Some advice on how to prepare for your Oral Exam

I found the process of studying for my oral examination, over the course of the summer and fall of 2012, to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life – filled with stress dreams, anxious days, and more than a little stressed pacing. I was lucky enough to pass the exam with my sanity (somewhat) intact. To make this deeply unpleasant process a bit more open and less stressful for future generations of Graduate Center (GC) history Phd students (and perhaps graduate students at other programs as well) I thought I’d write down some of the “wisdom” I’ve acquired by virtue of making it through the damnable exam.

As always – your mileage may vary.

Before You Even Begin The Process

  • Apologize to your spouse/partner & family: Have people in your life that love you? Great! But you best apologize to them because you’re going to be a miserable bastard for the next several months – moody, unavailable, stressed. Best be up front about this now, instead of half-way through the process.

As You Choose Your Committee

  • Pick professors that you know: A good orals committee should consist of examiners that you know well and who know you. A big part of what made my exam a success was that my committee was made up of professors that I’d known and cultivated professional relationships with over my 2+ years at the GC. I had a friendly rapport with all five of them, which made staring across from them as they asked difficult questions much more pleasant than it could have been.

    Does your department have a famous professor that you barely know? While it may be a good idea to chat them up at the next departmental party, it is a bad idea to throw them on your orals committee.

  • Mine your colleagues for advice: By the time you reach your oral exam you should know at least a few students that are further along in the program. You simply must question them about their committee! Who did they have on theirs? What was their exam like? Where their any personality conflicts? Every graduate student loves to tell success stories and/or horror stories (sometimes these are the same story) about their graduate career, so don’t feel awkward about asking.Every department has its bad citizens – those who fight with their fellow examiners, ask off-list questions, refuse to offer advice about the process, etc. etc. You need to keep these people as far away from your committee as possible. The only way to do that is to milk the collective wisdom of your department.

As You Write Your Lists

  • There are two basic ways to organize your lists: You can organize them “chronologically” or “thematically.” A chronological list would have chronological headings (such as “the Great Society” or “the New Deal”) with three or four books under each. For an example: see my 20th century American history reading list. I found this type of list very helpful in examination fields where I wasn’t a complete master of the various different topical historiographies. Selecting books this way gave me much more breadth and depth about each subject and has helped alot with my teaching.

    A thematic list would be organized under two or three thematic headings (such as “slavery” or “religion”) with a dozen or more books under each. For an example: see my colonial & revolutionary America reading list. This approach allows you to tailor your list to your interests and provides a lot of depth. However, things are left off (for example there was very little discussion of Native Americans on the linked list).Each approach, I think, is valid and serves different purposes. Some examiners will like a deep “thematic” approach while others will want more chronological coverage. Make sure you consult close with each examiner before setting your heart to any one approach.

  • Novelty is your enemy: About 1/2 of the books on your lists should be books that you’ve encountered over the entirety of your coursework and your own secondary research. Do not just throw a book on your list because it is “new” or (even worse) a classic that you’ve always wanted to read. You have a lot of historiography to master and, most importantly,  keep straight over a relatively short period of time. Just throwing interesting books on your lists willy-nilly is a recipe for disaster. Carefully consider each book you put on your list – for its place in the historiography, its relationship to other books on the list, its length, your scholarly interest in the subject, etc. This will save you many headaches and, possibly, heartbreak as you begin studying.
  • Take a look at your colleagues’ lists: This will give you a good sense of what your department is looking for in a reading list. It is also especially helpful for subject matter(s) you will be largely mastering while you are studying. For example, my European intellectual history reading list was heavily influenced by (read: borrowed from) a colleague’s list. The most examples you have the better.

When You Are Studying

  • Come up with a plan and/or a schedule: It really helps to come up with a basic schedule – X number of weeks on subject A, Y number of days on subject B, etc. – and plan of attack. It should be flexible and open ended but it is beyond helpful to have a general plan even before you crack open your first book.
  • Be prepared to adjust the plan: Shit is going to happen. You are going to get sick. Your spouse is going to get sick. The weather is going to be beyond perfect one day. You are desperately  going to need a drink at some point or another. All of this going to be ok. Life will happen. You’ll need to adjust the plan. By expecting shit to hit the fan, it won’t slow you down as much when life gets in between you and your sack of books.
  • Start with what you know, finish with what you’re unfamiliar with: Once you begin studying start with the subject/fields that you know and love the most. I started with my colonial/revolutionary American list. This way you begin this long, miserable process with subjects that you care deeply about and have already done a lot of work on. Finish up your studying with subjects that you didn’t know well going into the exam or had difficulty with in the past. That way the subject is “freshest” in your mind as your enter the examination room. I finished my studying with my European intellectual history list, and let me tell you, that was the right call.
  • You must appreciate quantity over quality when it comes to your reading: The fundamental goal of studying for your oral examination is to get through all of the books. Now is not the time to be reading these books for their artistic or writerly value. You need to understand each book’s basic argument, evidentiary base, place in the historiography and move on to the next one in the stack. If you are spending more than a couple of days on any one book you’re going to find yourself rapidly running out of time. However you read before you began studying, you are going to have to become  big-time utilitarian while preparing for your oral exam.

    Studying for this exam is like being a shark – you must constantly move forward or you will drown.

  • Create a study group: Depending on the size of your program there will likely be two or three other people taking their examination roughly at the same time you are. It would be beyond helpful if you formed some kind of study group with them – even if their have largely different lists from your own. The value of having other folks to bounce ideas off, to quiz you on historiography, and bitch about all this stress cannot acknowledged enough. I would not have passed my exam without the help of my two friends who also took the exam that same semester.
  • Meet with your committee: Over the course of your studies you should meet with each committee member at least twice. It is important that you get a good sense of what their expectations are for you on the day of the exam. What sort of answers are they looking for? What advice to they have about studying? What do they think are the key historiographies to master?

    If they are open to it, you should also try to get each examiner to do a test runthrough of their portion of the exam. This will significantly cut down on the stress  of actual day of the exam and will get your “botched” attempts out of the way. It certainly did that for me.

  • Book reviews are your friend: There are just going to be some books on your lists that you won’t understand or be able to historiographically place or some historiographies that you simply can’t master despite your best efforts or, horror upon horror, a book or two your university library will refuse to deliver to you. In these (and other cases) book reviews are your lifesaver. While short books reviews can be helpful it is most useful to look at reviews in publications that support longer (or longish) pieces – such as the William & Mary Quarterly or Reviews in American History. Book reviews, with all honestly, will save you when times get tough.

On The Day of the Exam

  • Make sure you get enough sleep: You don’t want to be half-asleep while you are supposed to be rapidly firing off answers to trick historiographical questions.
  • Show up early: You don’t want to begin your exam sweaty as hell from having to run from the subway to the department in five minutes flat.
  • Don’t panic: It may feel like this as you enter the examination room but before you know it will feel like this.
  • Have a drink (or two): After you’ve passed the exam, of course. 🙂

If you’ve made it this far this wall of text, hopefully something from the above will be able to help you pull through. May the Force be with you!


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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