"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
-Winston Churchill

2010 HGSA Comps Workshop

HGSA Comps Workshop
Loose Transcript Notes by Tim Moran

Dr. Elizabeth Dorn Lublin:
I’m probably the oddest person here; one, I do Japanese history, and, two, I did my Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. Comprehensive exam process there is four different fields; each six hours, written over a ten day period, with a two hour oral at the end of that.

Three things from my own experience:

1. As you work toward comprehensive exams, clearly having regular, active communication with members of the committee is absolutely essential. They will not spoon feed you, but at Hawaii I was able to pick specific topics in my field, and put together reading lists. We negotiated syllabi. There were no surprises when it came to either written or oral exams.

2. Something essential to comprehensive exam writing is that as you’re reading the various books, the key is to focus less on the nitty-gritty detail, but instead on the argument, on the historiography. As you do so, begin to work out your own thesis. You will more than likely get arguments from authors who are diametrically opposed; you may get an author who rips up another. What is my position? I had to then make clear what MY position was, and in focusing on your articles or books and working with your advisors to put together your reading list, it helps to put together these bigger questions. Not the nitty-gritty, but what are the broad causes?

3. Make sure you are exactly on the same page as your advisors. For advisors I had, I thought it would be very clear what questions I was addressing. I started my exams and, on a Monday, the last exam I took was modern Chinese history. Tuesday I took the day off, preparing for my oral exam. I got a call from the department secretary; “Your Chinese professor claims you only answered three of the four questions on the sheet.” I had thought that I had made it clear I was answering three out of four; he didn’t have the same impression. Nobody is out there to bust your butt; nobody is out there to make you fail. But one way to make sure you do your best is to communicate. In my case, I was able to pawn off this fourth question to the oral exam: No problem. But be in touch. If people don’t see you, you’re a non-entity and people can’t be engaged with you.

Dr. Sandra VanBurkleo:
When I went to school in Minnesota, we went trotting around to the entire faculty that was American History. The task was to talk about American History that was being taught at that time. We gathered up reading lists from various faculty and we started reading. There would be an eight hour written exam, you were permitted to go to the bathroom and to lunch. You could have a dictionary.

Here, you’ll find considerable diversity within the American History faculty. Some examples: Some people have in their file cabinets fixed lists which would help tailor readings to your research interests. Others have a practice of sitting down with the student three or four times, identifying themes that seem to exemplify where the big questions and big problematics are in the field. The student and I work up a reading list; usually I embellish around those themes on the list. The number of books has to vary because some fields are just more bookish than other fields. These fields that are listed as transnational are an example.

When the reading is mostly done, I sit down with the student and we start generating questions. These are not pat answer questions. I have never, ever once gotten an answer to any of these questions that was identical, or even close.

The idea is to make this exam a moment of supreme synthesis, and to place yourself within the scholarly discipline. You will be talking to other scholars. The exam itself is no surprise because there’s so much to talk about. And the exams here are only four or five hours, depending on whether it’s a major or minor field.

Betsy was right, you need more than anything else to establish a firm ongoing relationship, not just with your advisor, but with the faculty itself.

Some of us have not agreed that there should be free-floating lists, because some students simply take the list and go off and read, as though there’s going to be some sort of big book report. That’s not the idea. The idea is to participate in the discourse among historians.

I have had group conversations at which all the field advisors sat down at lunch and sort of talked to the candidate about the shape of the field.

One, exams are not primarily about content. Not about the fact that the war of 1812 happened in 1812. Those sorts of things can be gleaned from a textbook; while we expect that minor fields might be geared around the idea you might teach a survey course. The major intent is to become a master of the source of the literature.

Beyond that, you need to understand these exams ought to be pushed just as hard as you can push them. You need to push yourself to the point where you can imagine taking the first exam, and know you can get all the others done. You’ll be reading while you are examining. Otherwise, it’s going to go on for too many years.

I think the moral of the story is to resist the graduate student’s long sense of where self-interest lies. NO radical self-sufficiency. Never consulting; never doing anything as a group; never conversing. That is totally false, it’s not the nature of an apprenticeship, and you need to keep those relationships alive, talk and talk and talk until you can talk no more. Your advisor in each field has an obligation to set you straight, and you can’t know if you’re on a reasonable track unless you talk.

There’s a period, and a very long period – 4 months – that you get. You ought to be able to hammer out these exams in two weeks and not be terrorized by the process. They were brutal, they really were, at Minnesota I had to bring flowers and chocolate for myself or I would have died. You have the leisure of time, but you also have the burden of time. They can seem to get bigger and bigger with time. Knowing how to organize the exams is important, too. Think about the order of the exams, and don’t do anything that’s counterintuitive for you. (hard first, hard last, etc.).

Dr. Aaron Retish:
So I guess I’ll start with biography, and then I’ll play a little bad cop/good cop.

At Ohio State I had the major field and two minor fields … the major field was Russia/Eastern Europe, which composed four exams, [the major fields] had 80 to 100 books, and the others had 60 to 80 books, and those [exams] were done in two weeks, then you waited a week and did the orals.

Here’s the bad cop: Look, I have sat on various committees for various comps here at Wayne State, some have been excellent, some have just been barely passable. I want to make sure you’re on the very good side rather than the barely passable. Part of that comes from a mentality from the beginning of taking comps, preparing, to actually sitting for the exam, understand that taking comps is not just a hoop to jump through. If you feel that, you’re going to fail – either you’ll fail comps, which has happened, or you’re going to fail yourself by not being intellectually trained to teach history.

Right after you finish your masters you have to begin training for comps. The reading list is a synergy that comes from your energy and mine. The student must think about the major issues – part of that is going out and figuring out what are the major books? And then I help them along. Read the books, read about the author, read the major historiographical essays. It’s not reading as an undergraduate, it’s reading as a scholar, and that means being able to place it in the larger history. If there’s one book for Wallerstein, that’s great, but it means there are 15 to 20 other books you need to get to, that means how are you able to place him in world history, develop what are his arguments, etc.

Then, once you get into the reading list, you need to start meditating on the list and figure out how all of this goes together. This needs to be done not in a monastery or a nunnery, but needs to be done in conversation with your major field professor. Because sometimes you’re going to be wrong, and it’s important to get these ideas out. From that you get a sense of the larger themes or the questions. I would suggest doing an outline where you can start putting these ideas into some coherent form; understand that time is limited, you’re going to be able to write only a paragraph maybe on each book, but all of this is coherent and you need to be able to place it in some of the larger themes.

Placing it on paper is only one tenth of comps. We expect you to have a much larger perspective, knowledge of the field, knowledge of the arguments. You’re expected to become part of the professorate; you can teach, and you can do research. You’re supposed to wow us at the oral exam.

I would like to see the graduate students do better: Read deeper; read broader than what I’ve seen so far. That’s the only way for all of you to succeed.

That’s the evil Retish. The positive, happy Retish is this: This is a great, wonderful, enjoyable process. This is your time to sit down and do what historians do – read, and (Ash: Drink?) – yeah, that, and think. You will have the deepest knowledge not only of your field but of all the other fields. It’s a really rewarding time. If you take it seriously, the process will reward you, and give you great and deep knowledge.

We want to see much more of you, and if that actually happens, you will get a much better education.

Dr. Eric Ash:
At Princeton, we had much more latitude in making up fields. There was no such thing as a field in Early Modern Europe, for example. Reading lists were built very much by the student in consultation with an advisor. Thinking about courses you would take, as well as independent study. At the end of two years and backbreaking reading, we had five days to do exams for three fields, but we were given a limit. They used to have you sit in the room and write, but people were coming in with computers and notes they had written on the computes, and cutting and pasting together 50, 60 page papers.

I am someone who has a meta-reading list of my own. I’m of two minds about it. Partly because I’m advising a field called Early Modern Europe, its very hard for me, let alone a student, to put together a reading list on such a broad field. Major fields should have a list of 100 to 120 books and articles. Others should have about 80. That’s the way we can make a field tailored into your interests. I really like the idea of a negotiated list that Professor Lublin mentioned. Should it be a negotiated list? I’m of two minds about this. For early modern, it’s better to have primary and secondary sources. It should involve some classics, the big chestnuts in the field, the big debates, and what are the trends? What are people talking about at conferences, so when you go to conferences you’ll be able to talk about these things and have an [informed] opinion.

I have my students write their questions, what they think a fair question would be, what is it they want to tell me about their field. Then I can say “This is a bit narrow, this is too broad, this is unanswerable.” My advisor made me write questions and I thought it was the most helpful part of the process to think about what it was that I learned and wanted to say.

I see three main goals for the comprehensive exams.

One is, if you’re taking Early Modern Europe with me, you should be able to teach history 1300 wherever you go.

Two is research and choosing research topics. Especially in a major field, I’m ultimately preparing somebody to go off and write a dissertation in that field. I’m not going to slog you all the way through 17th century British history if what you’re really interested in is Philip of Spain.

Three is socialization to a field. I think of this as attending a conference. You’re at your first big-time conference, what panels do you want to go to? If you heard a panel doing cutting edge work, would you know what they were talking about? At the cocktail party afterwards, could you be able to say “this is the most interesting point I thought you came up with?” Comps is where a lot of the heavy lifting of academic socialization is done.

While you’re doing this, synthesis has come up a lot. You’re building a forest out of lots of trees, it’s easy to get lost in those trees as you’re reading book after book after article after article. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re building a forest out of all of these trees. Who would you draw from to build the big argument? Who would you draw from to oppose that argument?

This is not a “fun” process. It is fun in that you’ll look back on it … but while you’re doing it, it will be brutal. It’s hard, hard work. If it doesn’t seem hard work, I had to accept the fact that it was a hard time. It was a lot of hard work; that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It is hard work. You’re carrying a very heavy load and you should have sore muscles at the end of it.

Having done all of that, you will draw from this process in unexpected ways for the rest of your life. You will know where to put it, how to handle it, how to attack that. You know how to connect … drawing connections in your own work that you never would have come to without this process. That terribly tedious book may come up some day and you’ll be glad you know it.

SVB: One of the features of Wayne State students is they lead complicated lives. One of the great challenges in this process is clearing the decks to do it. You cannot do it in 20 minute snatches, it’s just not possible. People who don’t literally find a room of their own cannot pull it off. It’s not just brutal, you’ll be suicidal if you don’t. You need to have family conferences.

Ash: And the teaching. NO. If this is an emergency, and you can’t avoid it for financial reasons, OK, but...

SVB: Students somehow think that teaching and teaching and teaching is good for you. No. It’s good for the institution, but you need to teach two or three times. Not 12 times. If you do this right, really, really master all of this and become fluent, the written part might be … a disappointment. You literally won’t be able to fit all that you know into your essay. Five hours won’t be enough.

Ash: I don’t know anybody who liked a comps essay they wrote. I couldn’t get what I wanted in.

Q: For book lists, do you as professors define the major works and the ancillary ones, or do you define major works only and send the student out to find and identify the others?

Retish: I want the student to do a bit of the footwork, too, especially for their own interest. If somebody has an interest in environmental studies, etc., I want them to go out and figure out what’s out there, and also stuff that’s newer.

Ash: To try to think about doing what one did in those fields, across Early Modern Europe, it’s 1400 to 1800 give or take, you have to define which years, which countries … my own system is about 75 or 80 things I want people to read. There’s a lot to be said for a standard book list, but what I lose there is that process where somebody goes out and makes it theirs.

Retish: Every faculty member has their own strategy.

Ash: One of the things I wanted to see was, one of the things we had a Princeton was a file of the reading lists for the last ten years of every professor. If you look at five of those, you get a sense of what the big books are that every professor requires. Here the faculty have a lot of autonomy. That doesn’t mean you can’t help each other. Those who have been through it can help those who haven’t. Between syllabi for courses, talking to one another, it’s not as though you’re on your own in the wilderness.

Retish: The OSU students had a binder, then two binders, then three or four (of information on various comps questions, professors’ approaches, etc). We did reading groups as well, even before, even while I was a master’s student, reading groups of key articles and key books. Even if somebody’s doing a minor field in world history and somebody’s doing a major field, you can still work together on readings. I don’t know if you have reading groups; those will develop into writing groups.

Ash: Boy, it’s helpful, it’s important, and it matters. If you can get such a thing going you should do it.

Q: Are some nutcase books put on comps lists simply because they’re difficult, rather than valuable in content, simply to see if the student can handle the difficulty?

Retish: No. Most of the important books are difficult, multi-layered works.

Ash: Not really. Comps are too important for professors to spend time on anything that doesn’t directly contribute.

SVB: No. That nutcase book may turn out to be one of the most valuable; remember, it may come up as a counterargument or an important voice within the historiography.

Q: Orals; how tough are professors on students during orals?

Ash: If it’s an exam that’s a clear pass, and I’m not concerned about that, then I might push harder, be a devil’s advocate, or focus on how will this impact the researcher.

SVB: Very often the exams will be connected up at the oral. There will be linkages between them that will be come apparent. There might be internal inconsistencies. When you’re thinking about the orals, think about the written. Writing creates knowledge, and very often things will come up in the orals from something that has become apparent in the written.

Ash: Themes cross over, too. In negotiating these fields, if you’re interested in state-building, probably that will come up in all three exams. If you’re interested in the family, that will come up.

Retish: Talk to your advisors. They will hint at things that will come up during the orals. Especially on strong exams, you will push the student.

SVB: It’s really a test of fluency. Being able to speak to it as if it was second nature.

Ash: If it plays in Peoria, too. You’re going to go out of here with our name on you, teach classes, present at conferences. We’ve got to make sure that depth of knowledge is there.

Q: What have you found to be disappointing in past comps, without naming names?

SVB: I’ve been disappointed keenly in students who really do think it’s a series of big book reports. You’ve got to leap over and surmount. This isn’t just the reader recapitulating a bunch of books. This is about meaning.

Ash: That’s a tree. Too many trees and not enough forest. I want to see connections between books, voices.

SVB: Americanists tend to be bibliographers. It’s kind of fascinating. I can name on one hand the exams in American History that have primary sources. There will be wonderful, rich secondary works.

Ash: It was a great conversation with [Dr. Melvin] Small that time. [He said] You have too many primary sources! [I said] So – it would be better to read a book about Machiavelli than to read Machiavelli? [He said] Yeah.

Ash (to Retish): Do you do primary sources? Retish: Nope, I kick ‘em out.

(Faculty panel depart, recent Grad Students discuss comps)

Amy Holtman-French:
My little black book, this was one of a series of little black books that I used during comprehensive exams. I love these, I carried one of them with me all the time. As I read, would record author’s major points, think about how it fit in as a whole and how it fit into the literature of history. It’s become such a habit that I never go anywhere without one now. I took my comps, I think it was probably a year and a half or two years ago. It’s a wonderful little habit to get into. As you’re coming across things, maybe at a conference, you can continuously make those notations.

I had Drs. Brunsman, Faue and VanBurkleo. They all wanted me to show the historical narrative, but more the historiographical narrative. They wanted me to make synthesis across the major fields.
One thing I recommend strongly, talk to them (faculty advisors). I live in Saginaw, and when I started, I came down for class and I would drive back as soon as everything was over. I was one of the first HGSA members, and that made a change. I made more connections. Dr. VanBurkleo was great and has become one of my dearest friends. I always kept meeting with them.

I would take every historiography class in your field. If you can’t take them, buy the books. I kept copies (of historiographies). One thing, about the way things have changed, as we had more women come into the field, minorities. I was able to lend that to the writing process.

Bring chocolate; bring water (to your exams). And do [the exams] as quickly as possible. I’m an Americanist, and I did early first, then recent, then legal. I think I had close to 150 books. You will be reading a lot, and there will be points where you will think you hate reading history. And then a book will come along that makes you light up.

Going back to the little black books – it’s portable. You will find that at the oddest hours, you will wake up in the middle of the night “Oh, I understand Bernard Baylin meant this!”

Practice for orals. I lectured to my dogs about the historiography, so that I had an audience.

When you finish, it’s the best feeling on earth. And you’re never smarter than you are at that moment. And then, regrettably, it wears off.

Barry Johnson:
The mechanics, the way I approached it. I had all kinds of time. I was in no hurry, the first one was a minor, and I negotiated the questions, the reading list was given to me.

Reading lists: They’re either going to be fixed, or they’re going to be your list. Read everything. Make copies of the first and last chapters so you can mark them up. Then I went to JSTOR and found reviews, and I never stopped until I had a minimum of three for each one. Know the counterarguments from the latest things that have been written on them. Know the historiography, backwards, forwards and sideways.

Negotiate if you can. Negotiate the reading lists if you can; negotiate the questions. Negotiate what you can take into the exam room with you. I negotiated that I could take in a bibliography so that I didn’t have to remember the author, publisher, title.

Amy: I was allowed absolutely nothing, and that is the department stance on it, that no notes, no bib, no anything.

Gayle McCreedy: It varies a little. I don’t want to be mean, but it also varies on how long they anticipate your professional career to be. We give our lifelong students a little bit of a break.

Barry: Do outlines, so that if you see a question for the first time, you already have an outline from the beginning. Write Essays so that you have already answered the question.

Get comfortable with the exam site, so you don’t spend a lot of time looking at the walls, ceiling, windows. What I did was to go to the exam site and write essays.

Of my three exams, Revolutions was with with Dr. Johnson, and we negotiated the questions and the readings. With Dr. Hummer, it was water systems in ancient and medieval Europe, and we negotiated the reading list and questions. I had American Technology with Hyde, and his list was 120 books, every one of them fascinating. We negotiated the questions on that.

Don’t make it a do-or-die thing. I know people who get really nervous about it. Going in there is just purging yourself of information you already know. Take in water. Take a breather. Get up and walk around the room every so often.

No one’s going to be coming knocking on the door as far as I can see; you’re a professional, you’re a student, you have to be honest about it. It’s a truth process as much as anything.

Last but not least: You get the exams back; when you get them back, these professors have written on them where you’re weak or where you’re strong. Use that to prepare for the orals. [And] just like Dr. Retish said, you answered three out of four, you didn’t answer this question, so you’re going to get it in the orals.

Orals – here’s something that happened to me. I answered a question and saw a really quizzical look in return, so I asked “What do you think about it?” Well, you know how loquacious these people are. They talked among themselves quite a bit; and gave me a breather.

So that was my experience.

Dr. Richard Frye:
Take subjects you enjoy that are relevant to your research. No point to taking a subject because you think it’s fashionable or trendy. You’ll spend a lot of time with this subject, so take something that’s going to be worthwhile to you.

Not everyone at Wayne State’s a traditional student. However much as possible, I suggest a routine every day that gives you time to read. For me, I spend every day in the Law Library 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Get a set time when you read, and that’s your set time in preparing for comps.

Take a day off, one day a week to get your mind off it.

Don’t procrastinate. Don’t drag out over months and months. Set your comps before you think you’re ready, or before you think you’re fully prepared. You actually know more than you think you do.

Prepare a one page summary, so that when you’ve read a book, the most important parts (argument and evidence and what sources the author uses) will help you synthesize the debate and the historiography.

I had the experience of getting the questions cold in the exam. Sometimes when I had practice questions, you’d have 12 questions, and three of them would turn up on the exam.

Don’t be a hermit; be out there associating with your professors and colleagues. People have said it’s grueling, and it is, but I also enjoyed it. Don’t take it too seriously or get completely stressed out.

Amy: I always found it helpful, as well, to talk with other people who had the same advisors as I did. I did try to seek out other people who had the same advisors as I was having.

Barry: Practice, write those essays – write them and write them and write them.

Gayle: Every student has a choice of whether they want to hand write it, or whether they want to type it on a computer. If you’re going to type, use a spell checker. I think there is a greater expectation among faculty that if you type the exam, they won’t have to wade through so many mistakes. It’s kind of an oddity in that if you’re scribbling they presume it will be a little bit rougher.

Amy: Richard made a good point about routine. Find your own space. Do you have somewhere you can go that’s yours – a room, a little corner of a room that no one else can touch? Good. That’s your space, then when you’re in that space your mind has to know that you’re creating history.

Barry: Keep your backside in your seat and work your way through that. You can’t do five minutes here, five minutes there.

Amy: When I said chocolate, I wasn’t kidding. Bring something to drink. You’ve got to take breaks.

Gayle: We’re not going to time you down to the minute. If you start to edge too far, somebody may knock on the door. But that is entirely to keep the playing field even. I don’t want one student to have four hours and another to have six. It’s not that if you’re in the middle of a sentence, I’m going to throw you out.

Barry: Because we’re being professionals, we have to police ourselves. It’s not as though we’re undergraduates any more.

Gayle: There are things, if you actually were that capable of cheating, it’s going to show up somewhere else.

Barry: In the orals, they’re going to ask you questions, and you either know the answer, or you don’t know the answer. Don’t waste their time. I was asked a question and basically said “I don’t know,” and nothing happened, they just went on to the next question.

Amy: Don’t be afraid to say ‘can you rephrase that?”

Barry: And you’ve always got that light bulb moment where something pops out that you didn’t even know was there.

Errin Stegich: It’s more like a conversation, right?

Amy: They’ll ask you the questions that you didn’t answer [on the written exams]; there are also points where if you weren’t really clear, they’ll be asking for that. All three will have met before for a game plan.

Barry: Some will ask a question that’s so convoluted that there’s no way you can even know. Dr. Johnson once asked me a question that was way beyond 1848, and I said I didn’t read that far.

Gayle McCreedy:

I’m the nuts and bolts guy. The doctorate is formally defined as 90 hours beyond the BA. It’s not defined as so many hours past the master’s. If you think of that 90 hours in three chunks, most of you will have brought in a masters [30 hours]. Then you have 30 hours here that’s still in course work. Then 30 hours that’s the writing phase. So the comps typically fall at the 60 hour mark. They fit in that weird little pocket.

But that 30 hours, though not the toughest part of your program, will be the busiest part. In that 30 hours, you not only have to get through the coursework, which is fairly difficult already. You have to define what your comprehensive fields are going to be, and that usually requires that you have at least some more-than-sketchy idea of what you’re going to write about for your dissertation. Until you know that, you don’t know what fields are pertinent. You kind of need to know what you’re going to write about, at least in a fairly centered way, before you define your comp fields. Ultimately, your comp fields should play into your dissertation in one way or another.

You have to negotiate who’s going to be in your comp fields. Once you have your committee in place, it’s important to get your reading lists in place as early as possible.

In that 30 hours, you do all of your prep for comps. Immediately after comps, you have to define your dissertation committee, etc. That middle 30 hours is incredibly busy with all of that nuts and bolts work you have to get to. Your comps is a major marker. After that, you’re consumed in research and writing.

Now, going to the visuals – this year I actually did a handout. Each area that you’re going to take has an ongoing discussion in it. But that discussion itself has its own history. As Barry pointed out, maybe one of the works you’re going to use is four years old. But the historiographical discussion didn’t stop four years ago. You need to know for that field not only who’s in the field, but how they got there. Everything in the reading list, you should be able to understand why they’re important, how they changed the discussion, how they contributed to the discussion. They talk about the STATIC part of your reading list, or the FLUID part of your reading list. Those core pieces are the major voices, and the static part of your reading list is going to be the major voices. The extra stuff is because you need to read so much for your dissertation that you need to have the flexibility to know in your field who are the major voices. You’re not going to do as your dissertation “world history” because that’s too much; but you’re going to take some smaller piece. If those voices don’t show up in that smaller piece there’s a problem.

There is no course work for your comps. You’re going to read a chunk of stuff for your courses that may or may not play into your dissertation, but they should, or must, play into your comps reading. The way that I drew this diagram, the reading that you do for your dissertation is a bigger chunk than what you do for your coursework. That’s not accidental. They’re going to require that a lot of the things they think you need for your dissertation are on that list.

The hardest thing for a graduate student to do is accept that you are never, ever going to read everything that’s out there in your field. Part of the emotional part of comps is internalizing that you’re going to go forward without a complete set of information. It’s a hard balancing act for most students.

This is not – we are not – a department that is involved in a “Paper Chase” – like weeding out of students. The department does not view the comps process as “maybe we can flunk that student out now.” Listen to EACH of your advisors. I have been in the department over 20 years. The only students who have flunked their comprehensive exams are the ones who went forward when their advisors said “we don’t think you’re ready yet.” We have only flunked 6 students in 20 years. We’re not that department. But you have to listen. And despite the advice that comes from other graduate students, do not keep reading until two in the morning of the day you do your exam. You need to stop; give yourself at least this much space in front of the exam. And then it’ll simmer for a bit. If you have to check a page of notes, that’s fine, but if you’re reading up until the minute you go into that room, it’ll hurt. Taking a little break is not such a bad intellectual exercise. I think everyone needs to process and say “do I really have the themes, or not?” It’s a lot better to pause, look over your reading list if you must to remind yourself of who you read.

The seduction of the literature: It can be a really pleasant experience, because you’re historians. Not just thinking of the literature, but also to sort of get into the romance of the field, and I’m going to be a part of that, and how is this going to work for me professionally? I think there is an enormous, probably unrealized, part of this that can be fun. I think everybody looks at 100 books and says “Oh, my God, I’m going to flunk this.” But then as you get into each book, it becomes a challenge in itself and you really like it.

On the gnarly side of this:

Your advisors have relatively few things that they are paying attention to. They want to make sure you are doing well in your courses; they want to oversee your reading list and are making sure you are ready to go; they are engaged in who are going to be their partners on your dissertation committee. They want to see that you are capable of doing quality research, that your research is going to contribute to the field and that it has depth to it, and that your writing is solid, that it’s good quality writing and they don’t have to make apologies to the field later for you. And they want a successful, solid defense. They want to feel that the champagne at the end of it is worthwhile. And when they go to refer you to a job they want to feel really good about you as a scholar and that, when they write that letter of rec that they sign their names to, that there are no lies in that letter. A piece of that plays into their own sense of self in their field, so there is some of their ego in your progress as well.

You, however, have a much more complicated list to master in your 60 hours. You have to do really well, but then you have to define your fields, negotiate your list, keep in contact with your advisers, somewhere in the 90 hours you need to get some teaching experience under your belt. Once you take your prep, you file your comps form. Comps can be a brick wall for some people, and it’s not because they’re not going to succeed at comps. You have to file your candidacy form for your diss committee; your comps committee and your dissertation committee may not be the same people. Your field for your comps may not exactly parallel your dissertation. You have, as a requirement, eight hours of cognate work – that’s in another department, it’s presumed that your cognate area will contribute to your dissertation research, and often the person who’s going to be the extra department member on your dissertation committee. If you have an emeritus professor, make sure they have Graduate Status. Graduate status is a renewable list – even if they have tenure, they don’t automatically have graduate status. We discovered on the eve of Renee’s defense that Ash did not have graduate status; that was a rush of fast paperwork! Just understand the fact that they are a full professor, or distinguished professor, that does not mean that they have graduate status.

If you do any, any interviewing, you have to do a Human Investigation

Committee form. HIC covers anything that, in the entire university, involves actual breathing people. If you have oral histories as any part of your dissertation, you have to have the form. Getting your plan of work back will seem incredibly fast, comparatively. Those of you who have had plans of work tied up for a term will understand that. HIC is much slower.

Richard: I had to file the forms three times, took 8 months.

Gayle: If your dissertation committee changes midstream for some reason, if you get partway through the dissertation and you understand that the personality conflicts are so severe that you know you will never get through your defense, there is a form that must be signed not only by your current committee, but by all the proposed members of the committee.

You have two weeks from defense to filing your corrected copy. There is an increasingly large checklist for doctoral students to get out of this school – once you get down to the term that you are going to defend, you need to live on that list. Know every single thing that’s on it, and be checking off each one. If you don’t do every single one, they, I promise you, will not sign off on you.

Obviously, the last one is to get a job. That’s a whole other section to prepare your experiences to get to the right point.

You’ll see on my chart there are some sub-entries, one of them is to get funding to do research. This lets you write “I got funded to do my research.” You need to have shown that your research is worthy of funding somehow, or that your expertise is worthy of funding. That’s an important area.

Back to THE WALL (the thick line drawn at comps time). There are oddities. If you are on funding, then the timing of your comps becomes crucial. If you are on funding through the graduate school, and you begin your comps, you must complete your comps before the next term. That’s basically any kind of funding; a teaching assistant, a residential assistant. What it means is, when you set in motion your comps, and this is the reason why it changed from six months to four months, if you get into your comps and take the first one and realize you need more time for the second one, that means the clock has now started to tick on your comps because when the next term arrives, you need to go into candidacy maintenance. The graduate school will not allow you to register for candidacy maintenance unless they have your “I have finished my comps form” in your file. You have to take 30 hours of dissertation writing credit, which is called candidacy credit. 30 hours divided across four terms, which makes it 7.5 hours. They will – sometimes – allow you to register for that 7.5 hours in the term you’ve now delayed into, but if you don’t finish your comps, if you don’t meet that timeline, the graduate school will convert those candidacy hours back into pre-candidacy hours, and you will have wasted 7.5 hours of credit and four months of your life.

I have tried to put a warning paragraph in the graduate handbook: I don’t think people are still getting it, quite. But the trick here has to do very specifically with university funding, but a lot of the fellowships require enrollment. If you haven’t finished your comps, then you cannot enroll; if you cannot enroll, they will not give you money. With that lack of registration, they will knock everybody off of funding. To solve that problem, when you’re finished with courses but not ready to take your comps, there are 10 hours of pre-doctoral candidacy available. But if you blow that 10 hours, you will come to a funding wall. Every doctoral student needs to be very conscious of the ways in which their comps hit their funding.

Q: Does that count orals?

A: When I have been able to negotiate that into the next term, the graduate school has required that all the writtens be in and only the oral remains, and the promise is you will have the oral by midterms of the next term. They’re crabby; they’re not going to give you a ton of time. But they have been pretty consistently, and again this is not written down anywhere exactly, but they have been pretty consistent in telling me all the writtens are done and only the orals are needed. I did have one student blow up their promise, and those 7.5 hours evaporated, and not only did they waste their candidacy credit time but in that particular case there was something funky about their money and they had to repay some of their money. Without having the status as a candidate, the fellowship funding went away, too.

Once you get past comps, I am probably not as useful as I was before that, because you become advised by the graduate school. I can help you stay on track with the paperwork, but, ultimately, they are not that user-friendly.

Q: Barry – you also have to file a prospectus what your dissertation is going to be.

A: It’s a dissertation outline. Those vary by advisor.

Q: Is there a minimum requirement?

A: The university says it must be at least 8 pages.

Gayle: Something else that you need to know. Graduate admissions, which also has the psesudonym of graduate enrollment services, in January reorganized the grad school. It used to be one person, Cindy Sokol, and now it is four people with an occasional fifth, depending on what you’re doing. There are four different advisors, divided by first letter of last name, that list is on the grad school website, it’s buried under “changes to the graduate school in 2010.” It’s going to take a while for the people in enrollment services to come up to speed.

Q: What about the language requirement?

A: Languages – two languages required for Europeanists, one of which may be statisticss. One for Americanists, which cannot be statistics. For Stats – there is a sequence at U-M that you can take in the summer, it’s very intensive.

Q: What material is used for the exam?

Gayle: My best advice, take something for the translation exam that you already need to translate for your diss. You can generally choose what you will translate. The person in languages who’s me is Terry Pickering. Talk to Terry. The only requirement is that you submit more than you could memorize. There is almost no time limit. It’s supposed to be two hours, but I can’t micro-manage every aspect. Ideally, you should have taken your language exams at least 30 days before you defend. There’s a lot of Americanist research that you really don’t need that language for, so the Americanists tend to put it off more. The Europeanists really need it, need to absorb the language before they progress, so they tend to do it a lot earlier. If you’re going to do stats, do it in the first 30 hours so that you can get it paid for [as course work if you are on funding].