Reading for Prelims

So far this month we’ve covered what prelims arewhat work prelims are supposed to do, and how to prepare the first draft of your list. Today, we are covering how to read for prelims.

The first thing to know, of course, is how your program does prelims. I recently heard of a philosophy program in which the maximum number of books for a prelims reading list was ten because that program wants an in-depth analysis of a few arguments. However, for programs that require a lengthier prelim list, including those upwards of 100 books, there is a definite way to read for prelims.

Reading for prelims is different than reading for course-work and it’s not just volume. I was never particularly good at the graduate-student-skim because my anxiety disorder convinced me there would be a high-stakes quiz on whatever portion of that week’s reading I didn’t get to. However, even if you are the most gifted skimmer that has ever lived I would caution against using the graduate-student-skim to get through prelims reading. The reason is because part of the purpose of prelims is to train you, albeit quickly and brutally, to discern what arguments are important to your field and may be relevant to your future work.

The graduate-student-skim is the equivalent of a Monet–it gives you a quick, broad view of a book but lacks specific detail. In contrast, reading for prelims is the equivalent of an M.C. Escher print–it doesn’t need to create a conventional image but it needs detail and subtlety.

An important part of the process is to determine which authors and arguments deserve the majority of your focus and effort. The graphic below is how I conceptualize prelim reading.

Prelim Reading

Tier 1 is where you start with every text on your list. When I was preparing for prelims I spent about 3 days searching for book reviews of every text on my list, finding a good review, printing it, and putting it in a three-ring binder. The key to executing this step successfully is to remember that not all book reviews are created equally. Book reviews by actual faculty are the gold-standard. Grad students, as a rule, don’t critique the arguments or sources of a book in a review because to do so would mean critiquing a more senior scholar in your field which could affect conference, publication, or job prospects. If at all possible, find a book review by an actual faculty member. If this is not possible, and sometimes it isn’t, go for two book reviews by grad students. These will, at the very least, give you a good sense of the arguments and sources used in the book. This exercise is relatively quick and painless but will give you a broad sense of the conversations happening your field. It will also help you decide which books make it to Tier 2.

Tier 2 is where you read the Introduction and Conclusion of a given book. Not all books will or should make the leap from Tier 1 to Tier 2. Tier 2 is for books whose arguments, as described in the book reviews you read in Tier 1, seemed intriguing enough to warrant a deeper analysis. “Intriguing” here isn’t simply a synonym for interesting. It all seems interesting, that’s why you’re in f*ing grad school. “Intriguing” here means that it seems it will be useful, either as support or foil, for the arguments you think you might make in your dissertation. “Intriguing” here means the book made a big enough splash that you might reasonably expect it to come up years later when you’re on a campus interview. Most books won’t and shouldn’t make it past Tier 2. A decent Intro and Conclusion will outline the major arguments of the book, the sources being used, and, depending on discipline, the theoretical framework or methods. In rare cases, the Intro or Conclusion may mention a chapter that sounds relevant to your work which you think it would be helpful to know more about. In this case, the book will make it to Tier 3.

Tier 3 is where you read a significant portion of the book. You’ve already read the Intro and Conclusion for Tier 2. The book review(s) in Tier 1 gave you a sense of the arguments and their reception. Tier 3 is for those books where you really need or want to know more. In this case, you may read a chapter particularly relevant to your own coalescing research questions or the whole book.

There are, as always, a couple of exceptions to the plan outlined above. This plan is based on my own experience and the experiences of most grad students I know and that experience is one of overwhelm. This is for the student who is preparing for prelims while finishing up coursework and the graduate student teaching a class who has to figure out how to shoehorn prelims into the course schedule you’re creating for your students. The obvious exception to this is if you’re on fellowship and have the time; then read all the books and enjoy it!


Most people I know started prelims with the intention to read all the things. Then real life happened and they found themselves reading Intros, Conclusions, and book reviews and were *shocked* to find out that there was no qualitative difference between the books they read in total and the books they read reviews for. For the majority of the books on your list this will likely hold true, but every field has its classics which you will be expected to know in depth and should probably read anyway.

Because everyone in the process is deeply wedded to the fiction that grad students read all the books it is difficult to simply ask your committee “What books do I have to read and what books can I get away with reading just the Intro?” There are several ways to get to this question without actually asking it. If your department has archived past reading lists look at them and see what texts keep popping up. If your department has an introductory “welcome to the discipline” type course for first-year students revisit the syllabus for that course or ask to meet with the person who teaches that course and ask what books they’re adding and why. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask one of your committee members what books they expect to be able to converse with an incoming colleague about. Finally, if your program offers methods or theory courses at the undergraduate level get a hold of those syllabi. Likely, the undergrads will be assigned excerpts rather than the full text, but it will tell you what you’ll be expected to know and teach in the future. These are the books you should automatically elevate to Tier 3, but don’t skip Tiers 1 and 2. Going into reading these books with an idea of how they were received by the field when they were published (Tier 1) and understanding how the author views the intervention in the field (Tier 2) provides a helpful framework to evaluate the book as a whole.

Our next post will be about how to prepare yourself and your home or office for prelims.

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