is a form of thinking. It’s also how I tend to process ideas best. Others might process by talking it out or drawing a flow chart. Whatever generally works for you is what you should do during quals. Or alternatively, you could do prewriting for multiple practice questions beforehand.

Tracking your readings. Your qualifying exam needs to reference the majority of readings on your list. You should check with your first and second readers to see how much they expect you to cite. You have to keep track of the readings you cite somehow, and one student suggested I print out a physical copy of my list and highlight the ones I’d covered in different colors (e.g., yellow if I used the reading in question 1, blue for question 2, pink for question 3). I thought this sounded like great idea. But on my second day, I was spending so much time flipping, scrolling, and highlighting that I threw my highlighted list aside. I tracked readings with freewriting and outlines, keeping a digital copy of my list up on a second monitor while I wrote.

I find this last piece of advice interesting because in theory, it sounded like something that would work for me. I’m sure it worked and will work for others. But it’s a good example of how some degree of quals will be unique to you. In the end, you know yourself and how you work best. Trust yourself.

Additional Resources

  • Ida Yalzadeh’s zine “Navigating grad school as a woman of color” has a section on quals (p14-15)
  • Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s post focuses a lot on building a reading list, if your department requires you to do this more independently
  • Cameron Blevin has a two-part series on quals. Personally I think part I is something students would need to read right when they begin graduate school, while part II is focused on the preparation process and includes templates.

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