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Golden Rule #3: Prepare early and systematically

So how do you prepare for a qualifying exam? Clearly, what to study varies according to your program and research field, but below are strategies that apply to any program.

Be systematic in your study approach. What does it mean to be “systematic”? It simply means to organize the topics that you will study from general to specific as this is often how your exam questions will progress, and it is the best way to re-learn material.

Begin your systematic studying six months in advance. However, do not stress out if all you have to study is three or even two months. As long as you are systematic in your preparation, you will be in good shape.

First, review the basics of your field. You can achieve this by reviewing all of your past lower division courses. You can use your old notes, text books, exams and lab write ups. Focus on the main themes and concepts. You may think that you have forgotten everything, but it will begin to come back to you and be familiar.

Next, review the specifics of your field. This means reviewing all of the material covered in any of upper division or graduate level courses. Again, focus on the major themes and concepts. However, if there are details that relate to your research or your field of study, then focus on those as well.

Now, prepare and practice your dissertation research proposal. Often your dissertation proposal is formulated under guidance from your faculty advisor. This would include a thorough literature review, research objectives and hypotheses, methodology, and expected results. The exam candidate is at an advantage here because at your qualifying exam, you will (or should be) the expert on your research topic. Therefore, any questions that your committee has about your research proposal you will be able to answer. A great strategy for practicing your dissertation research proposal is to explain your research to others. Begin with those in your department, because they will have general knowledge of your research, and will be able to give you scientifically based critiques. Then, the greatest test of your ability to clearly explain your research is to present it to people outside of your field of study. This could include your friends in and outside of academia, and family members. The more that you talk about your research and answer questions about it, the more prepared and confident you will become for your qualifying exam.

Next, prepare your "how I came to be here" speech. Again, all programs are different and you should consult with your faculty advisor and committee chair to see if this applies to you, but most qualifying exams begin with some sort of "how I came to be here" speech. Basically the speech is a warm up for you, and if you prepare for it, you can hit a grand slam! Your committee may ask, “How did you come to be before us today” or “Why did you decide to get your Ph.D.”, or “Why did you choose your topic of study?” The beauty of all of these questions is that there is no wrong answer. The answer is all up to you, and it gives you a chance to tell the committee about yourself, perhaps things they never knew before (where you grew up, childhood experiences, and inspiring events in your life). You also should think of the “how I came to be here” speech as a platform for you to plant seeds for further questions from your committee members. Any information which you give them in this speech may prompt additional questions from them, so be sure to mention things that you would be happy to discuss further.

Prepare for anticipated questions. After you have reviewed the general and specific topics in your field, interviewed and met several times with your committee members, and have prepared your research proposal, you will have covered all of the potential topics that are game for your qualifying exam. As such, you should begin to generate anticipated questions. It is a little bit like predicting the future, but using what you have learned about the format and types of questions asked during exams, you should be able to come up with a few hundred potential questions.

Set up a practice qualifying exam. Setting up a practice qualifying exam is an easy way to give you a taste of what to expect on exam day. Enlist the help of your colleagues, fellow graduate students who have already passed their QE, or even friends or family. Present to them your "how I came to be here" speech and your research proposal. Have one of them keep time for you, so you can adjust the length of your speech and proposal accordingly come exam day. Have them each ask you several of the “anticipated questions” that you have already formulated and even ones that they come up with themselves. Also ask them for critiques on your speech, volume and body language… anything that you could work on before your oral exam. Also, try to conduct your mock exam in the same room in which you will have your qualifying exam so that you become comfortable in that location.

Review recent scholarly journals. As the date of your qualifying exam approaches, be sure to read the latest editions of the most important research journals in your field and subfield. Being informed about the latest research and discoveries in your field may be useful when answering your examiners questions. Your committee members often read these same journals and they may draw some of their questions from recent articles.