When and How To Start Thinking About Your Prelims Reading List

Welcome back to our February series on preparing for your prelims/field exams. Today we are addressing the first step in the prelim process: creating your prelim reading list. The next post in our series will address some best practices for creating the list, but this post is dedicated to what might be the most overwhelming, ill-defined part of the prelims process–conceptualizing the work your prelims list needs to do. Once that piece is in place putting together the list becomes a fairly straightforward task.

Remember that the purpose of your prelim/fields exams is to demonstrate that you are familiar with the evolution of thought in the fields which you wish to specialize in. In my previous post, I mentioned that prelims are your last exercise as a consumer of knowledge. They are the grand finale of your career as a student. Therefore, one way to think about prelims is: what are my areas of specialization as a student?

This question provides a way to conceptualize the role of prelims in your transition from student to researcher. Your areas of specialization as a student, as a consumer of knowledge, are the fields you take your exams in and will influence the theoretical and methodological approaches you carry over into your dissertation research project, as a producer of knowledge.

This is a perfectly fine way to think about your prelims reading list–particularly if, like me, you find yourself facing down prelims at the end of your course work and asking, “WTF am I supposed to do now?”

However, I would argue that the best approach to prelims isn’t “how do I get through this?” The best approach is “how do I make this process work for me?”

In this second framework, prelims are an important part of preparing you for the job market. Think about the types of jobs you want to be able to apply for and work backward to deduce what your prelim reading areas should be and who should be on your examining committee. If you aren’t sure what type of jobs you want to apply for yet (which is perfectly fine!) one thing you can do is spend some time perusing job ads in your discipline from the past couple of years. What are the jobs seeking?

This approach to prelims is the approach my partner took. After spending some time looking at jobs in his field, which happened to be history, he noticed an emphasis in job ads asking for someone with training in transnational history. Thus, he added two historians to his committee who did transnational history and they helped him shape his reading list into something that would give him a solid grounding in transnational methods so he could market himself as a U.S. historian who could teach transnational methods and courses with a transnational perspective. (IMHO, my partner was particularly savvy in that the added a transnational scholar from his preferred era and a transnational gender historian, thus giving him experience not just in transnational methods but in gender history as well.)

My partner was able to do this because he was at a university that had transnational historians he could add to his committee. If he had been at a different university without a wide-range of historians this would have been a problem.

This leads to the third way of thinking about prelims which is actually a way of thinking about graduate school.

Ideally, you will be thinking about what type of job you want to have after graduate school before you apply to programs. You certainly don’t have to know for sure what type of job you want or what field it will be in but it is best to have a general idea of what type of job you want to be trained for and what type of project you want to do for your dissertation. In this scenario, you are thinking of your prelims as you research graduate programs to apply to. When vetting programs there are a lot of things to think about but don’t forget that the faculty and courses they offer are training for your future job and, yes, for your prelims. When looking at schools it is worthwhile to ask yourself not just “Can I see myself taking these courses?” and “Can these faculty help me reach the next level of my scholarship?” but “Do I want to spend 3 to 6 months reading about this specialty topic?” That last question is, in most cases, what you will be doing for prelims and it can be a good question to add to your vetting process because you may be excited to take a class on, say, folklore, but wanting to read about it for 6 months in preparation for an exam is a very, very different thing.

TL;DR: It’s never too early to start thinking about prelims. In fact, thinking about your prelims may be a helpful way to vet programs you’re applying to. When thinking about your prelims reading list prioritize the question “How can I make this experience work for me?”

In the next post I’ll be discussing best practices for preparing your reading list which will be helpful no matter when you start preparing for prelims.

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