Passing the Qualifying Exams

If we analogize the PhD journey to climbing an Everest-like mountain, I’m heaving to catch my breath right now. I just passed my qualifying exam.

After reviewing two hundred (plus) books—divided into three reading lists (“Gendering American Studies,” “Body Politics,” and “Contemporary Life Narratives”) that culminated in a week long examination where I wrote three essays and orally defended them—I struggle to feel “qualified” in anything.

It’s the academic trap.

Like Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” It was quite paralyzing to come to this realization, weeks before my exam. My exam committee reassured me that the goal wasn’t to know everything, but rather to understand and identify the trends/conversations happening in the field—a much more manageable task.

Post-exam, I gave myself a week and a half to catch up on sleep, to not read or write, and to cocoon myself in a protective bubble against thinking of other looming deadlines. These things are considered significant luxuries among graduate students.

After my brief reprise, it took very little effort to realize I’ve just climbed the first of several peaks of a seemingly infinite mountain. Remaining, I have my comprehensive exam, research/writing of a book-length manuscript, editing and defending the dissertation, attempting to get it published, and doing those things all over again–should I choose an academic career.

We know about the tortured artist who finds refuge in the act of creating art, but is there a similar romance to the tortured academic? Perhaps.

For outsiders, PhDing might seem elusive yet inspirational at best, and masochistic or self-delusional at worst. As an insider, this process is undoubtedly hard, but it’s easy to remember the privilege of my choice. I get to spend a good chunk of my days, weeks, and months absorbing the ideas of past and contemporary scholars and intellects, and then figure out how I can contribute to those conversations.

I get to geek out for a living.

I’m still planning on writing a cultural biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo—the Chinese African Canadian beach volleyball Olympian.

…of course with the support of a published and well-respected team of very smart people. (Well, almost. I still need to get my dissertation proposal approved first.)

PhD Exam Prep: It Begins


Easing my way into week 1 of exam prep reading. Yes, there are two popular press books on this week’s stack!

It’s time.

Since day one of my PhD program I had spent too many moments fretting over the qualifying exams and doubting how I could ever read, discuss, and write about ~200 books in time. We didn’t read this copiously in the social sciences and I wondered if switching to the humanities was too lofty an ambition.

That was two years ago, and now I’m about to embark on my six month long reading journey. At the beginning of my coursework, I couldn’t have imagined how excited I would be to start reading approximately five books per week until this December. But I totally am!

Most of my academic experience (largely since high school) seemed a kin to perpetually eating a dry salad–you knew it was good for you so you endured through it but the reward was quite delayed and kind of obscure. I was (and still am) a fairly good and consistent student, yet I didn’t always love the experience and process of learning.

I never thought I would look this forward to preparing for such an intellectually intimidating exam. For the first time in all my many years of being in school, I finally feel ownership, direction, and autonomy over my education and intellect. It helps that I can choose most of my books (albeit within academic parameters) and concretely see how most of them will serve my intellectual future.

I’ve been told by professors and friends who are now well past their post-doc years that this study period is a special privilege, and that I’ll never have this opportunity again to dedicate so much time to reading. undoubtedly, I’ll need to remind myself of this privilege when I’m eyes deep in the jungle of dense theory and I feel like giving up.

Study tips and encouragement are most welcome!