You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Let me tell you three stories of working-class, first-generation PhD students.

Story 1a: A friend needed to graduate at the end of the current semester or leave academia. She had run out of funding and, without the tuition waiver of a TA appointment, would have to pay out-of-state tuition if she stayed another semester. It didn’t matter that she had bought a house, had a license from, and lived in that state for years. If she wanted to be considered an in-state student she had to file a petition, complete with loads of supplementary documents, to persuade the university to consider her an in-state student. However, the petition guidelines stated that, if you could not prove you had moved to the state for a reason other than school, which, as a PhD student she obviously hadn’t, then you would be considered an out-of-state student. This friend agonized over how to have a frank conversation with her committee about deadlines. Previously, she had been content to let them ask for several rounds of relatively minor revisions, but when her funding stream dried up she needed to graduate soon but didn’t know how to tell her committee that it was graduate now or never because she simply couldn’t afford to keep paying the school to keep completing revisions. (Going in absentia wasn’t an option for this friend.)

Story 1b: Trying to expedite the revision process this friend hired an editor to help her make sense of her chair’s feedback and make changes in a timely manner. (She figured that the few hundred dollars invested in an editor would be better than the thousands wasted by walking away so close to done.) In their meeting, the editor, who had read both my friend’s chapter and her chair’s comments, said, “I see where she’s coming from but she’s not doing you any favors by not giving you a revision plan.” My friend, stunned, came to me after and said, “Have you heard of a revision plan? Is that a normal thing to get? Can I ask for that?”

Story 2: Another friend, after 18 months on the job market, was delighted to get her first conference interview. She rushed to tell her committee and director of graduate studies assuming they would be excited that one of the program’s PhD students might get a job. While most people were pleasant they were also distant–not offering much in the way of substantive advice or asking questions about the position. Afterward, my friend told me that she had assumed that her initial enthusiasm was naive and was embarrassed about it. A week later, my friend was making casual conversation with faculty in another department and said her plans for break included a conference interview. This other faculty member insisted on putting together a mock interview for her. She, also, came up to me after and said, “Does your department do mock interviews? Did you know that was something we could ask for?”

Story 3: Another friend had a parent die unexpectedly and her second parent was in ill health. She decided to take a semester in absentia to help her remaining parent adjust to the loss and recover some health. Before making this decision she discussed her options with her committee, director of graduate studies, and department chair. All said that they would support her in this transition and that she would have funding when she was able to come back. (Do you see where this is going?) My friend, unfortunately, trusted all of these people enough that she didn’t follow up on the verbal agreements with an email to confirm. A semester later she is preparing to come back and waiting for her funding assignment. In a Skype meeting, her advisor asks, “What will you do for funding?” She responded, “Whatever I’m assigned, I guess.” That was when her advisor told her that all available slots had been assigned months ago. An afternoon of frantic emailing revealed she’d somehow been taken off of the department’s grad-student list-serv and had missed the email asking students to let the department know if they would need funding. She never knew she missed it because she was still on several other departmental list-servs and just assumed that funding arrangements were taking a while, as they sometimes do.

This friend was later told by her advisor that she needed to do a better job advocating for herself. My friend was absolutely flummoxed. If she’d had an inkling that something was wrong she would have advocated for herself but she was content to trust to the verbal agreement she thought she’d made.

Certainly, all of these stories have a theme of (gross) negligence on the part of people in power, but there’s a lot of literature out there about the toxic elements of academic culture and departmental bad actors. I don’t want to go over that ground.

All of these stories have another theme in common as well–none of my friends knew that they could or should ask for certain things. They were all willing to believe that if they worked hard and kept their head down they would make it in the meritocracy of academic labor. I won’t attempt to deny that academia’s myth of meritocracy drew me in as well.

Except, academic labor is far, far, far from a meritocracy. Knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it are important skills that can make or break careers. Each of these stories represents a dramatic instance in which working-class PhD students didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t know what they could ask for. They didn’t know what documentation they were going to need to hold their higher-ups accountable. They just didn’t know.

This is all a *very* long intro for my thesis: the obstacles to being a working-class PhD student aren’t all about access. Once you’re in, once you’ve got that access, there is a whole other set of obstacles related to navigating bureaucratic structures designed for the middle and upper classes.

Think of it this way: a PhD is always a journey and often a lonely one. It takes preparation from provisions to maps to knowing the best places to stop, refuel, and rest.

PhD students whose parents worked in the professional classes are simply more familiar with how to plan and execute this journey.

Working-class and first-gen students are often, somehow, expected to complete the same journey with none of that preparatory knowledge that seems so natural to students from the middle and upper classes. It can feel a bit like eagerly setting out on a journey only to realize you might be lost right as storm blows in on a lonely stretch of road.

I’m almost at the end of my academic journey, preparing to set a defense date, and I still frequently find things I didn’t know I didn’t know. However, I have picked up a few things along the way that I will share with you over the week. I was going to share them with you in this post but it became unreasonably long so, instead, I’ll be posting topics every day this week including: service work, real jobs, language, bragging, and surviving.


Weekly Roundup!

Get ready, y’all!

First, we’ve got a series of graphs looking at first-generation PhD students compiled by the NSF. The information isn’t exactly cheery but it is necessary.

Five years ago Inside Higher Ed did a series on first-gen grad students. We think it’s worth revisiting some of their articles below:

Imposter Syndrome–I particularly appreciate tip #2 in this list. Because academia often bills itself as a meritocracy I spent my entire MA program working long days and late nights. I didn’t make time for departmental events because I thought it was more important people see the quality of my work than see me. I was wrong and I didn’t realize I was wrong until it was too late to salvage my reputation.

Transitioning from first-gen college student to first-gen grad student–Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Just some great advice–That is all. (Also, maybe bookmark Conditionally Accepted.)

My all-time favorite–This piece is about first-gen and working-class undergrads, but it’s just so damn thorough I can’t help but love it. It’s also easy to see how a lot of the things talked about translate to graduate school challenges.

Finally, check out the Working-Class Studies Association. They have a CFP open until the end of the month!


WTF: Working-Class Academics

I’ve been putting off introducing this month’s theme: working-class and first-gen PhD students because it’s personal and because I don’t know where to start with something that is, simultaneously, so big and so close to home.

Let me start with why I’m addressing this topic at all. A month ago, I wanted to do a Weekly Roundup post with helpful links about what it’s like to come from a working-class background and be in a PhD program. I was absolutely certain that there would be enough posts to generate a Roundup (at least 3), but there weren’t.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were posts aplenty but they were mostly from the UK and while they were well-written and insightful it can be hard to translate advice between the UK and US academic systems. There were, of course, also some great links to working-class scholar organizations (which will be in this week’s Roundup), but I couldn’t find the type of advice I was looking for–the type of advice I wish I’d had when I started. So, to paraphrase the great Toni Morrison, if there’s a post you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. That’s how this month’s focus on working-class and first-gen PhD students came to be.

Before properly beginning this month’s series, here’s a quick rundown of my background: My mother was a clerk for her whole career and, because she never got a college degree, was an hourly worker–never eligible for the promotion to salaried, exempt status. My step-dad drove dove a cement truck and then a dump truck. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a college degree. My mother did attend some community college before she had my oldest brother and both of my brothers gave college a try before leaving for different reasons. Neither of them got degrees.

I know some folks don’t count families who have had members attend college but not graduate as first-gen. I’m absolutely sure it’s a different experience. As hard and confusing as it was for me I had some people with some experience to rely on. I can only speak to my experience but if you know someone willing to guest post drop me a line on the contact page.

It’s also important to note that my family is white. Being white comes with a lot of privileges in general but one thing I’ve noticed in academia is that people are more willing to assume I’m middle-class than they are with my colleagues of color which, in turn, makes it easier for me to present as middle-class in professional situations which leads to a whole host of other benefits. It’s also important to note that being white played a part in allowing my family to move out of the trailer park and into a house-house when I was 15. And being white played a part in helping me to get an FHA loan to buy a house (with my mom’s help) when I entered a PhD program which has helped me immensely as well.

While I’m excited and nervous to spend the month of March sharing what I’ve learned about being a PhD student from a working-class background I am most aware of what I don’t know. Always, but especially this month, take what’s useful, leave the rest, and please use this as a space to share resources that have helped you navigate this experience.

Weekly Roundup

10 Surprising Time Management Tips To Help You Graduate–Exactly what it sounds like from finishyourthesis. We don’t just like it because tip two encourages writing in short bursts which we are here to help you do.

We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD–a super important post we plan to revisit later in the week from The Thesis Whisperer.

lol my thesis–a delightful collection of people who have summed up their thesis in one hilarious sentence to get you through that mid-semester writing slump.

Taking The Exam

You’ve picked your fields, made your list, and read (most of) the things.

Now it’s time to actually take the exams. Taking the exams is going to be different depending on your program. In my program students had three exam questions issued over three days. The questions were sent by email and the student had 24 hours to type a 10-15 page response and email it back to the committee. Questions were sent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with the oral examination the following Monday. The exams could be taken from anywhere and I completed mine from my home.

Another program I know has a major field and two minor fields. Students are given a week to answer the question in their major field and are expected to produce something about the length of a seminar paper (18-25 pages of text). Minor fields take 3 days and produce a shorter paper (10-15 pages).

Yet another program I know has everyone take prelim exams at the same time. Exams take three days and students must be on campus, in an isolated room, when writing. They are only allowed to write during business hours and cannot work on their questions when at home.

These are just a few of many, many variations on how different programs do prelims. Because of the variation, it’s not feasible to give one-size-fits-all advice about how to actually write your exams. However, it is possible to give some advice on how to survive your exams which is what this post is about.

Practice: Note Taking. I developed a rhythm when reading for prelims. During the day I would read and put sticky notes next to passages I found interesting or thought would be compelling. After dinner, I would sit down and type all of those passages into a Word document titled BookTitle_Notes. I put the page number at the end of every quotation. I used the Track Changes feature in Word to list any comments or thoughts about the passage I didn’t want to forget. Lastly, I put the full citation for the book at the beginning of every document.

Honestly, I should have started doing this in my first graduate course, but better late than never. The notes I took for this process were incredibly helpful during my prelims and through my prospectus. In fact, I still use some of these notes from those prelim books which became foundational for my dissertation.

Tools: A book stand will save your neck and sticky tabs will save those ILL books.

While you can certainly buy sticky tabs at your favorite office supply retailer I stopped buying them ages ago when I noticed that the employers at career fairs for undergraduates had dozens of little promo-notebooks with sticky tabs in them. Whenever I see more than a dozen undergrads in business attire I look for the career fair and ransack it for sticky notes.

Practice: Go Bag. This tip came from a friend who was in the third program mentioned above and had to take her prelims on campus, during business hours, over three days. She kept a go-bag by the door to her apartment and that go bag contained the books she absolutely knew she would need, a full water bottle, healthy snacks, and a couple of her favorite treats. She grabbed this bag every day when she left for campus and when she got home at night she filled up her water bottle and replenished her snacks.

Tools: A big a** bag, a big water bottle (or two), your core books, all the snacks.

Practice: Feed your brain. This one is a little more abstract but in the face of a high-pressure, intellectual challenge like prelims I know many, many academics who forget that they have to take care of their bodies. I am, in fact, the poster child for this particular affliction. It’s important to remember that your brain is dependent on your body. To function at it’s best you need to feed your brain by taking care of your body with food and rest. You can’t, and shouldn’t, prelim every possible second. Your brain needs breaks to do its best work. Plan out what types of breaks would be best for you.

Personally, I made meal times my breaks. I would give myself an hour at every meal to eat, stretch, and watch a show. This was in the context of a 24 hour exam period. The longer your exam period, the more breaks you need to give your body and brain.

Make sure you have food you can eat with minimum fuss AND that you’ll want to eat. Prelims are stressful. It’s OK to have comfort food around. Personally, whenever I get stressed I lose my appetite and have a hard time eating anything but toast. I think I had a dozen loaves of bread in my freezer the Sunday before I started my exams. I wasn’t planning to live only on toast but I was prepared in case that’s what happened.

I know you’ve heard this a dozen times but really, truly, honestly–HYDRATE. Your body is mostly water. Your brain is basically a fish. If you don’t want that fish to go belly up during prelims then give yourself plenty of water.

Again, these are general tips that will be adaptable to many, but not all, types of prelim exams. If you have tips relevant to how your program does prelims then leave them in the comments!



Weekly Roundup

What Not To Do–Exactly what it sounds like from Times Higher Education.

Engagement and Exhaustion–This excellent piece from the Harvard Business Review talks about the nuances of engagement and why it is totally possible to burn out doing something you love. Spoiler alert: when you love what you do but have high demands and low resources (what we call “typical grad student conditions”) burn out happens.

PhD Problems–Excellent advice for when the question of “enough” haunts you from The Thesis Whisperer.

Writer’s Block–And a concrete strategy for how to give yourself the freedom to explore concepts from Explorations of Style.

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.

Making the List: Best Practices

Now that you’ve thought about what work your prelims reading list is doing for you it’s time to actually draft the list. Remember that the reading list is a collaborative work between you and your committee, the structure of which is dictated by your program requirements. Some programs archive the reading lists of past students. It is worth asking your departmental admin if this is a resource available to you as it will give you some concrete examples of the standards for a reading list in your program. As always, consulting with your program’s graduate student handbook and your committee is a great start to the process.

Above and beyond that, though, there are some best practices that should translate to almost everyone.

Course Work: Use as much of your course work as you can when preparing your prelim list. Most graduate students I’ve met, myself included, seem to want to make life harder for themselves for no damn reason. I believe this is why so many of us buy into the unfounded notion that our prelim list has to be made of completely new books (TM) that we’ve never read before!

This self-inflicted Sisyphean exercise makes no sense.

What does it mean when a book makes it onto a syllabus? It means that an academic expert looked at the field of books available in a given topic and chose to include that text in a limited 12 or 16 week course. It means it’s been weighed and measured and found essential. An expert has vouched for it.

I’m not saying you should include absolutely everything from your course work, but you should include all the things you think might make sense. For example, one of my fields was in Feminist Theory. By the time I was preparing for prelims I had taken three Feminist Theory courses: one as an undergraduate, one during my MA, and one during my PhD. I was able to dig out these syllabi and include texts from each of them on my list. I didn’t include absolutely every text but you can bet I included the texts that had made it to all three syllabi because they had been deemed essential by three faculty at three different universities. That might be a hint that they are texts I need to be able to discuss if I want to market myself as a scholar in that field. I also included the texts that had been particularly influential to my thinking because your prelim list is the first opportunity to literally list what texts are foundational to you as a scholar.

Will this practice make your life easier? Yes. Especially if you also happen to have notes and papers you wrote for these courses to remind you what you found important about these texts in the past.

Does that mean it mysteriously cheapens your list? No. Absolutely not.

Am I making an implicit argument about the value of the academic pack-rat? Yes. Save as much as you can from coursework: syllabi, papers, notes. I don’t care how you keep it–just keep it.

The Partial List: The absolute best piece of advice I got when preparing my prelim list was from the junior member on my committee. She told me to make 3/4 of a list rather than a full list because your committee will always, always add to your reading list. There will always be a few texts that your various committee members feel are *essential* and will want to add. After all, we have committees because they know things we don’t and that includes important texts we may never have heard of.

If it’s standard for your program to have a reading list of 100 texts then submit a list to your committee of about 75 books and articles. Your committee will add a few books per member and you will likely add some texts yourself throughout the process so aim for 3/4 of what is standard in your program and you should wind up just about right.

An Opportunity: Almost every humanities PhD student I’ve ever met became a PhD student because they love to read and learn. Prelims are, perhaps, the purest opportunity to read and learn according to your interests that you will have in your academic career. When making your list think of all things you *want* to read but haven’t had time to. Think of all things you’ve read but want to revisit. Include those things in your draft list even if they don’t seem to make sense on the surface. Trust your gut and trust the process.

Our next prelims post will be about how, and what, to read to prepare you for prelims.

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.

Prelims: WTF Are They?

In my program, it is customary for students taking their prelim exams to kick off the blessed event by sending their committee a list of question they, the graduate student, thinks would be good questions for their exams. Some committees use these questions as a guide for the questions they send to the student.

Mine, at least as far as I could tell, completely ignored the (excellent) questions I sent them.

At the end of the oral defense of prelims, my committee asked if I had any questions for them. I did. I asked why they hadn’t used the questions I sent them in the first place. “Those weren’t prelim questions,” they said, “Those were the questions you’ll be answering in your dissertation.”

And that moment, that particular moment at the very, very end of my prelims was when I finally got what prelims actually are.

Before that moment, I had thought that the purpose of prelims was to make me read a bunch of things so that I was prepared to write my dissertation.

And that is the purpose of prelims. Sort of. In a roundabout kind of way.

I’ve yet to notice any significant difference in the structure of exams between programs that use the term “prelims” and those that use the term “fields.” However, in some ways, the term “fields” is a little more instructive because “fields” is short of “field exams” which is short for “field of study exams” while “prelims” is short for “preliminary exams.” Technically, both terms are accurate as the exams are a preliminary to your dissertation, but that doesn’t tell you what they are.

In contrast, calling them “fields” highlights the fact that the purpose of the exams is to ensure that you are qualified in your chosen fields of study by a panel of experts.

With all of this in mind, what actually are prelims/fields?

Essentially, prelims are the most high-pressure book report you will ever write.

When my committee told me that the questions I had sent them where dissertation questions rather than prelim questions what they were saying was that the questions I had sent them were questions geared towards producing new knowledge–which is the purpose of the dissertation. The questions they sent me were questions geared towards understanding the history of thought in my chosen fields of study.

One of my fields was Feminist Theory for which I was given the question, “What is patriarchy?” I was also given the question “How has feminist scholarship contributed to American Studies?” Answering both of these questions necessitated using texts from the history of my field to trace the evolution of the ideas being discussed. My job was not to provide my answer of what these things were (that’s the work of the dissertation) but to prove that I was aware of the debates in my field about the answers to these questions.

If you’re familiar with historiography there is a large historiographical component to prelims. If you’ve done a lit review then you can think of prelims as a more nuanced, more high pressure, lit review.

At the end of the day, what you are doing is showing that you understand the evolution of thought in your fields. In fact, prelims are the last grand exercise of being a student that you will complete in your journey towards the PhD. Prelims are your final act as a consumer of knowledge. The prospectus and dissertation are where you begin to produce original knowledge and do to that you need to be intimately aware of the existing knowledge and arguments on your topic. Hence, prelims.

Over the next week we’ll be covering how to think about your prelim list, best practices for creating your list, how to read for prelims, and how to take the damn things so check back soon!