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History Comps Advice Pool

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Ok, it is different everywhere in the planet, but we sort of have to do it. Those of us who sat for comps, let's pass on our tips, what worked for us and what didn't, for upcoming fellow exam-takers. 

Some guiding questions (not binding, of course)

  • Can you briefly describe the format of your exam? (No need to name school)
  • How did you organize your fields? 
  • How did you organize your notes?
  • What have you learned in the process?
  • What was useless/didn't work? 

My two cents

  • Format: Three fields (one modern, one colonial, one of my choice), 24hours open book in the span of ten days, plus oral exam. Roughly 120 books per field.
  • Fields: The first two were given. For the third field I framed it as my theoretical framework for my dissertation. It was tough, because I read theory and history from different places, but totally worth it. 
  • Notes: I used OneNote. I created one copybook for "exams", and there I had my three fields sections. Each book was one page. In my notes I included table of contents, reviews, summary, and general notes. Not for every book, of course, haha. 
  • Outcome: I read in a forum that we need to imagine exams as going to a conference, dropping by a panel and being able to have a conversation. That was very helpful for me (I am sorry I don't have the quote, I promise to look for it). My committee also saw exams as that: the opportunity to learn about fields (extensive coverage) and engaging in a conversation with someone outside your geographical field but within your thematic one. Also, exams are a test of character. I focused on not gaining weight (I gained it afterwards), but I was very stressed and feeling that my life swirled around something so trivial as exams. I mean, really, there are more important things in life than exams. That was very frustrating but I could talk about it with my advisors. I learned a lot about myself, as naive as it may sound. 
  • Negative results: I feel I forgot everything. It is good I have notes and I wish I had started studying earlier. I am not a very good self-disciplinary person and exams pushed me to be so. It was painful. Start with working habits super early, like the moment you come to grad school. Really, they will pay off. I mean, I have to write a prospectus now and a dissertation later on, so good work habits are never extra work. 
  • Additional note: ASK ASK ASK!!!!! Ask for advice from EVERYONE in your department. It helps a lot!!!!!!

Hope this helps a little!

 

AP

 

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On 2/6/2016 at 12:24 PM, AP said:

I learned a lot about myself, as naive as it may sound. 

I missed this thread the first time around.

Questions for the OP @AP what did you learn about yourself (that you're comfortable sharing)? Did the significance of the lesson shift as you prepared and defended your dissertation and got on the job market?

Were you given a free hand to redesign comps/quals what would you change, if anything?

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On 9/20/2019 at 12:20 AM, Sigaba said:

I missed this thread the first time around.

Questions for the OP @AP what did you learn about yourself (that you're comfortable sharing)? Did the significance of the lesson shift as you prepared and defended your dissertation and got on the job market?

Were you given a free hand to redesign comps/quals what would you change, if anything?

Now this was so many years ago (four!) that I can't make any promises! 

One of the best things I learned about exams is how much they depended on me. Comps are not your typical exam, in the sense that they don't test just knowledge but expertise. What makes you an expert, then? Well, I was very vocal about having this conversations with my committees which helped steer exams into something that was useful for me. I am teaching this semester out of that third field that I mentioned above. 

Second, I learned more about my own interests that I had not anticipated. It helped me better position my dissertation within the literature outside of my field. I think that this perspective, training to be an expert in, my case, Latin American History but being aware of similar conversations going on for other places (especially the Global South) enabled me better "sell" my project (I think) for completion fellowships, postdocs, and jobs. 

As I mentioned, my exams were three fields examined in a 24-hour window each (written) and an oral 2-hour 'defense'. For fields I and II, the list was pretty much given, but not set in stone. Particularly, we did not have extensive literature on our dissertation focus. I focus on Central America so most of my geographical focus from the exam lists was from the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. For the third field, I combined GIS, Environmental History, and Border Studies. Thus, exams were an opportunity to examine scholarly conversations beyond my tiny field and, eventually, was able to incorporate this into my dissertation. Needless to say, this type of training also facilitated my Q&A section of job talks! 

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