The Center for Writing Studies

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Graduate Resources

Special Field Exam: A Conversation With Grads

Getting Started

What is a Committee?

KAREN: The committee is 4 people, three of who have to be part of the graduate faculty (see the Graduate Studies Office handouts for more information about this). They can come from various departments; one can be from another university. It's important to choose people you can work well with. Also, I've learned that you can always have more readers for your dissertation than your committee members—some of my friends have asked faculty members to read a single chapter, the one that most aligns with their interests. And readers can be from other universities as well.

JOYCE: I saw the committee as a way to bring people together who would help me with my work and give me a variety of perspectives, so I chose people from several different disciplines. I think it can be a mistake to see committee members only as people who will judge your work. Although they do fill this role, they are also supposed to be helpers and guides. I tried to choose people who were interested in my work and whom I thought had good ideas.

JOYCE & KAREN: As we were creating this document, we discovered that the exam committee and the dissertation committee do not necessarily have to include the same people. However, we both created the exam committee with the intention that they would also serve as our dissertation committee. The process of choosing committee members would be the same for both situations (exam and dissertation). We’d like to note that because of the effort involved in selecting committee members, you would want to make changes only when necessary. (The graduate studies handout does contain a brief comment on the procedures for changing committee members).

How to Choose Your Committee Members

KAREN: People always ask if they should get a "big name" person as a way to get ahead on the job market. I'd respond that it's nice when the "big name" matches up with someone you can work comfortably with, but if you can't work with the "big name," then you probably won't finish the dissertation project (certainly not easily). To me, picking people you can work with is a higher priority than picking "names."

To me, choosing a committee seems like putting together a packet of recommendation letters for a job. For many jobs, you'll ask different people to highlight different strengths & experiences in their letters, and you'll think about how all of those letters go together to make a full picture. The different members of your committee will also play different roles, and you'll want to think about what each may contribute to your project and to your well-being. You also want to pay attention to whether your potential committee members can work with each other—it's no good to have a committee that's consumed by infighting.

Your director will comment on the full dissertation and is also there to facilitate the project, in case you have conflicts with other committee members, or administrative problems come up. The director will also write letters for grants and fellowships. (Since most applications require two or more letters, you'll be asking your other committee members to do this as well). Usually, the other members will have certain specialties that you'll be drawing upon (and keep in mind the value of good readers to you, whatever their field). One story about this committee-choosing process is that when you apply to take the exam (with the administrative assistant in the Graduate Studies Office), you'll be asked to provide the names of your committee members and include a "one- to two-word" phrase that "explains why they are on your committee." When I heard that, I thought, "you've got to be kidding." I ended up putting something like the following:

Paul Prior (chair): Theory
Gail Hawisher: Writing Studies
Peter Mortensen: Methodology
Chip Bruce: Pedagogy/technology

Although I found it funny that I was asked to so briefly summarize the members' input, it’s not a bad idea to think about what each member of your committee can contribute to your work.

JOYCE: Something Karen and I have heard from other grads is that people are uncomfortable about asking someone to be on their committee. We have talked about this and we both share the opinion that it is part of the faculty’s job to work with graduate students on these projects, and if it makes you feel better, remember that it can help their career portfolios to say that they’re working with graduate students on these kinds of projects. Choosing a committee is a really important step and it is important to make good choices—however, keep in mind that putting your committee together is an ongoing negotiation. Potential members can have other commitments or projects which make it impossible for them to work with you—for example, they may go on sabbatical and leave the country--and as you develop your project and interests you may find that you need a different person on your committee. As we noted above, you can change the members of your dissertation committee after you finished your special field exam.

Interdisciplinary Issues

KAREN: Different departments have different exam procedures. For example, I discovered that both Education and GSLIS have two exams. The first one is the comprehensive, and the second is a defense of the dissertation proposal. The English department combines both functions. This means that you may need to advise your committee members from other departments (and your director can help you to do this) as to what the exam entails in the English Department (or vice versa, if you're from Education, GSLIS, SpComm, etc.).

JOYCE: I’d only add that in addition to practical, logistic issues, members from other disciplines may have different definitions of terms (for example, Andrea Press, one of my committee members from the Institute for Media Research, has a background in Anthropology and Sociology and so had a very different understanding of the term “ethnography” than Gail Hawisher and Cathy Prendergast--both in Writing Studies--did). Committee members may also have different ideas about what it means to do research and often about what it means to write about research data (Karen nods). However, even though having people from different disciplines can be complicated, in my opinion it really is great way to bring a sense of diversity to your work—and I feel that is an advantage to scholars in Writing Studies.

The Connection between your Dissertation Topic and your Reading

KAREN: The connection between your dissertation topic and your reading list is open to interpretation. While there should be a connection (it would be a nightmare to read all that stuff and then have to start all over for your dissertation!) often the level of connection will depend on how fully you’ve articulated your dissertation ideas. The committee will also play a role in determining how closely your readings connect to your project.

JOYCE: As I was constructing my reading list, I had a lot of wild ideas about my dissertation project. This meant that I kept putting strange, very tenuously connected materials on my list. As I refined my list I ended up deleting items that might eventually be relevant to my dissertation (for example, articles on health care), but were too difficult to fit into the categories I had developed. Another graduate student, Mary Sheridan-Rabideau, initially had a less defined dissertation project and so her list included more general items in theory and methodology, which she felt were relevant to her work as a Writing Studies scholar.

The Role of the Director during the Exam Process

JOYCE: Your director will (ideally) be a great help to you through all of the processes involved in preparing for your exam. I know that Gail Hawisher was a great help to me. However, I would say that while it is really important that your director be available to offer practical advice (about all aspects of the process) and guidance, I think that your relationship with your director will depend quite a bit on your personalities and interests (which is why it is so important to choose your director carefully).

KAREN: Paul Prior has been a terrific director for my project. Some of the specific tasks which he handled for the exam included 1.) reassuring me that I could do it, 2.) talking with me about different schema for conceptualizing how the different parts of the list fit together (basically talking through several options for categorizing my materials under headings and subheadings), 3.) advising me on potential committee members' specialties, 4.) sifting through my list to help me decide which texts to keep on the list and which texts to delete, 5.) doubling the number of texts on my initial draft of the reading list when he provided specific cites for further items I should include, 6.) discussing the procedures of the exam, 7.) editing the exam questions through several email exchanges, 8.) advising other committee members about the exam procedures, 9.) taking charge of the paperwork on the day of the exam, 10.) choreographing the order of the questioners during the exam, and 11.) taking notes during the exam.

Your Reading List

How to Create the Reading List

KAREN: I gave myself time to do this, about 5-6 weeks when I finally began working on the final drafts. (I had been collecting ideas for the exams during my coursework, and had already begun talking to my committee members about them.) The trick is that in addition to combing through resources for good citations, you'll be working with 4 busy people on this, and they'll need time to look things over. You'll need to select an overall exam category (or categories) for your exam (see the information about this on our website). For example, my list was “Writing In/Across the Disciplines” and Joyce’s was “Computers and Composition: Interdisciplinarity and Technology.” Both of us tweaked the “pre-endorsed” category names. It can be very useful to look at the previous lists that other graduate students have compiled (note: some of these are online).

When I started gathering specific citations, I found that databases lie. In particular, the information for recent publications was likely to be wrong (since the dates submitted to the databases for forthcoming works are often overly optimistic). I had checked my lists against two databases, and when I had the texts in hand, I discovered some bibliographic citation errors. I corrected as many as I could find, and the corrected list is online (not in the Graduate Studies Office). Also, check with your committee regarding their preferred citation style. Gail Hawisher asked me to put in the full names of all authors, as opposed to the strict APA style.

Possible sources for citations:

Above all, talk with your committee members (Peter Mortensen even forwarded blurbs about suggested books to me that he probably found on University Press websites and Amazon.com.)

Another idea: You do not necessarily want to be examined on everything you want to read, so my aunt Andrea (Lunsford) suggested that I create a shadow list of texts that weren’t included on the exam list, but looked as if they would be useful for the dissertation. When my committee members received my exam lists for approval, they also received my shadow list, and so could move texts back and forth between the two lists.

JOYCE: Compared to Karen, I feel that my process was “huge and unwieldy.” I basically looked up approximately a kabillion books, checked most of them out and tried to put all of them on my list. I was forced to reduce the list but had great difficulty deciding about what to remove, because I hadn’t read any of the books. My committee did help me with this process (although it was difficult because much of my reading was interdisciplinary). My only advice would be to remember that this process is time-consuming and you will NOT be able to put everything you find interesting on the official list. I was able to get through the process only my resigning myself to the idea that some texts would get “lost” in shuffle. For example, Donna Harraway’s Simians and Cyborgs somehow managed to disappear and reappear on my list several times (it did make the final cut).

How Big Should Your List Be?

JOYCE: Not as big as mine.

KAREN: Not as big as mine, either. There are guidelines available (see our web) from the Graduate Studies Office that set minimum requirements and provide advice about the maximum. However, in Writing Studies, the texts we read are often quite different than in literature (for example, articles carry more weight), and all adaptations of requirements must be negotiated. Something that will also be negotiated is the balance between texts you've already read (in seminars; on your own) and those that are new to you. Since my committee and I had decided that mine would be a "coverage" list to introduce me to a broad range of texts, most of the texts (say, 85%) on my lists were new to me, and from new fields, and even those texts that were familiar were put into new contexts. I used my exam questions to narrow the list for discussion (see below).

Articles vs. Books

KAREN: You’ll want to discuss this with your committee members. Sometimes they will want you to include a whole collection rather than one or two articles from a collection. Online articles are worth looking for, too.

JOYCE: I found it was really useful to include collections of articles rather than just one article. These collections offer a good way to get a diversity of opinion about a (fairly) specific topic area or interest. I also found that including in my list articles from journals in the field helped me to keep the “state of the discipline” in mind as I read many texts in different disciplines.

Getting Approval for Your List

KAREN: First, you'll want your own committee members to agree upon the lists and a rationale explaining why you've chosen these particular topics and headings. I gave my committee members an 8-page dissertation prospectus when I gave them my lists/rationale so that they could see where I was going with the research. (This was informal; it wasn't required, but it helped get everyone on the same page.) Then, if you're a student in the English Dept., you'll submit both documents to the Graduate Studies Committee. The GSC can require changes/additions to your lists and especially to your rationale. They are looking to see whether the proposed exam holds together well. Several GSC members are likely to be outside of your field, and so you and your director may enter into some further negotiations with the GSC to accommodate the dept's requirements. My rationale/lists happen to have been passed on the first try, but I had allowed time to re-submit my exam proposal to the GSC. I also continued reading while my documents were going through this process.

JOYCE: I think Karen has really covered this issue well. The process of getting the list (and rationale) approved can be time-consuming. I found that meeting with my committee members in person was useful—it helped me to get a clear idea of what they wanted and expected from the list. My committee members were very helpful in suggesting bibliographies and specific texts for me to look at as I built my list. It is certainly important to leave time to re-submit before your exam, as I understand it is fairly common for the GSC to ask for changes in your list, your rationale, or both.

Preparing for the Exam

Administrative Tasks

KAREN: Your director will have some administrative tasks as well, but here are some of the ones you'll be responsible for:

1). Contacting the administrative assistant in the Graduate Studies Office early in the process to find out about forms and deadlines. Also ask about arranging for an exam room (usually the inner room in Rm 294, or one of the small seminar rooms).

2). Arranging for a date and time for the exam. THIS IS HARD!!!!! You'll be trying to coordinate the schedules of 5 busy people. In fact, don't necessarily wait for the final approval of your exam lists to do this. If you're planning to take your exams at the end of a semester, contact everyone at the beginning of the semester to arrange for a date.

3). Filling in paperwork. Expect several forms—One that accompanies your exam list & rationale, and one that the Graduate Studies Office submits to the University to alert the Graduate division that you'll be taking the exam. The Graduate division will respond by sending a letter back to you and the Graduate Studies Office that officially designates your committee and gives you a time limit for taking the exam (within 6 months of your application). Your committee will sign a form saying that you've passed the exam.

In addition, the Graduate Studies Office uses this time to make sure all of your records are in order—that all petitions for credit hours have been approved, all extensions have been fulfilled, all grades have been recorded, etc. You may have to take care of any discrepancies before you'll be allowed to take your exam.

4). Confirming your questions with everyone. I developed questions primarily with Paul and invited everyone on the committee to comment on them. Paul also seconded my email to everyone with his own email to request feedback.

5). Making sure everyone has final copies of your rationale, lists, questions, and any other exam materials.

JOYCE: The administrative process was a real …..… a very difficult process for me. It was important for me to remember that there would be multiple stages which would each include its own set of tasks—so I could never say “whew!” and relax until it was fully over. It also helped me to make a “checklist” of the process, so that I would know what was coming next, and so that I could remind myself of the tasks I hadn’t yet completed. Karen’s comments (above) would make a good start as a checklist.

How Much Time Should I Allow to Study for the Exam

KAREN: It will depend on your circumstances, but it would be better to get the exam over sooner than later so that you'll have time to work on your dissertation. Here's a quick summary of my timeline & circumstances (reconstructed from the email record): I submitted my list/rationale to the Graduate Studies Committee on June 8, 2000 and started reading seriously; received the GSC approval on July 5; set my exam date by Sept. 14; developed my exam questions with my committee between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30; and took my exams on Dec. 8. During this time, I was working as a Research Assistant (rather than teaching, which made a difference because the research more directly complemented the exams), and I was working on a lengthy article that was due at the end of December. Unexpectedly, I lost two people close to me, one in late August, and the other in late October (this also made a difference). All in all, this ended up being a tight schedule; I pushed myself to finish the exams on time. If I had to do it again (NOOOOO!!!!), I'd develop the exam questions sooner because they helped focus the reading. On Dec. 26, I also finished the article, which is one of my dissertation chapters.

JOYCE: My own timeline differed somewhat from Karen’s. I started in the spring of 2000 and then intended to (but didn’t) get a lot of work done on the list during the summer. When fall came I had a list that was MUCH too long and struggled through several months to decide what might/must be dropped to make the list manageable. I had originally planned to take the exam in October, but I saw almost as soon as the semester started that I would need more time to make my list. I ordered books and browsed them to see if I wanted to include them—this took many weeks. Finally, Thanksgiving (Nov. 2000) rolled around and with Karen’s good example in front of me I managed to complete a list and get all the committee members to say it looked fine (in this final stage I worked mostly with Gail Hawisher, my director). I sent the list in for approval just after Thanksgiving, and received notice at the very end of the semester that my list had been approved. I had not wanted to set a date for the exam before getting approved, but I set a tentative date with all the committee members that the exam would be at the end of January. After the list was approved we finalized the date (and do please note Karen’s comments in the section on administrative tasks about how difficult coordinating schedules can be. Don’t despair). Finally, I took the exam on Friday, February 2, 2001.

Organizing and Keeping Track of your Reading

KAREN: I put all of my exam books in one place; it made me feel more in control over them, as if they were wild horses that had been corralled. I did manage to read one book accidentally, thinking that it was on my list—and solved that by adding it to the list a couple of days before the exam. I tried to read 2-3 related texts almost simultaneously, and I thought about comparisons/contrasts among them. That way (ideally) when I was talking about one text during the exam, I also had a couple of others in mind that I could mention. It was also helpful to form reading groups with other people studying for their exams.

One note: Tracking articles from collections can be difficult because they are not listed separately on your exam list. I ended up citing some of these in my exam questions so that I could see their names during the exam.

KAREN AND JOYCE: We had different approaches to buying books, which we felt might be useful to mention. Karen purchased some of the texts she felt would be central to her work (so that she could feel free to mark in them). I waited until I had read all of my books and then purchased several which I knew I would want to read more completely as I worked on my dissertation. We both also photocopied the articles on our lists (in order to have access to them). This can take a great deal of time (depending on how many articles are on your list); Karen had to budget her time carefully.

JOYCE: I also put all of my exam books in one place. Additionally, I kept all of my books checked out of the library until after the exam (the library website (telnet) provides a great way to track what you have out so that books don’t become overdue). I had to renew all of them several times, but it seemed very important to me to have the texts available for perusal throughout the process. I was right—often I needed to look back at books I’d previously read. Even though I took notes I sometimes found that I wanted to look at different sections or connect the text to a book I’d read more recently.

I took notes for every text until I decided that I had run out of time (about two week prior to the exam when I still had WAY too many books to read). Then for another week I “read” notes into a tape recorder rather than writing them all down. As I got to the final days I did use my notes to review texts, but mostly I used them to remind myself of what certain books contained. I found that I had too many books to keep them all in my short-term memory. The notes helped as memory devices to remind me of major themes I had forgotten. I found that “grouping” authors (making notes by hand or using a database) according to their topical relations (for example, "These 10 authors are all basically talking about hypertext forms") was helpful. I was very worried that I would not be able to remember all of the connections I wanted to address during the exam. This was true; however, it was also true that I knew far more about the texts that I had read than the committee could possibly have covered in two hours.

How to Get Through it All

KAREN: Short answer: you don't. I did a LOT of reading, but I discovered (again) that trying to read everything with equal thoroughness and sanity was a bit unrealistic. I kept thinking of Francis Bacon's comment, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Really. I have a Lit. background :-) Everyone I know who has taken exams has had some texts on their lists that they did not have a chance to read as well as they would have liked, occasionally not at all. But they had read enough to pass the exams and to start themselves on the way to a dissertation. I'd recommend "chewing and digesting" several key texts (especially the theoretical texts that interest you the most) that can provide anchors or frameworks for your other reading. These key texts do not necessarily have to be read first—your interests will develop further as you read. A good part of the reading, though, will be skimming for main ideas and for interesting examples that you can talk about during the exams.

One strategy: Reference books can provide very helpful summaries to help orient your reading, especially when you're working with texts from other fields. So, I used the Encyclopedia of Philosophy to figure out some of the background for my Toulmin readings and for some of the theory. I also looked at a few book reviews to figure out how a book related to other texts. Book reviews also provide summaries.

Another strategy that can help you get through a list when time is growing short: Reading will consume as much time as you can give it. There's always something else to learn about a text. So, sometimes it helps to limit your reading time for some of your texts. Schedule your reading for a day, and allow 1 or 2 hours for a book, a ½ hour for an article. Decide that what you learn in that time frame is what you will know about that text. When you read the text, esp. the introduction and conclusion, try to link it with texts you've already read. You'll find that themes will start repeating across your list. When time's up, let it go and move on.

I can't remember how many days I spent 14 hours (or more) a day reading, but there were several. I started doing back exercises. Also, I tried to have a few places where I could study so that I could change the scenery a bit. The Union has some nice study rooms—sometimes, having people around helped me stay more awake so that I could concentrate.

JOYCE: I always read at home. I ate a lot of popcorn to stay awake (especially while reading theory). I also varied the books. I tried to move around in the different areas (see my list) and not read two books in a row that were on the same subject (I found I didn’t remember them as well afterwards). I read theory fairly early (none in the last week) because during the last week I resorted to “skimming” and I find that theory suffers when submitted to this process. Do try very hard to clear your schedule in the last weeks (unless you are very good and have read all your books by then!). I found that I constantly needed more time for reading and I ended up putting several things (work for Gail, and work on other articles) on a distant back-burner in the weeks before the exam. On the day of my exam I was glad that I had been able to clear my schedule. It helped me to be less nervous.

The Exam Questions

How Do You Create Questions?

KAREN: My questions primarily dealt with issues that had come up in the research I was doing. I tend to think very concretely, so I needed to draw upon specific experiences to talk about more abstract concepts. Paul had let me know, too, that the first and last questions were pretty well set: how did you get here? (a summary of how your intellectual interests have developed and are represented in the exam) and where are you going? (a discussion about your dissertation). I also talked with my committee members—I think that Chip Bruce and I spent two hours talking about pragmatism to develop one of my questions.

JOYCE: My questions were a bit difficult to create (I had so many different areas I wanted to talk about). I found that the only way I could get through the process of creating questions was to sit in my office (where all my books were) and think of very broad connections or differences I wanted to talk about. Then I looked at my books to see who was talking about those issues. Then I created questions which related the specific texts to the ideas I wanted to discuss. It was a complex process. I don’t think I could have done it earlier in the reading process (I waited until two weeks before the exam), because I had to read the majority of the texts before some connections became clear to me. I think it would be a good idea though, to keep a special place to make notes, throughout the reading process, about interesting “global” kinds of relations between texts—you may find them useful when you start to create your questions.

What Should Questions Accomplish/Look Like?

KAREN: In my case, we had reached a compromise. Some committee members wanted to see a broad range of texts on my list that I would be exposed to, whereas others wanted a much shorter list that I would know more intimately. The list ended up being a coverage list, whereas the questions named the texts that I could be expected to know more thoroughly. My questions (see online) were also doing a couple of other things: 1) I had been working with individual committee members on various research projects, and I was the only one who had information about all the projects I was involved with. In part, the questions were filling in committee members about the projects. As a result, my questions have a lot of background/context information that may not be necessary for other people's exams. Since some of this context contained sensitive information, I edited the questions somewhat before posting them online. 2) The questions partially structured the exams. Overall, they divided the discussion into sections. In addition, most questions incorporated citations within the structure of the sentence to indicate how the texts related to each other. Paul had suggested that this would be helpful than merely listing the citations at the end of the questions.

JOYCE: My questions were primarily my attempt to show that I had read broadly and deeply and could come up with interesting things to say about my readings. I confess that I began to enjoy the process of making questions only when I attempted to connect texts that seemed (on the surface) to be very different in interesting ways. For example, in question number 9, I managed to write a question that combined (somehow) James Berlin’s discussion of the postmodern experience of time with a text on the storytelling practices of individuals with chronic illnesses (to my dismay—I loved this question—we didn’t actually cover this question during the exam). I worked backwards from the questions “what are the connections?” or “how could this be MADE to connect to that?” and developed questions that I felt would allow me to those connections.

I also worked to provide questions that would address my committee’s varied interests in my work. Each committee member chose two or more questions from the list.

The Final Week

What Should Final Preparation Be?

KAREN: Here's one ideal: By the final week, you will have completed your reading, or at most, you'll have 2-3 texts to look at. As a result, you'll have time to review texts and time to write answers to your exam questions. You'll take (or will have taken the week before) a mock-exam with 4 friends who will let you rehearse what the real exam might be like. And you'll be able to work in some stress-reducing activities. I know people who have been able to do all of this. My reality was that I was on a tight schedule, especially since it was the end of the semester. By the final week, I had completed reading the books, but was still working on some of the articles. Instead of writing out answers to the questions fully, I wrote outlines. I had to skip the mock-exam (although I would recommend that people do a mock-exam). I was stressed. I ended up doing fine at the exam.

JOYCE: I stayed up late reading several nights before the exam during the final week. I confess, I started to feel desperate as I piled stacks of 15-16 books on the floor for each of the final days in my prep. week. It was a big push to keep going. I would certainly advise people to avoid this kind of down-to-the-wire process if at all possible. On the other hand, I would remind people that whatever your final process, it does have an end. Ultimately, I felt that I had put too many texts on my list. Many of them seemed repetitive. But I worked to get through as many as possible and managed to read, or a least skim, all but two of them.

The Final Review

KAREN: The last couple of days before the exams, I did work primarily on answering the exam questions. I also set a deadline to stop studying for the exam (by 5 o’clock the evening before the exam), and I had friends who made me stick to it.

JOYCE: I saved the final day before the exam as a day to make an outline of answers for the questions. I found that this was very stressful, but probably necessary. At the very least I think it’s important to re-read all of the questions and make brief notes about your responses. (Karen jumps in to agree: People have asked what to do if you haven't finished reading everything. At this point, it's better to put aside anything you haven't read yet and focus on reviewing your questions.) I think I started to get a bit out of control on the final day before the exam—everything I had read or thought of seemed to run together. Finally, I went home and rested, just browsing through a final book that Gail had given me and then going to bed early. It was the smartest thing I did during the entire process. Getting up refreshed made the day much easier for me.

The Day of the Exam

What to Wear?

KAREN: I wore black slacks, a turtleneck with a sweater, and a small book necklace that always fascinates people—basically, an outfit that I'd feel comfortable teaching in. It was too cold to wear the really nice stuff that I had thought about, and I didn't have the right shoes, and I had no time to shop for them. :-( I was a little disappointed about that, but if you asked my committee now what I wore, they probably couldn't tell you. (well, unless they read this). I'd guess that sweats would be pushing the limit, but you want to wear something that makes you feel good/comfortable.

JOYCE: I wore a blue scuba-diving suit with black flippers and purple neoprene gloves---really I wore a blouse and skirt, but the dive suit would have been funny. I did buy the blouse two days before the exam (TJ Maxx, of course).

What to Bring?

KAREN: I brought my exam documents: my lists & rationale, plus a few charts/diagrams/quotes that I had also given my committee members ahead of time and wanted to discuss. Pen & paper for writing down notes to myself. And big breakfast muffins for everyone from one of the bakeries, though I was too nervous to eat. I should have remembered to bring water for myself—talking for 2 hours can make you thirsty.

JOYCE: I brought toys and food. I made magnetic sheets for the committee member to use to build maps of our discussion (and for them to take home to their kids or grandkids later). I brought coffee and cakes from the Sweet Indulgence bakery. The best idea is probably to think about what your committee members would like, and then, if you have any doubts, just bring something very simple (muffins and/or juice/water). It is also fine to bring nothing at all. I don’t think committee members really expect graduate students to bring them gifts!

What Actually Happens during the Exam?

KAREN: I arrived in the dept. a little early, picked up my mail, and discovered a confusing (though routine) letter about the exam from the Graduate division. Gail helped me to figure it out. I waited in Teresa's office for awhile and then went down to Rm. 294. Paul and I arranged where I was going to sit (the end of the table) and then talked while waiting for everyone else to gather. Mostly, we were discussing the dissertation title, since that's a required element for the exam form that they would later sign.

Once everyone showed up, I got sent out of the room. I talked with Sharon while the committee arranged who was going to ask what questions, and what order they would go in. I heard later that Paul had pretty much worked out a lot of this ahead of time. So, back in and into the first question, asked by Chip. I know that I always have an initial adrenaline rush to deal with when I feel like I'm performing, so I had rehearsed that opening question a bit so that I could run more-or-less on auto-pilot for the first 2-3 minutes. A bit stiff—things felt better to me when people began talking with me and with each other. I had been told that this was supposed to be a conversation rather than a performance, and people afterwards said that it did seem like a conversation, although I couldn't quite convince myself to experience this as a conversation (that's just me). For the most part, the committee was focused on the exam questions I had prepared, though often with variations. For example, if a question seemed focused on similarities among texts, they asked me about differences. I did trip over one multi-part question that I should have made notes about on paper before attempting to answer. Since my exams were based on my research projects, the talk about dissertation issues went on throughout, although we focused explicitly on the dissertation at the end. Then I got sent out of the room again while the committee conferred. I went down the hall to get a drink of water, and when I got back, I talked with Sharon again (she must love exam days :-) Then Paul fetched me back in again, everyone congratulated me and shook my hand, we talked briefly about how the exam went, my committee signed the exam form, and we skedaddled out of there so that Sharon could go to lunch.

JOYCE: I was pretty nervous but also excited. I really did feel that I had read a lot of books and was eager to talk about what I’d read. I tried to think of the exam as a discussion more than as an exam. It was sometimes hard to do this, but my committee members were all very supportive and so the actual exam was very comfortable and non-threatening. I did get asked to leave the room right at the beginning (this is so the members can talk about which questions they want to ask) and then at the end.

As it turned out, once I got rolling, I didn’t want to stop. One of my committee members had to leave right at the two-hour mark, and I felt like saying, “No wait, don’t go, I’ve read so many books! I’ve got more to tell you!” In the end it was fun and I enjoyed hearing the members’ responses to my dissertation ideas (which is usually the final question for everyone). They gave me good suggestions, and some specific ideas about where to move next. I definitely think it’s a good idea to make follow-up appointments several weeks after the exam (especially with your director) to map out some specific strategies for your dissertation. Immediately following the exam I couldn’t have done it (overload) but after several weeks it seems important to keep on track.

JOYCE and KAREN: It would be unrealistic to expect no nervousness on this big day. Both of us were nervous—although we were confident we would pass the exam. Probably it is best to simply deal with your nerves in the ways that usually help you. Keep in mind that your committee wants you to pass. Finally, we’ll say that there will be at least one question that leaves you looking like a deer staring into headlights. We both had one of these. We passed our exams anyway.

A Title for your Dissertation

KAREN: This doesn't have to be your final dissertation title, but it does have to indicate a direction for your dissertation that matches the type of exam you took. Apparently, an earlier Writing Studies candidate ran into trouble from the Graduate Division when her dissertation was about Writing Studies, but her exam was basically in a Literature category.

JOYCE: I’ll confess, I had no idea what to put down, so Gail and I decided after the exam what to write on the form. This title does not have to be your final dissertation, but it should reflect generally the project you have planned.

The Aftermath

What to Do after the Exam is over

KAREN: My exam was in the morning; in the afternoon, I went to one of my jobs, proctoring the computer classroom. Friends had covered hours for me ahead of the exam so that I'd have time to study during that last week. Since it was the end of the semester, and everyone was swamped, that was truly generous. I had to pick up my hours again as quickly as possible. I went to a wonderful holiday party in the evening (at Joyce’s, who should be required to throw a party for everyone who passes their exams). That weekend, I slept. The next week, I started working on my article again, but by that point, I was sick with a really bad cold. I didn't get over that until I had spent a few days at home in Florida for the Christmas break. I slept a lot there, too. I guess that getting sick is one thing I'd recommend planning for—a lot of people catch some sort of bug as soon as they allow themselves to relax after the exam.

JOYCE: Relax. Remember that although it’s not the end of the road, passing your exam is a clear sign-post that you have achieved something. Studying and passing your exams IS a big deal. You should take a moment to appreciate your success. It will all get hard again soon enough.

A Dissertation Proposal

KAREN: Some committees may require graduate students to write a dissertation proposal in the weeks after the exam. I'd negotiate this, if it's required—you don't want this to become a major, formal roadblock that keeps you from a dissertation. (I've known some people at other universities who have written their first chapter before returning to write a required proposal.) A prospectus (and updates) can be useful, though, if it helps you focus your thoughts and helps your committee advise you. I had given my committee an informal prospectus before the exam. You'll also need a short prospectus fairly quickly so that you can apply for departmental fellowships and released time, or campus and non-campus grants.

JOYCE: Definitely don’t let the grass grow for too long after you finish your exams. I know that I don’t want to forget all that stuff before I start working on my dissertation. I would recommend taking some general notes about specific texts you think you will want to use (especially note books that you will have to send back to the library), and also listing texts which you didn’t get to read but might want to read for your dissertation project.