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Making the PhD Exam List

September 19, 2012
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Disclaimer: the information in this post is not binding on you in any way. The author does not officially represent or speak for the University of Texas at Dallas. Opinions are the author’s own. Your mileage may vary.

Imagine someone hands you a map and says, “Memorize this map. There will be a test.”

How well would you know the land represented in the map? How well would you understand the people, or what is important in that place?

Now imagine someone hands you surveyor’s tools, mapmaking tools, and a compass, and tells you to go make a map of the same area.

After your trip, over hills, through valleys, spending night after night in that area, how well would you know the land? How much better would you understand the complexities and the subtleties of the geography, the ecosystem, the people and their culture?

This personal surveying appears, to me, to be the idea in operation behind having you make your own exam list.

I have no problem with telling someone what is on my list. I’m all for open information. However, the point is not what’s on MY list. The point is what needs to be on YOUR list.

To use the analogy above, we’re all exploring slightly different territories. Or, to put it another way, I may be mapping the territory as an ecologist, while another person may be mapping the territory as an economist. We may approach the same geography quite differently—and that’s a good thing.

What’s more, your committee is very likely different from my committee, and may therefore have slightly different expectations and requests.

For example, a literature (HUSL) exam field may have you list only primary works, with the implicit understanding that you will make yourself familiar with the important criticism surrounding each work and its author.

Or, the same HUSL field supervised by a different professor may end up as a list of only secondary criticism, with the implicit understanding that you be familiar with the primary works that are referenced.

In contrast, a History of Ideas (HUHI) field will more than likely list only the works you should read, with no implicit texts (plenty of subtext, but no implied texts!).

ASK each of your supervising professors about their expectations for your exam lists.

Lists are General

My interests are specific: for example, I do quite a bit of work under the specific umbrella of Maternity Studies, and work a lot with Shakespeare and novels by women. However, exam lists need to be more general and more comprehensive. For me, Maternity Studies turned into a Gender Studies exam field, of which Maternity played only a small part. Think big. Think general.

The trickiest thing can be your “outside” field, the one that comes from outside your field of study. Another way to look at my lists would have been to focus on the time period of the novels I am interested in, and do an Aesthetic or History of Ideas field covering that time period. I didn’t have any trouble meeting the “200 year field” requirement, but if you do, just keep expanding your time period in a way that works for you (and remember, it can be any one of your three fields). These are fields in which you want to be qualified to teach, not  fields that will exactly match the research for your dissertation proposal. (Note that UTD has qualifying exams, not comprehensive exams.)

How I Made My List

My lists are fairly broad and not uncommon: The British Novel, Shakespeare, and Gender Studies. I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I went online and googled phrases like “reading list shakespeare” and “comp exams gender studies” and the like. This isn’t cheating–you have to start somewhere.

Many schools who give comprehensive exams post their lists online. I found at least ten British literature lists. Immediately, I began narrowing those lists down to only novels.

I compared the lists to each other. Some major works appear on all of the lists (Tom Jones or Jane Eyre, for example). If a work appears on all of the lists you find encompassing your field, that’s a good sign that the work should be on your preliminary list.

I then added all of the novels that I’d already read from the time period. This gave me a very good start.

I listed the novels chronologically and looked for gaps. For this field, I couldn’t have more than two books from any particular author, so some of the books I have already read had to go (Persuasion *sniffle*).

I also added some secondary works that appeared on many of the lists I had found online, books like Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. At this point, my supervising professor looked over my list and made a few changes and suggestions.

I chose several of the books that I hadn’t read, made myself a syllabus, and, as I was finished with course work, signed up for an independent study.

My list did evolve somewhat over the course of my first independent study semester. We added some that weren’t on my original list (Humphrey Clinker, anyone?) and cut a few works that had me doubling up on authors (Richardson’s Clarissa, which I admit to being glad about cutting, because the unabridged version is 1534 pages.).

We also added a sub-field of Victorian children’s literature to my British Novel list—I hadn’t considered this before, but you can have a sort of sub-field within a list, if your professor agrees.

I’ve learned a lot about my field through this process. I now have maps in my head of these novels, maps of how they fit together chronologically, or thematically. I can see the influence of the earliest novels on the later ones. I discovered books like The Well of Loneliness and Waverly, and I developed an unexpected crush on Henry Fielding.

All this to say: making your exam lists is a process of exploration and negotiation. Don’t fight the list-making process—try to use it as a way to learn the territory and become interested in, expert on, even interdependent with the ecosystem of the country you’re trying to chart.
-Sara Keeth


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