The Dissertation Bottleneck

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.

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!



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.

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!

WTF: Prelims

As with all things related to a humanities PhD,  requirements vary from program to program, department to department, school to school, and university to university. The advice contained in this column is not intended as a supplement for your graduate student handbook. 

It’s February and we are introducing our WTF Topic of the Month. We’ve chosen to kick off WTF Topic of the Month with preliminary/field exams, also known as prelims or fields. You see, prelims and February have a lot in common. They are both short and brutal, but they can both be beautiful. Like sitting on a frozen lake in a frozen wilderness, prelims can be an amazing experience that changes your view of yourself and the world, but it takes training and is not for the faint of heart.

Over the course of the month, we will address a variety of questions that fall under the rubric of WTF: Prelims including the purpose of prelims, how to create your prelims reading list, how to read for prelims, and how to actually take your prelims.

If you have other prelim topics you want to see covered then drop us a line here.