Tuesday, March 27, 2012


So, it's occurred to me that not everyone completely understands this crazy thing called "preliminary exams" that has taken over my life. That's my bad. I forget sometimes that I'm living in what feels like a rather isolated little academic bubble of reading and writing and teaching and grading, and that not everyone understands the crazy that is part of being a graduate student.

To get a Ph.D. in English in my program you have to 1) complete 48 hours of coursework, 2) take the Ph.D. qualifying examinations (which I passed my first year here), 3) complete a foreign language requirement, 4) pass the preliminary examinations, and 5) complete and defend the dissertation.

(Reading the handbook, I think I've got to go take out the phrase "Ph.D. candidate" from my email...I don't think that's true until I've passed prelims. )

At this moment, I have over 50 hours of coursework, passed quals, took French for Reading Knowledge (ugh), and am currently awaiting prelims this weekend. So what do these prelims actually mean?

It means that I have to demonstrate my expertise in two subject areas in a test. My subject areas, as most people already know, are Victorian literature (my primary concentration) and Restoration and 18th Century literature (my secondary concentration). What will happen is that Friday afternoon, I will go in and be tested on the long 18th century. I'll take the Victorian exam Saturday morning.

Most likely, the written portion of each exam will have a number of questions, perhaps six, and I'll be required to answer three of them in the four hours I have to take the exam. In the exam, I have to demonstrate my writing ability (which I'm not worried about), and demonstrate that my knowledge in the area is accurate, appropriately broad (I know a lot about a lot of things), and appropriately deep (that I can really delve into things with my answer). I also have to be able to demonstrate critical positions--that is, I have to be able to identify and apply appropriate literary criticism to the works I'm discussing.

Yeah, I know. That doesn't sound all that bad. What makes it particularly nerve-wracking is the fact that you get two shots at the exams. If you fail twice, you are out of the program. Period. Goodbye to the last ten years of work and the future you'd planned on.

But we won't dwell on that. Once a student passes the written portion of the exam, they then go on to orals, which generally takes place a week or two after the written exams. From what I understand--and there isn't much about orals in the handbook, though I wish there was--it's a conversation between you and the examiners, sometimes about what's in the written portion. They may ask questions or ask you to expound on things you wrote about, or ask you to cover other things.

So, that's where I am right now. The Victorian exam is not bothering me. The 18th century exam does, and that's partly because it is the exam which horror stories are told about. I've still been reading, but I think that at this point, I may simply not be able to cram any more information into my brain. All I can do is try to get some rest (yeah, right).

This is my first attempt. It's not like my future hangs in the balance. (Yet.) But if you are so inclined, send good thoughts my way this weekend. I'm going to need them.

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