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How to Survive a Qualifying Exam in 24 Measly Hours

May 5, 2012

Guest Post by Jill Foltz, ABD and proud

KNOW THY MATERIAL
This should go without saying, but you need at least a cursory knowledge of every
item on your reading list.

Whether you take notes by hand, make note cards, or create a color-coded Excel
spreadsheet, make sure you have some way to find the information you’ll need on
short notice. It is not uncommon to get to the end of a reading list and realize you
have no memory of reading some of the books on it. Good note-taking habits will
spare you from spending 18 hours just going back through the resources to find the
argument you need.

KNOW THYSELF
More specifically, know thine circadian rhythms, and act accordingly.

I am a morning person and a night owl, but nothing in between. When it came to
exams, I accepted that and worked with it. In my case, this meant taking a guilt-free
nap somewhere in the 2-5pm dead zone, but staying up all night to finish two of my
exams. For me, that late-afternoon stretch was never going to be productive, yet I
knew I could write all night if I had to, so that’s what I did.

Your particular rhythm may be just like mine, just the opposite, or anywhere along
the continuum. That doesn’t matter. The important thing here is to identify your
peak performance hours and your typical slump times, and work within them.

KNOW THY PREFERRED ENVIRONMENT
Do everything you can to make your exam-day setting optimal.

For me, this meant zero interruptions (sorry, dear spouse, but you must vacate the
premises), a clean house, and as close to silence as I could get in suburbia. I’ve heard
of people sending their families out of town or booking hotel rooms for themselves
for their exams. One friend preferred the hubbub of public space, so he wrote most
of his exams at Starbucks.

Now is not the time to conform to what you think qualifying exam behavior should
look like. It’s the time to make your surroundings as close to perfect for you as you
possibly can. Take factors like lighting, clothing, and temperature into account.
Splurge on AC in March if you need to. Wear your lucky sweatpants for all three
exams (no one will know you didn’t have time to wash them).

But remember, things can go wrong. Accept that your neighbors may have their roof
replaced that day, your roommate may be stuck at home with the swine flu, or your
local Starbucks may be shut down for renovations. Don’t panic if things don’t go
your way. You have 24 hours, after all, so find the next best thing and get to work!

BE PREPARED
Pretend you’re an academic Boy Scout.

You’ll need to earn badges in Materials, Technology, and Emergency Preparedness.
Triple-check the location of every book on your reading list, and photocopy/scan all
crucial notes in case of liquid spills or pet consumption. Have a back-up computer
plan, and preferably a back-up to your back-up. For me, this meant my laptop, a
borrowed laptop, and my husband’s computer all on hand. Knowing that Verizon
internet is inhabited by a Poltergeist, I formulated a mental list of 24-hour wifi hot-
spots and looked up the campus labs’ hours of operation.

The one thing I didn’t adequately prepare for was a bibliography disaster. My
references were all stored at a handy citation-making website, but I neglected to
make a back-up copy. Sure enough, the site went down for approximately 24 hours,
and I’m sure you can guess which hours those were. Luckily, I was able to enlist said
spouse to help me put a new list together in the nick of time. This brings us to my
next suggestion…

USE YOUR LIFELINES
Though solitude is most exam-takers’ ally, don’t be afraid to call for help.

I don’t mean calling someone else to write the response for you, of course! But
there is no shame in asking a buddy to bring you an emergency latte or a crucial
monograph. I know of a fellow grad student who actually scheduled friends to
drop by at certain points to make sure she was taking breaks, eating, and generally
surviving. Don’t lose focus, but don’t totally isolate yourself.

For some reason, I pictured my exam days as being total human-contact lockdown.
That didn’t turn out to be the case. One of my good friends began her exams the
week before I did, and we actually texted each other throughout the entire ordeal –
“Good luck,” “Does this argument sound crazy?,” and “Treat yo’self to another fried
pie!” definitely helped us both make it through. Speaking of which…

TREAT YO’SELF
If you haven’t seen the Parks and Recreation episode involving “Treat Yo’Self,” make
sure you work that in sometime before you sit down to write.

Qualifying exams are not, I repeat, NOT the time to go on a diet, or try a new,
restrictive eating plan of any type. In the days leading up to an exam, eat as
healthfully as possible, of course. But in that 24-hour window of doom, there is
nothing to gain from beating yourself up about cookies and RedBull. Do what
you have to do to get through it. I would suggest including some protein and
complex carbs so you don’t pass out, but if it’s ever okay to break your New Year’s
resolutions, these are the three times to do it.

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH
The number one fear of a grad student approaching exams seems to be that they’re
not ready. That’s a good sign.

Once you’ve read 40-60 sources for each field, it’s normal – and quite intelligent,
actually – to feel like you really don’t know anything. That’s because there is a
universe of knowledge out there on your topics. But whether you realize it or not,
you’re actually an expert in your field already, at least compared to most people!
If you’ve done the reading, talked to your advisors, and thought about the broader
questions in your field, You Are Ready. No decent professor will let you advance to
the exam stage if they believe you will fail. Trust your committee and yourself, and
write with confidence.

CELEBRATE!
Believe it or not, these things do end, and usually with good news!

Once you pass – and you will pass – allow yourself to be happy about it! You may
be thinking, “Why wouldn’t I be happy if I actually survive the defense?!” It seems
obvious, yet there is another side to post-exam life. It’s a combination of relief,
survivor’s guilt, and mild PTSD. You’ve been intellectually vulnerable in front
of three people you respect and even fear, people who have the kind of job you
probably want. You may have fumbled an answer at the oral exam, or spotted an
egregious typo in a written response. You may feel lingering guilt that you could’ve
prepared better, or regret that your fields weren’t exactly perfect. It may take weeks
or even months to feel like yourself again.

That’s all understandable, and I’m sure every ABD out there could tell you
something she’d do differently next time. Don’t worry about it. It’s over, you passed,
and you’re on the other side! As tough as it may be, let those things go and be proud
of what you’ve accomplished.

Qualifying exams are difficult on purpose. They are also survivable. Put in a good
faith effort at preparing, but cut yourself some slack when the actual exam days roll
around. Do your best, but do what it takes to get through them. And when they’re
over, feel free to celebrate!

Thanks to Jill for this wonderful guest post!
If you would like to submit a guest post for the GSA blog, please send your post or query to utd.gsa, or contact us via Twitter or our Facebook page.

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