So what exactly are PhD exams?

Well, I can’t give a definition that fits across department, university, or even discipline.  This is because exam formats vary based on a number of unspecified factors, which are probably decided by a secretive group of professors sitting around in Voldemort robes while they debate the purpose and meaning of said exams.

The elderly gent wearing his hexagonal tam under his hood will probably argue that exams are an illustrious rite of passage.  He thinks students love sitting around for days writing about multiple fields of “expertise” with little time for sleep or food.  The hassled looking graduate coordinator will say that this approach is basically just academic hazing, and damn exams to hell anyway, she has phones to answer.  And the slick new hipster professor of something even he can’t quite define will tweet something on the iphone he hid up his billowy sleeve and say, sure, but I had to take them, and so should everyone else, and this effing level of angry birds…

I exaggerate, mostly.

But truly, every professor I ask has a different opinion about exams, ranging from “these are truly useful” to “I would rather die than take exams again” to “have you seen my new article? you should add it to your list.”

Therefore, my definition of exams is limited to my own personal belief about why I am putting myself through them, what they mean for my future studies and career, and specifically, what the UIC history department requires of me in my chosen fields.


First of all, what are fields?

Fields are areas of historical study that encapsulate certain countries, ideas, geographical regions, approaches to history.

The major field has to be relatively broad–it’s the sort of topic in which, as a future professor, I might be required to teach a survey course.  It proves that I can grasp big concepts, change and continuity over multiple centuries, and long chronological narratives.  The major field also provides the basic support for my dissertation.  I can’t just pull questions out of thin air (as much as I’d like to) without a major field that situates those questions historically and gives them purpose and meaning.

The minor fields are generally narrower in scope.  This means that they are either smaller snippets of major fields, areas of new historical development, conglomerations of interrelated theories–things that support my dissertation, provide it with originality, but cannot really carry it.

The fields are usually selected from a predetermined list of acceptable majors and minors based on the expertise of the professors in the department–I can’t write an exam that no one is able to grade.  But in my case, my project required something just a bit different than what was on the predetermined list.  So, I built a new minor field, found people qualified to grade it, and then successfully petitioned the department to accept my request.

What are your fields and why?

I chose Modern Britain since 1837 as my major field for a number of reasons.

First, I am an unabashed anglophile.  Nothing makes me happier than the idea of taking research trips in the UK for the rest of my life.  Second, I don’t have any language expertise, so I needed a field that would allow me to work with sources written in English.  I’m working on my reading knowledge of French and German for comparative psychiatric studies, but I knew I wouldn’t have either of those languages ready in time for exams–you have to pass language exams before you take degree exams.  Third, no one nurses eccentricities like the British–the wealth of information on science, medicine, oddities of health, exploratory politics, bizarre social movements, you name it, drew me back to this field over and over.  No matter how many times I wandered off into Modern Europe, or America post Reconstruction, or Ireland, I kept coming back.

Both fortunately, and unfortunately, I can’t just take my exams based on the stuff in Modern Britain that really floats my boat.  I need to know the literature on the World Wars, the post 1945 welfare state, the growth of reform movements 1830-1860, etc.  This is sometimes a bummer for me–at this point in my graduate work, I’m really just dying to get my hands on the stuff that will become my expertise, and leave the broad surveys behind.  But the reality is that I’ll need to know 19th and 20th century Britain if I want to get hired later on.  If I walk into a job talk and be all, “yeah the World Wars happened this one time, but let me tell you about the Wasserman blood test,” I will get laughed right out of the interview.

My minor fields are World History and Science and Technology Studies (the latter being the one I petitioned).  My strategy in picking these two fields was two-fold.

First, I picked minor fields that would make me more employable.  In the current job market, no one is really hiring British historians, unless they are able to situate their studies within a much larger frame.

I know this sounds totally counter-intuitive–how does a narrow minor field give me a larger frame? And wasn’t British history suppose to be broad?

Well,  British history is broad in a chronological sense, but over the years it has gained a reputation for being remarkably stodgy, insular, and dismissive/embarassed of its imperial and post-imperial legacy.  (Lord knows…oh, wait, everyone knows why.)  So, studying domestic British history, particularly in the United States, doesn’t really give me a leg up in the job market.

Therefore, I use World History and STS to show that I can contextual British history in the history of science, as well as situate the empire in colonial spaces, rather than figuring empire solely as a political and economic construction that radiated out from Parliament.

And really, although World History is super broad as far as chronology, geography, and narrative, it is governed by a relatively manageable number of theories.  So I’m not really learning all the trivia of all the countries of the world, so much as I’m learning about how a commodity chain works, how spheres of influence like religions, empires, and economic systems interact, and how imperialism became globalization. Likewise, the history of science and technology and medicine is a huge field, but my work in STS considers only certain ways of viewing scientific developments and networks of knowledge.

Second, I picked minor fields that help me to figure out what questions to ask.  Remember, the major field gives me the basis of my dissertation.  It tells me about political theories, social movements, cultural considerations, policies, and the like.  But learning what kinds of questions are hidden in the primary sources produced by those day to day realities takes careful study.

It’s sort of like cooking.  You can make the same soup over and over again, perfectly, by using the same stock, the right ingredients, and correctly measured spices.  But if you know what makes the soup tick, you can combine new spices for a different flavor, substitute ingredients with similar cook times to the originals, or try a new stock.  You basically question the recipe, and figure it’s going to turn out as long as you know your way around the kitchen, and as long as the soup still fits in the original pot.

The major field is the pot, the stock, and the original ingredients.  The minor fields are the new ingredients and the crazy spices.

How do exams work?

Once you’ve selected your fields, you build ginormous book lists for each topic.  The major field seems to require about 75 different books and 25 articles, and each of the minor fields about 50 books and 15 articles, give or take.  The goal as a student is to compile the lists based on stuff you’ve already read, and just need to review.

Inevitably, though, when you start going back through all your syllabi and seminar papers, you’re going to discover that you can’t use like half of the stuff you read because your professors assigned weirdo books that were totally awesome but not particularly useful for your given fields.  So you add some new stuff you haven’t read and hope it’s enough to flesh out your lists.

Part of my STS Minor

It is not enough.

Each field has two exam graders–a primary grader who knows the field back and forth, and a secondary grader, who also probably knows the field back and forth.  So they’re going to look at your list and say, hey, here are ten books you’re missing.  Note: these books will not match between graders.  You will not be that lucky.

All told, you end up reviewing and re-reading about 75% of your list, and then dealing with another 25% of your list that is brand spanking new.

You get a little more than half a semester to work through your lists and prepare practice essays.  You can try submitting these practice essays to your exam readers for feedback.  You can also try needling your readers for practice questions, drawn from the list of books you submitted to them.

You can try.

Then on the WEEK of exams, you get five hours on Monday to write your major field exam–usually three or four sweeping questions.  You get Tuesday to forget precisely everything you just wrote and make room in your brain for your minor field information.  And then on Wednesday you get four hours for one of your minor fields, and four hours again on Thursday for the other. Friday, you get drunk.

Why the HELL are you putting yourself through that?

If you ask my students, it’s because I have a nearly pathological obsession for all things historical and a nerdy life free of social obligation–you know, that I do stuff like this in my free time for shits and giggles.

This is not the case.

Really, I need to take exams because they are a requirement in the completion of my PhD degree.  I have to jump through multiple hoops on the way to my tassel, and this is just one of the hoops.

Also, despite my tongue-in-cheek delivery, I do see the point of the exams…to a certain extent.  Exams were originally devised in an age way the hell before computers, when professors had to compile some seriously encyclopedic knowledge in order to be taken seriously.  Sure, we have the internet now, but no one wants to go to a conference and get caught with their pants down.  You can’t ask the audience to hold while you look up an answer on your smart phone.  And you can’t very well build a network of suitably impressed professors and graduate students if you stumble over basic facts in a narrative you supposedly know by heart.

So, I have no problem learning my fields–I picked them because I enjoy them. I just wish that the exam process was slightly less cloak and dagger.

And although I think it is kind of bogus that I have to take exams a second time–I already did this whole rigamarole at EIU for my MA degree and only later found out that my exam completion would not transfer–my areas of focus have shifted rather dramatically.  I’m trying to just suck it up and appreciate how I get a semester to read about stuff I find interesting (for the most part).  Plus, once I combine these PhD exam fields with my MA focuses, my resume will show that I’m able to teach a wide array of classes, which is a good thing.

Now…to the book-mobile!

(More on my study plan later.)


Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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