The Indefensible Defense

Why It’s High Time We Got Rid of Doctoral Qualifying Exams

A (very) partial list of the books I had for my exam.

When you’re on #AcademicTwitter, you see a lot of the same stories. It’s a tight-knit community and despite all of our differences, we have a lot in common. The other day, I saw a mutual of mine — I’ll protect their anonymity here — sharing the experience of their doctor qualifying exams and how they had failed. A quick review of the thread shows it was not this person’s fault; their committee had utterly failed them in the preparation and doubly so in the actual defense.

Many of us commented on the thread and it quickly become a sort of ad hoc group therapy, where we offered advice, sent positive thoughts, railed against the system, and shared out own stories. The general consensus of this interaction was that none of us had anything good to say about the process. Doctoral Qualifying Exams — let’s call them DQEs going forward — have been a part of graduate education for decades, really from the beginning. The question now is, should they remain.

Let’s confront the answer to this question — a resounding ‘No’ by the way — by looking at a few of the myths that surround DQEs, myths that serve as faulty rationales and ultimately reveal some of the failures of the current system of higher education.

Before we delve into these myths, I’m going to take a second to show what these exams can be like. Mind you, this is just how mine went in History, so this is not the universal experience, but the general contours of the process are fairly consistent across universities and disciplines.

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Typically, examiners are your dissertation committee. For me, it was three: my advisor and the other two members, each of which were experts in one of my three concentration areas. Each exam is designed to test your expertise on that specific area (mine were American History since 1870, African American Urban History, and American Labor and Class; most historians do one specific field and two generals but I did the opposite). This part, deciding on your fields, is usually the easiest part, although sometime committee members are not acting in good faith (more on that later).

The next thing is determining what you’re going to have to study for the exams. Again, for historians, this is generally a large and comprehensive list of books on the field: classic works, recent scholarship, books that we still teach, books that we don’t teach anymore but that you need to know, etc. You’ll have one list for each field. Depending on your professor, the length of this list varies, but I think generally, no list is going to be less than 40. I had about 170 books between my three fields. I was extremely fortunate that I had an excellent committee (full disclosure, my experience was much better than most, for which I am eternally grateful) and was able to have some input on the choices, but not much.

The part is the longest. Usually, you do all of the above pre-planning during Spring (for our program, it was the end of Year Two) with the expectation of taking the exams in Fall. What happens next is that you read. Read read read read read. I attempted to read a book every weekday for approximately 3.5 months. You do this largely on your own, although good advisors/committees will allow you to check in at your leisure to discuss and review. Bad ones will force you to check in at their leisure. Terrible ones will not check in at all and let you drown.

Now if I book a day seems a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is. Here is a dirty little semi-open secret about academia. You ready? No one reads the books cover to cover. No one. Anyone who says they do or they did is a liar. Straight up. Here’s why; when you are prepping to know a book for an exam, you’re only looking at a few major things: author/title/date, major argument, types of sources used, explain how it affected the literature at the time, is this argument still good (a la a law that is still being used is a ‘good law’), and if it’s bad what was wrong with it/how did people respond.

Most of this information can be attained by reading the Preface, Introduction, Conclusion, and a well-written review. There are entire books where that is all I read, quickly finding the necessary information, and plopping it into the 3x5 index card I had for each book. If a book was interesting or was particularly readable, I’d read a few chapters. But it’s almost impossible to read the entirety of each book. That kind of comprehensive scholarship is simply not possible. Your mind would melt and your likely already tenuous grasp of sanity would fall away.

Every person I have spoken to about their DQEs has had almost the exact same response to this; “That’s exactly what I did.” How is this tactic so universal? Do we just stumble upon it by accident? Is it written in the handbook? No and no. Here’s what makes the entire thing even more of a farce straight out of a Mel Brooks screenplay: our professors TELL US TO DO IT THIS WAY. I maintain that the reason why professors feel comfortable assigning so many books is because they know that we aren’t going to read them through. This is part of what makes the entire process such a joke and absurd waste of time; everyone is in on the joke, but they pretend like it’s this very intense an austere process (which it is; just because it’s a joke doesn’t mean the consequences aren’t deadly serious).

Once you’ve jumped through 150–200 hoops, then you get to the exam. Now again, if your advisors are good people like mine, they’ll give you a sense of what to expect. One of my advisors gave me three prompts and told me that two of them were going to be on the exam and I’d have to answer one. Another gave me two and said I’d have to answer one. This is neither typical or atypical. It happens but it’s not universal.

The exam itself is fairly straightforward. Each exam is about 3–4 hours. You’re in a room — sometimes an exam room or maybe even a professor’s office — with a computer (one the department gives you without internet access) some scrap paper, and the exam. That’s it. No notes, no nothing. You have to memorize all the shit you need to know.

You then proceed to write what is objectively the worst essay you ever wrote and will ever write, a giant plea to one known and one unknown reader (every exam has a randomly assigned secondary reader; some of them will be nice and others will hate you for reasons that you will never really know but that hopefully your advisor will take care of on your behalf. If your advisor or committee member also sucks? You’re shit out of luck then. Seriously, if this circumstance happens, you’re probably going to fail and it’s more than likely not actually your fault).

Eventually, after these exams are done — usually only one a day because even masochists have some sympathy — you have a bit of time off while they are being read. Some people get their results quickly, maybe a week to ten days. I waited over two weeks, effectively having non-minor cardiac issues as a result of the wait.

Once you do, it’s oral defense time. This is the part of the process that varies the most. A lot of committees will meet with you before the defense. Good committees will tell you the things you did well in the written exam and the things that were a bit weaker, aka, the things you are going to be asked to defend.

If there is one part of the process that is beyond indefensible it’s this one. Most of the horror stories you’ll hear about exams are from the defense. Here are some of the things that I have seen or heard happen in oral defenses:
- The room being occupied or locked;
- Committee members arriving late;
- Committee member asking questions that you were not prepared for;
- Committee members arguing with one another about you in front of you
- Committee members not paying attention;
- Committee members asking you a question outside of your field;
- Being told that you are not qualified or cut out for this;
- Being talked at or down to;
(The list is too extensive to go into here but you get the idea)

At some point, after whatever happened is over, you are asked to leave the room. They will debate for an undetermined amount of time. I should point out that it is permitted but not super common for other faculty and grad students to sit in (the degree to which they contribute is usually determined by your advisor; so much of this process hinges on your advisor and your relationship with them). So, you might not be waiting alone. Eventually, they call you back in and let you know.

If it all sounds like it’s pretty fucking terrible, that’s because it is. No part of the process is designed to be enjoyable — it’s hazing, so of course it’s not — but it’s also made to be much worse than it needs to be.

The qualifying exams and the subsequent defense are utterly indefensible. No sound argument has yet been put forth as to why they, in their current format, should stick around. The evidence for this is pretty obvious, whether you’ve gone through the process, are going through it now, or even have only just learned about it here. Beyond even that is proof from departments themselves. More and more, departments are getting rid of DQEs, in favor of other assessment projects, like academic portfolios.

In order to really delve into this, let’s bring a few of the more pernicious myths to light.

Myth Number 1: They prepare you for your career.

This one is the most patently false. Most of us are not going academia, another fact that academia readily embraces, even laments, but does little to nothing to address. The numbers range depending on your major and field of expertise but by and large most people with PhDs are not going into full-time professorships, TT or overwise. The notion that these exams are going to prepare you for your career is patently false. There is nothing in your career that I going to mimic this process in any way.

Myth Number 2: They show your expertise

These two points are related but I kept them apart for a reason. The first point presumes that you are going to use this experience in your academic career. But let’s really delve into this: name a time in your career, no matter what it is, where you’ve been forced to regurgitate a tremendous amount of information, distill it, analyze and explain it, and then make an argument about your field, from the top of your head. Don’t think about it too long because it’s never happened. Ever. If you’re an academic and you need to write a piece about the field, it’s going to be an essay or an article that you have time to prepare for. If you have to look up an answer to a question, you’re not going to have to be able to recall arcane facts or arguments about the field at a moment’s notice, short of a Nicholas Cage-esque National Treasure moment, or course. There is no practical application for being able to produce mass amount of information from memory. Maybe Jeopardy.

Myth Number 3: They are just a formality

Someone at some point will tell you that there is no reason to get too upset or anxious about the process. Maybe it’s a committee member. Maybe it’s another professor who means well. The least likely but still plausible is another grad student. But at some point, someone is going to tell you not to worry. Here’s the thing; whenever someone tells you not to worry, it’s because they know you are worrying and they want you to relax, not because it’s going to be easy, but because they know that if you get too tense, you’re going to psyche yourself out. This process IS a lot. It’s not “just a formality.” It quite literally determines your status in the department and the program.

You can fail these exams. If you do, your graduation deadline moves back. Maybe your funding even gets put into question, especially if you need more than two attempts. To say that they are a formality is to ignore the fact that success and failure have dramatically different outcomes. You know what’s not a big deal? Asking for a toasted bun for your burger and having it come out not toasted. You know what is a big deal? A test that determines whether or not you proceed in your program. Here’s my rebuttal to anyone who says these aren’t a big deal; then why do we need to keep them?

Myth Number 4: They’re a time-honored part of the process

This one is the laziest, even just off a cursory look. Anytime someone says “Well, we’ve always done it this way” you should immediately take note. While there are definitely things that should be done a certain way — anything overly technical or anything that has a clearly defined standard operating procedure — doing things a certain way because you’ve always done them that way is not a reason for doing it that way. That’s a highly circular bit of rationalization that people use when they have a vested interest in keeping the current system in place. There is no reason why we cannot periodically step back, take a look at ourselves, and see if there are things that we can change. To assume that change is unnecessary is to assume that you think the system is perfect. Does anyone really think that academia is perfect as it is?

I mentioned before that some departments and programs are getting rid of DQEs. My program is one of them. In point of fact, I believe my cohort was the last one to take DQEs in the history of Carnegie Mellon’s History Department. In the years since, they have replaced the DQEs with a hybrid project, a portfolio with several components meant to better replicate the potential job market needs of the modern PhD graduate (teaching portfolio, one historiography essay, public history projects, etc; a culmination of what you produced and learned in the first two years of the program). It has substantially more utility and is far more grounded in the realities of today. It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a good step forward.

Much like the false and facile argument that folks who’ve repaid their student loans are against loan forgiveness, I don’t know anyone — myself included — who want to keep these exams around simply because “Well I had to do them so you should to!” Despite having a fairly easy go of it by comparison to my peers, I still hated them. Hated them with an indescribable fervor. I would never want to force someone else to have to go through that process, especially since I am keenly aware of their complete lack of utility. To anyone who defends this anachronistic institution, I have to ask; who actually gains from its continued use?

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Bradley J. Sommer

PhD in History. Studies race, class, and urban America. Advocate of equality in higher education, housing, healthcare, and employment. The "B" in LGBTQ.