How to Read Books, Write Essays, and Pass Comprehensive Exams (or, How to Become a PhD Candidate)

45 books, 3 written exams, 1 oral exam, a lot of preparation. How does one do it?

In North American PhD programs, a differentiation is made between a PhD “student” and a PhD “candidate”. When a student is accepted into a PhD program in North America, his or her program begins with the requirement to complete a number of courses/seminars/colloquies/other activities. The courses range from being fairly broad (e.g., Pauline studies), to fairly specified and/or technical (e.g., linguistic modelling), to professionally relevant (e.g., pedagogy). One or more courses will usually be devoted to research methodology, and a student may also take a number of directed research courses as a part of their coursework which might be highly specific. Colloquies would be devoted to things like writing a dissertation, teaching methodology, publishing research, etc. Other requirements include passing modern research language exams (e.g., in German and/or French).

The goal of the coursework phase of North American programs is to broadly educate a student in the respective field, so that they will be better teachers. This is consistent with the whole North American philosophy of higher education which tends to be focused on coursework and even on professional development (whereas the European and British systems focus relatively more on narrowing towards critical research earlier–the degree I am enrolled in is a blend of the North American and British model).

There is a transition point at the end of this “student” phase, where the arrival of special requirements mark the point at which the student approaches candidacy. These include the dissertation proposal, and the comprehensive exams. If the former is approved and the latter are passed (in addition to the satisfactory completion of the aforementioned courses) the student becomes a PhD candidate. This is a formal designation and does carry some benefit with it, like the ability to list yourself as a “PhD (Cand.)” on publications, etc., rather than listing your last completed degree (which might have been years prior), or the ability to get hired as a “PhD Candidate”; or in some cases the automatic granting of an MA should the student not complete the PhD.

The proposal is a major piece of writing that needs to be accepted by the faculty in order to get the green light to do the specific research project (in European / British degrees, the program begins with some sort of proposal already accepted). This is a major milestone, but its production is fairly straightforward: you take all your ideas, notes, plans, and thoughts that you have developed over a couple years of coursework/thinking about your research project, and you put them into a well-structured proposal.

The comprehensive exams, however, present a much more interesting problem which I want to discuss below.

Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive exams always involve at least two things: reading, and writing. At times (and in my case), a third, oral, component is included. In my program then, I was required to do the following:

  • Identify three main areas of research (I give my own as examples)
    • Primary content area: e.g., The Book of Acts
    • Primary methodology area: e.g., the philosophy of history
    • Breadth/interest area: e.g., Greek and Roman history
  • Identify reading lists of at least 15 monographs for each area
    • These must be academic volumes (ranging from introductory to advanced)
    • These must be the major works of the respective fields
    • They must not be works previously read
  • Write an essay on each area (the written exams)
    • The exam consists of a number of questions, prepared by the committee and unknown by the student, which the student must select from, and write an essay worthy of the degree level. The time limit for my exams was 90-minutes
    • These questions may be on anything in any of the books, or relevant to the field, and, of course, are unknown prior to the start of the exam.
  • Orally defend written exams via an examination by the committee
    • Each committee member, having taken some weeks to read the essays and re-examine the readings, takes a period to question / grill the student based on the written exams. The oral exam may be anywhere from 60-90 minutes.

If all requirements are met, the student passes without any remediation! If there are some concerns in an area the student might be asked to write a large survey paper on that area (of the quality of a survey paper in a PhD course). If there are greater concerns, the student may be required to re-do all the comprehensive exams. If issues persist after remediation, the student fails out of the program! I’ve known students who required remediation, and who failed. Fortunately, I was successful in that I did not require any remediation, and my exams/oral defence went particularly well.

  • some programs have longer reading lists and the student might not be expected to read them all; some have longer written exams; some do not include an oral component. The details are actually besides the point for the advice I give below.

How does one do it? How can you absorb the content of nearly 50 monographs in a relatively short time, and write (in only 90 minutes!) intelligent essays on any given topic in the field worthy of the level of a PhD student? How can you then adequately defend the essays under examination?

These were my questions. Like many, I was also concerned with balancing work, family, recreation, and battling one or another virus to boot! In one sense, the qualities needed to speak intelligently and broadly/synthetically to going concerns in an academic discipline take years to develop. And yet, a good plan of attack, such as I lay out below, can work wonders over a 6-month period for anyone looking to pass their own exams, manage course reading lists, or even looking to self educate in a relatively short amount of time (however, much of my advice below is predicated on the assumption that an individual is already decently read in a respective field).

It all begins with one of the fundamental educational objectives: how to read a book.

How to Read Books

There are many books about books, but Mortimer Adler’s book is probably the best about reading. Adler was an American philosopher of no mean reputation, known for his teaching at the University of Chicago, and especially for his work in classical education and with the Encyclopedia Britannica and as the general editor of the Great Books of the Western World.

Adler identifies four kinds of reading in his book:

The first is elementary reading, and has to do with the actual learning of the skill of reading which those educated as children tend to develop in their early years. I assume this is not a point at issue for people reading this blog, and yet it is worth mentioning that some adults–even adults in post-secondary education, have never really learned to read well. Attention spans dwindle as true comprehension never really gets going. In my opinion, the best remedy for repairing such ruins is picking up classic literature aimed at the high school level, and reading it. Read a lot, and think about what you read, and talk to someone about it.

If comprehension is a problem for a different reason (entering into a technical field), you absolutely must search for the introductory volumes that chart as best a balance as possible between being too technical, and too simple. Someone educated in the field can help you find these books (like your teachers or supervisors). An introductory work of exceptional quality is worth a hundred books besides, and will pay off dividends.

There are, according to Adler, three more “levels” of reading. The next level of reading is inspectional reading. Inspectional reading doesn’t necessarily build on top of elementary reading (as if it’s the next step). What it involves is the ability to quickly absorb the general content and contributions of a book, and being able to intelligently categorize its importance (and main arguments). Inspectional reading involves looking at titles, subtitles, tables of contents, indices, introductions and conclusions (at the book, chapter, and sub-section level), and for such things as novel arguments, etc. Inspectional reading can be done is as little as a couple hours, or as much as a couple days.

Then comes analytical reading. Analytical reading is the kind of reading many people perceive academic reading to be (when in reality, all four levels are integral to academic reading). Analytical reading involves having a conversation with a book, marking it up with notes and questions, and meditating on its content. In a sense it is the practice of being able to turn the book inside out and upside down, understanding it, evaluating it, and even being able to adequately criticize it. This is the most involved form of reading, and I maintain it is never truly finished. One might, however, come to a natural pausing point in as little as a week or as long as a few depending on the size of the book.

The highest form of reading according to Adler is Synthetic reading. Synthetic reading involves aspects of both inspectional and analytic reading. The goal of synthetic reading is to see the development of ideas not only across a given book, but across a much larger cultural discourse. How does this author’s disquisition on love fit within those other works on love in the Western canon? How does that author’s ideas about history fit within ideas about history (or something akin to it) in his and other traditions (like Eastern writings)? Synthetic reading is about bringing together many voices into a conversation, and intelligently interweaving them, discussing influences, similarities, differences, dead ends, and live issues.

The crucial task when approaching a book list is deciding how to read them. Do all books merit the same level of reading? We intuit that the answer is no–even for course requirements or exam prep. But we can have a more systematic approach. Consider the below

When to inspect, when to analyze, when to synthesize. . .

  1. An inspectional reading should always be the first step for approaching any book being read for information.
  2. An inspectional reading will help you categorize a book into roughly one of two classes: the book contains information I am largely familiar with, or, the book contains largely new information
  3. Within these two categories, an inspectional reading will help you further qualify the contents of the book: these chapters contain information I am largely familiar with, and these chapters contain new arguments/information
  4. Analytical reading should begin on all new information or new argumentation. Do not make this too rigid: analytical reading beginning in new sections can be a guide to move throughout a book to all sorts of places to gain better understanding.
  5. The more you analyze, the more any subsequent reading will become easier. There is a compounding, “snowball” effect or “positive-feedback” effect that emerges especially strongly when a good reading list is made and good approach is undertaken. The order and method of reading makes a significant difference in time taken and in comprehension.
  6. Some books are very difficult to read inspectionally (I find that the books most pleasurable to read are the ones hardest to “insepct,” because they are more narratival, and less textbook-y).
  7. Point 4, about analytical reading as a guide to move throughout a book, can and should give way to more dynamic movements, picking up other books, and thinking about relations in a synthetic way.

This kind of approach would allow a person to take a large reading list and meaningfully and manageably digest it in a relatively short amount of time. Consider especially point five above: Imagine that in a list of fifteen important books, you find that five are largely familiar, five are largely new, and five are somewhere in the middle. It is a general rule that the familiar will be largely made up of books that introduce a field, but that are nonetheless important to read (perhaps you’ve already read one good introduction, but another survey/anthology/introductory work is on your list). These familiar books can be inspected and sections can be analyzed, in short order. After the first, the next will go quicker, and so on. This is especially true if you order your reading chronologically and topically.

When you move onto books on special topics, with more new information, only after you have tackled the most familiar volumes, you will find that less is new than was when you first looked at your list: since you have built new knowledge. If you can structure your book list into coherent sections thematically, and then chronologically where applicable, you will find that by the time you get to the books first designated “almost wholly new,” that they will in fact seem to be somewhat familiar before ever opening them beyond a first inspection. This remains true except for truly good books that tend to be idiosyncratic, field-changing, or the like, which must always be read deeply–even if your survey readings (which naturally transgress the chronology rule) have summarized them “well.”

Note: I am not suggesting that one’s goal be an “inspectional” reading of more and more. Inspectional reading is information gathering. One’s goal should be as much analytical reading as possible, so as to effect as many synthetic connections and thoughts as possible. The point I am sustaining above is that you will have the experience of “the wind at your back” so to speak if you structure the list aright.

Now your task is to compile, organize, and read! The next concern is the essay (or paper, etc.).

How to Prepare to Write Essays

Well, type an essay anyway.

You’ve put together good book lists (by the way, your supervisors will help you, as mine did me). Essay prep actually begins at the same time reading begins, in the note taking phase.

I take what I consider to be a minimalist / intuitive approach to notes: I simply note things that catch my attention (always citing page numbers and putting quotations in quotation marks), put basic marks in margins, and after reading a book or sections try to very succinctly summarize its essence with reference to particular points of importance. I sometimes have as little as one page of notes for some large books, or have many pages of notes for some smaller books. I find personally that when I engage in reading at any level without too many breaks for notes, I remember the material better.

Another kind of note taking that I practice is what I consider “rhetorical” note taking: when I drive, or walk about, etc. I narrate to myself the things I have read. I make arguments, and criticisms, etc. This is simply something I’ve naturally done for as long as I can recall. Are the asylums are populated with those of similar habit? Yes. I have no shame in identifying potential kinsfolk. I bet you’ll be there, too.

Anyway, this is all preparatory work for the main task: the essay. My own idea, which turned out very well for me, was to prepare for the exams in the following way:

  1. I left about two weeks before each exam, at which point the readings for that exam were already complete.
  2. I then took a couple days to outline 3-4 short essays on the most important themes or topics from my readings (this is all synthesis). I then began to slot in authors, books, and sections under various headings, until I had a fairly detailed essay outline (~2 pages, single spaced), and then fleshed the essay out to 4-5 pages.
  3. I then made a final, simplified outline (1/2 page), as well as a detailed outline (full page) for the essay.
  4. I took all the data I wanted to memorize from each essay, and put it into flashcards on Anki.
  5. I then read, and re-read the essay along with the outlines, concurrently getting flashcard work in.
  6. The result was that over the course of 12-14 days, I was able to essentially memorize the content of about 3-4 essays.
  7. At the same time, I revisited my reading notes, and made “book briefs,” for each book: about a paragraph summarizing, to my mind, the essential contribution of the book (note, this is not the same thing always as the “received” contribution of the book; the essence of good reading and intelligent discourse is to have your own dynamic impression, and not simply to parrot the status quo).
  8. Altogether, I was ready to deploy something about each book, as well as a number of pre-made essays for the exam.

What to do in practice?

When the exam comes in, you will have the exciting opportunity to choose a question you think yourself best able to answer, and scan your mind for the essay, or parts of essays, you can “activate” to write the exam. How this will actually go is anyone’s guess, but you’ll be well suited if you follow the above advice. In one case, I summarized three full essays almost entirely, which was exciting but intense. In another, one of my pre-made essays perfectly fit the question, so it was very nice.

The challenge of course is that the questions will likely contain nuances you have not prepared for. This requires an ability to think on the spot intelligently, and can only be done well if you have taken sincere time to think over the preceding months and years. My advice would be to say something with a confident yet measured voice, however “small” a thing it seems.

If you prepare like this, I venture that you will at least feel very confident going into each exam. Consider my case. For various reasons I did not sleep well (~3 hours) before two of my exams. And while I felt in a bit of a daze (upheld by 2 parts prayer, 1 part supplements [natural and synthetic]), I found the preparation to pay off because I could rely on something very well-defined in my mind. I consider this preparation effecting a “separation of the dominoes,” where one thing in life falling down doesn’t impact a subsequent thing (because of adequate preparation).

Once you have managed to read your books, make your notes, and write your exams, you might be done. If you follow my advice, you will probably have passed and are ready to prepare for some rest and relaxation. Others might, however, have a further requirement: the oral defence.

Defending your Essays

Preparation for the oral defence should proceed in a fashion similar to preparations for the written exams: notes for memorization should be made.

What I did was I made “essay briefs,” about 10-12 for each written exam, that were paragraph long defences, elaborations, clarifications, and the like, based on things I had said in each exam. I also made briefs answering the exam questions I passed over in selecting the one that I did.

I narrated these briefs like I imagined I would in the defence, and alongside their memorization, I revisited my book briefs to shore up any lagging memories for the exam (my oral defence, owing to unfortunate personal circumstance, ended up being two months after my final written exam, over three months after my first written exam, and about four months after most of my readings).

And that’s it. It’s less work than it might seem, and with enough lead time, it can all be completed within the normal ebb and flow of work and study weeks, and life, etc.

Now all that remains is the crafting of your own plan!

Maybe you have major exams on the horizon like the comps I’ve here discussed, or perhaps you are just starting out in undergrad or grad studies and are staring down reading lists larger than you’ve had to manage before. Whatever is the case, I hope this advice helps you do what many students find difficult, but know is absolutely necessary: lots of reading with lots of comprehension in a less than ideal time-frame.

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