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Almost failed prelims (in a humanities field)


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Hi all,

It has been a very long time since my last post, but I have a bit of a troubling situation that is leading me here for any advice anyone might have. I took my prelims (which in my program is a two-hours oral exam) the other day and barely passed. My committee expressed a lot of concerns about my abilities to recall my readings on the spot and express my ideas in a coherent matter in front of an audience. They wrote a really surprisingly negative letter about my performance that will remain in my file indefinitely, even though I ultimately passed. I have already emailed my advisor asking if she really thinks it makes sense for me to continue in the program, given all the concerns expressed in my letter, but there is another issue. I think that the reason I did so poorly on the exam is that I spent the entire summer during which my classmates were all doing their prelims reading instead working on a conference paper that my advisor wanted to me to expand for publication in an edited volume. It was an enormous honor that she invited me to expand and revise this paper for her volume, but I also felt very unprepared to that, as a second-year graduate student who had switched fields late in my course of study and already felt that I was behind where I should have been in terms of general knowledge in my field. I did mention in my email that I thought (or hoped) I could have done better if I had spent the summer studying instead of working on that paper. I am really doubtful, however, that any of this is going to pursued my committee to do anything to modify this negative letter that is now in my file--and I have the sense that in my program, these letters mean a lot. At this point, I guess I'm just not sure how to interpret what happened or whether it is worth continuing in my program not that I'm sort of marked as a really marginal student--and when I feel that the way I ended up getting marked this way was perhaps a bit unfair?

Edited by janaca
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From an outside perspective: you had the whole summer to prep, plus the whole fall + half of spring semester, and there is no way you spent the whole time writing. You could have (and perhaps should have) prioritized studying for your exam more. To me, the story you're telling sounds like an excuse. You're always going to have more than one thing on your plate as an academic, and if you can't handle that, you won't succeed in academia. Now, beyond that, there's a question of whether you prepared correctly, which it sounds like you may not have. You say that there were concerns about your ability to recall your readings and express yourself orally, which isn't so much a problem of having time to do the reading but of doing the extra work to digest, integrate, and actually speak about these topics out loud. I don't know if you did that, but that would be something I would think about. Short version: I don't see anything unfair here. 

Now when it comes to the letter, not knowing your program it's a little hard to know what to say. For one, no one outside your program ever needs to know it exists. These "files" students have won't follow you around after you graduate. So I guess the question is what it does program-internally, and that is something you'd know better than us. The good news is you passed! A pass is a pass. A high pass or a low pass are both just the same a pass, meaning you've been approved to move on to the next level in your program. It sounds like your program isn't shy about letting you know what they think, so if they thought you should leave, they would tell you. Nonetheless, I think it's wise to have a frank conversation with your advisor about this question and get their opinion. If they say you could/should stay, you should ask explicitly how to fix whatever was lacking in your exam. But assuming you stay, you will need to put this unpleasant experience behind you. As I said, a pass is a pass. Impress your committee with your next steps, and they will assume that you've taken their advice in the letter to heart and improved. They won't hold older offenses against you if you're doing well later on. And again, the letter is internal (as is the exam for that matter) and doesn't matter to anyone but your program. You'll be successful in academia on independent grounds that have nothing to do with this exam or letter, so all is most definitely not lost, and you still have a path to success directly ahead of you. 

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Thanks fuzzy logician. I think this is all sound advice. I think I was really stressed out because the feedback really made it sound like the problems with the my intellectual abilities, when I'm pretty sure, looking back, that I just didn't prep very well. For one thing, I read all the criticism chronologically, starting with the oldest stuff first and running out of time to read the most receive and relevant articles and then left myself only a couple of days to go over all my notes and no time think about how I'd synthesize the material. But of course my committee doesn't really know this--and probably wouldn't understand how/why I grad student would prep for prelims so unstrategically. Time management is not my strong suit! I guess I'm lucky I passed and have a chance to show then I'm smarter than they think--and to try to improve my time management skills. Anyway, your comments have helped a lot!

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I've failed my exam before.  I was rushing too much and I also didn't allow myself time to digest and integrate arguments (which @fuzzylogician mentioned).  My committee, of course, got into a big argument over whether I should stay or leave.  They settled that i should be given another chance.  I buckled down and re-organized my notes, and then passed the second time.  I was still left with so many doubts.  I worked hard to pass the second time but I could not shake off the general comment coming from the first exam, "Do you want to be generalist or a specialist? If the latter, it doesn't make sense for you to be a historian."  Ouch.  Eventually, my favorite committee member reassured me that such a situation isn't going to define what makes a scholar great.  Two years later with a number of accomplishments, I believe that she is right.

Frankly, I am surprised that your adviser asked you to undertake an article for publication when you should be focused on studying (my adviser severely restricted what I could do during my third year, including grant applications and research).  If you advise graduate students in the future, you have this experience to draw from as to how to advise at this stage of graduate students' career.

Going forward, if you still have the same committee for the dissertation proposal/prospectus defense, you have this opportunity to truly shine.  Go above and beyond with your prep work.  Make use of books/articles that you had to read for your exams and show how your dissertation fits with those works. Once you pass this with flying colors, everyone will more or less forget about the exams themselves.

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My prelims were also a bit shaky. I had ~2.5 months to digest a 230 book reading list (with a 1-course TA load), which often meant grinding through 5-10 books in a day. Needless to say, while my exam committee found my synthetic work very interesting, they had severe concerns about my degree of precision with regard to the texts. 

It doesn't matter. I passed. I got what I needed out of the exam, which is a broad overview of the fields I need to work in, and when I need to talk about a specific subject, I know where to look. I have publications coming up. My prospectus is looking very strong. My summer research trips are planned and funded. 

They were traumatic, they're over, move on.

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10 hours ago, TMP said:

Frankly, I am surprised that your adviser asked you to undertake an article for publication when you should be focused on studying (my adviser severely restricted what I could do during my third year, including grant applications and research).  If you advise graduate students in the future, you have this experience to draw from as to how to advise at this stage of graduate students' career.

I just don't agree with this.

Publications and research - and in extension, grant applications - are infinitely more important than your comps. You should be focused on publications and research from day one, those are what are going to get you employed when you're done. There is no period where you should be 'focused on studying.' Comps are a antiquated, but still useful, hoop for students to pass through. But that's it: to pass through. You do what is necessary to pass the comp and hopefully not much more than that. You should be able to juggle research, teaching requirements, studying, anything else, at once; because it is not going to get easier later on, especially if/when you are on the TT.

There's nothing really you can do now about it, but at the end of the day you passed your comps. No one outside will see that letter. It may marginally make your LORs when you apply to jobs indirectly weaker (i.e., they sure as hell won't mention it, but they may perceive you now as weaker than they did before). But there's nothing you can do about it. Just produce the best research you can, write a good dissertation, and try to publish because that's what is going to get you a job anyway.

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@Comparativist This is one of those things that varies not only between institutions and departments, but within departments, but there can sometimes be a major difference between 'comps,' which seems to be what you're experienced with, and 'prelims,' which the OP mentions. Although the words are often used interchangeably, my prototype of 'comps' is a set reading list that all the students in a program (or subset of a program) have to get through to pass to candidacy. I can see how this would seem antiquated, and worth doing the minimum possible. My prototype of 'prelims' are written exams based on a reading list the student has designed. It's possible to design prelims that are over-broad and end up being a waste of time. On the other hand, it is also possible to design prelims that, although they don't directly lead to publications, set you up with a strong foundation to publish quickly and well once you've reached candidacy. In the latter case, they still shouldn't be a "to-the-exclusion-of-all-else" priority, but to throw out an unscientific estimate, might be worth doing 15% more than the minimum possible. I don't really know what the OP is talking about, but it's possible people have been talking about different kinds of exams.

It's not really that important to the discussion here, but I'd like to note that publishing from 'day one' is both field and background-specific. Although I don't know the layouts of other disciplines very well, over on the GRFP thread I see a lot of people even in the hard sciences saying things like, "my field doesn't expect students to publish until their third year!" But to take my field as an example, a lot of anthropology PhDs do not have access to enough evidence to write a publishable article until they are in their fourth or fifth year. The most likely effect of a medium-quality publication from your first two years is either 1) mild to moderate positive effect (for people with master's degrees and 5+ years of previous experience in the community they study) or 2) to distract you from your preparations for those ABD years, making it more, rather than less, difficult for you to achieve the necessary pace to get a job later (for the other students). This obviously benefits the people with decade(s) of previous experience, but the most important part of their publication record is the period that follows their dissertation research period (years 3-4), just like it is for the less experienced PhD students. I don't know whether OP is in a field more like yours or more like mine, but your experience with publication timelines is not universal.

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25 minutes ago, hats said:

@Comparativist This is one of those things that varies not only between institutions and departments, but within departments, but there can sometimes be a major difference between 'comps,' which seems to be what you're experienced with, and 'prelims,' which the OP mentions. Although the words are often used interchangeably, my prototype of 'comps' is a set reading list that all the students in a program (or subset of a program) have to get through to pass to candidacy. I can see how this would seem antiquated, and worth doing the minimum possible. My prototype of 'prelims' are written exams based on a reading list the student has designed. It's possible to design prelims that are over-broad and end up being a waste of time. On the other hand, it is also possible to design prelims that, although they don't directly lead to publications, set you up with a strong foundation to publish quickly and well once you've reached candidacy. In the latter case, they still shouldn't be a "to-the-exclusion-of-all-else" priority, but to throw out an unscientific estimate, might be worth doing 15% more than the minimum possible. I don't really know what the OP is talking about, but it's possible people have been talking about different kinds of exams.

It's not really that important to the discussion here, but I'd like to note that publishing from 'day one' is both field and background-specific. Although I don't know the layouts of other disciplines very well, over on the GRFP thread I see a lot of people even in the hard sciences saying things like, "my field doesn't expect students to publish until their third year!" But to take my field as an example, a lot of anthropology PhDs do not have access to enough evidence to write a publishable article until they are in their fourth or fifth year. The most likely effect of a medium-quality publication from your first two years is either 1) mild to moderate positive effect (for people with master's degrees and 5+ years of previous experience in the community they study) or 2) to distract you from your preparations for those ABD years, making it more, rather than less, difficult for you to achieve the necessary pace to get a job later (for the other students). This obviously benefits the people with decade(s) of previous experience, but the most important part of their publication record is the period that follows their dissertation research period (years 3-4), just like it is for the less experienced PhD students. I don't know whether OP is in a field more like yours or more like mine, but your experience with publication timelines is not universal.

I disagree. The phrase "you should be focused on publications and research from day one" is perhaps the most universal statement (outside of totally irrelevant or trite things) one can make with regards to grad school.

1) I don't see a large difference between comps or preliminaries. Either way, the advice still stands: do what you need to do to pass and not much more. Sure, preliminaries may take more time and resources (given that you have to produce your own reading list), but that doesn't really change the parameters of what I said. What you are differentiating is how to approach preliminaries, not of their overall usefulness in the grand scheme of things (and, once again, their utility is very marginal compared to your research).

2) You are kind of strawmanning here. I never said you need to be pumping out publications from day 1. I said you need to be working towards those goals. That means developing working papers, running experiments, collecting data, ect ect. 

3) "My field doesn't expect students to publish until their third year." These kind of statements are complete hogwash. Expectations are meant to be broken. There are countless PhD students who break expectations, and surprise, they are the ones that get the offers when they hit the market. Once again, I didn't say you need to publish from day one; but that doesn't preclude you from working towards those goals. Whether that is developing a solo working paper, or getting involved in a collaborative project (in some capacity) from the get go is irrelevant. 

4) "A lot of anthropology students don't have enough evidence to write a publishable article until fourth or fifth year." Well, get that evidence. Get grants/spend your own stipend savings and get out and do fieldwork your first two summers.

5) A medium-quality publication is a medium-quality publication, which is better than no publication. I disagree that it's a mild to moderate positive effect. Publications are not a finite resource -> one publication doesn't reduce your ability to publish other high quality work.

6) I don't agree with the tradeoffs argument. You have a research agenda. You then take a pick axe to it and break it down into smaller projects that you go out and do from day 1. You are always working towards a bigger agenda/project (your dissertation). Granted, people could get involved in a lot of really disparate projects that overburden them and bog them down, but that's not a necessary corollary to what I proposed. 

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3 hours ago, Comparativist said:

There is no period where you should be 'focused on studying.'

If you can pass comps without a ~3 month period where you're focused on studying (I had to give up cycling and gained 25 lbs), your committee let you off easy, to say the least. It sounds to me like comps are more a formality in your program than they were in mine; you should be careful about universalizing your experience.

And sure, we can all question the utility of comps, but in the end, you need to do what your committee expects. Otherwise, you don't pass, and then your publications (or whatever) don't matter. 

Edited by telkanuru
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1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

If you can pass comps without a ~3 month period where you're focused on studying (I had to give up cycling and gained 25 lbs), your committee let you off easy, to say the least. It sounds to me like comps are more a formality in your program than they were in mine; you should be careful about universalizing your experience.

And sure, we can all question the utility of comps, but in the end, you need to do what your committee expects. Otherwise, you don't pass, and then your publications (or whatever) don't matter. 

I never said not to study. I said to do what is necessary to pass and don't ignore everything else to study for your comps.

There's no reason whatsoever that you can't devote 4 hours to research and 6 to studying for your comps everyday and get what you need to get done.

And if you are leaving the entirety of your comp studying to one short period then perhaps you should question your planning. There's no reason why you can't stretch studying for comps over a 6 month+ period. 

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21 minutes ago, Comparativist said:

There's no reason why you can't stretch studying for comps over a 6 month+ period. 

Two members of my committee would only give me my lists with 3 months to go. They were on sabbatical and wouldn't start before they got back. If I had the option to take 6 months, I absolutely would have. Some programs do want you to ignore everything and study for comps. Again, you should understand your own experiences are not universal.

Edited by telkanuru
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1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

Two members of my committee would only give me my lists with 3 months to go. They were on sabbatical and wouldn't start before they got back. If I had the option to take 6 months, I absolutely would have. Some programs do want you to ignore everything and study for comps. Again, you should understand your own experiences are not universal.

So your objection to my statement is to bring up a totally obscure example of 2/3s of your committee were on sabbatical + being dicks about your comps? I can tell why you're not in a nomothetic-driven field (I'm kidding, btw). 

Edited by Comparativist
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@janaca, if they didn't think you should continue in your program, they wouldn't have passed you. Your job for the rest of your time in the program is to prove the naysayers in your program wrong. That's it. You can quit if you want but that's not what anyone here or on your committee is telling you to do.

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9 hours ago, Comparativist said:

So your objection to my statement is to bring up a totally obscure example of 2/3s of your committee were on sabbatical + being dicks about your comps? I can tell why you're not in a nomothetic-driven field (I'm kidding, btw). 

It's ok, even if your profile hadn't said, I would have guessed polisci or econ from the way you extracted general conclusions from a highly limited case study and were willing to fight to the death to defend them :ph34r:

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@Comparativist Yeah, I'm still talking about a graduate career that's focused on publishing from day one. In many fields, taking two or three months to do your prelims properly is part of focusing on publishing.

I hesitate to drag this even further on topic, but re: 4) I have never seen a good article based on only two summers worth of ethnographic research. Being in the field every possible moment will still set you up to publish starting in year three. I had already built your argument into my assumptions.

@janaca I hope your advisor is able to be reassuring. I'm sure it was upsetting to read your review, but they did pass you: that's the result they give to tell you to continue in the program. That said, having a conversation with your advisor is a reasonable response. Try not to exaggerate how badly you did—they did pass you—but it's valid to want, and I hope you get, a more reassuring conversation about next steps from here.

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Thanks so much, all, for these helpful responses! Now this exam result has had a week to settle in, I'm glad just to have passed and am, as some of you have suggested, going to for on writing the best prospectus (and dissertation) I can. Hopefully that will be easier now that I'm at least done with coursework.

In my program, we do a self-designed prelims list, but we also teach and take two classes during the fall term while we are preparing. I let the teaching and coursework take over in the fall and then didn't really get going on the prelims until winter term, when I had a lighter teaching load and no grad classes.

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I think the thread's going off the rails a little bit. They key points to remember are:

1.) You passed. That means you can go on. And nobody outside your program will ever know about this letter in your "file" unless your references mention it because you haven't demonstrated any improvement by the time you graduate.

2.) You got your priorities wrong, juggled ineffectively, and were insufficiently prepared.

The lesson here is a simple one, and shouldn't be hard to take on board. Publications are very important, but so are some much harder and earlier deadlines and progression requirements. You need to learn to balance competing priorities, all of which are important. But that's okay. Everybody needs to learn that. Just buckle down and move on.

As fuzzy said upthread, you passed. That's a vote of confidence, even if it came with a warning.

 

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