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Meeting the Challenge of Qualifying Exams

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 23, 2014


For many graduate students, comprehensive exams (or qualifying exams) are a painful experience. Without a clear structure to guide them, many students put off studying for these exams for long as possible, right up to (and past) the last possible moment. The problem is partly structural: it’s challenging enough to manage life and coursework without preparing for an exam that might be a year or more away.  It’s also tricky to create a system for organizing and integrating the sheer mass of information encountered during a typical doctoral program. Finally, preparing for qualifying exams presents emotional and cognitive challenges because the experience asks students to begin seeing themselves less as novices and more as full-fledged scholars capable of directing their own studies.


Most programs don’t offer students more than a moderate amount of guidance as they begin this process. Perhaps six months before the crucial date, students might be ushered into a short talk about the exams, given a page or two of study guidelines, and told to talk to their advisors. In some departments, students are totally dependent on their advisors for orientation. But most students need plenty of guidance about how to keep track of the concepts, constructs and theories they’ve encountered during their coursework. They also need advice about how best to immerse themselves in the material. Without clear guidance and an organizational structure, many experience tremendous anxiety and even paralysis as they flail around for any kind of systematic approach.  It’s not unusual for students to put off asking for help until the exam is only a month or two away. Faculty mentors can sometimes help, but there’s no guarantee they’ll have the time and energy to do so, especially as the deadline approaches.


The good news is that tools and practices that can help already exist. As a student, you can begin preparing for your qualifiers the moment you enter your first classroom using qualitative data management software. Many universities provide this software for free via institutional memberships (NVivo is often available this way). Free instructional webinars and YouTube clips demonstrate how to use the software to upload, organize and code articles, book summaries, essays and papers topics. With these resources, you can highlight and save key quotes and assign them to categories. You can also preserve your own comments as you read, and these can be coded and searched. So months or years later, important ideas can be retrieved with a few keystrokes. Using this kind of system, studying becomes much easier. Articles don’t have to be re-read and scoured for useful quotes when it’s time to study---the most important information is already right there, waiting to be reviewed.  At this point, integrating and weaving together material in order to build models and lay out arguments can be done much more quickly than usual.


The resources of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD) provide an easy structure within which to guide your study time. Their planning and writing webinars can teach you to create a semester plan, begin a daily review and writing practice and check your progress by holding weekly meetings with yourself. The Center’s resources can also help you organize your own weekly study group, modeled on their Faculty Success Program, so you are surrounded by others committed to the same goals. Most importantly, the NCFDD’s core webinars can help teach you how to return to studying and writing every day---a skill that’s crucial for acing your qualifying exams.

Once you have an organizing system in place and a structure within which to work, you need to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to perform well on the crucial day. First, consult with both your faculty mentors and other graduate students who have taken the exams recently.  Interview them about what will be covered and how questions are usually presented.  Find out who will be writing and grading each question and make sure you speak to the faculty responsible as well. Take careful notes about what everyone tells you about the exam material and exactly what graders will expect to see.  Ask about the biggest mistakes students usually make and don’t repeat them.  Finally, make sure you know which courses and materials will be covered---whenever possible, get a list. 


As you begin to study, you’ll need to work with your study group or study buddy to develop a semester plan that allows you to cover the most critical material in daily writing and review sessions.  Early in your review, focus on the core concepts that you will be expected to master.  Don’t forget to reread your old essays and final papers in their entirety---they can be invaluable in helping you to catch up on material that’s a bit fuzzy while reminding you how to integrate different sets of ideas.  These records of your most important thoughts, written in your own voice, will help you identify important themes that are likely to appear in exam questions. Later in the process, write, write, WRITE!  Write daily summaries of what you have reviewed and how the ideas you’ve studied can be connected with other concepts and models in your field.  As the date approaches, write timed practice exams---you can consult your interview notes to construct likely questions.  Keep everything you’ve written, and right before the exam, take a break and get some sleep.  Then you’ll be ready to do your best.


Combining the organizational power of NVivo with the daily writing, accountability and planning techniques of the NCFDD can help guide you through the daunting process of studying for your quals.  Just as importantly, this approach can help you develop ideas for dissertation work very early while preserving your initial insights. And for those of you who will go on to conduct qualitative research, familiarity with programs like NVivo can position you perfectly to excel at data analysis when the time is right.  All of these tools can make the dissertation writing process much faster and easier, and that is the biggest benefit of all.

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