Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment | Over & Out

Tom: "Tell me everything you know about this work." Me: "I'm pretty sure this is a nightmare caused by exam stress - Da Vinci isn't on my Orals bibliography....."

Tom: “Tell me everything you know about this work.” Me: “I’m pretty sure this is a nightmare caused by exam stress – Da Vinci isn’t on my Orals bibliography…..”

It’s Boxing Day. After two days of rest, great food, and much-anticipated family time, it’s the moment I have (not) been waiting for: Orals Exam Preparation. I handed in my last ever paper of graduate school (bar the dissertation) two weeks ago. It was a pretty great feeling. My next hurdle is drawing up the schedule for four months of revision before my Oral exams which will take place in late spring. On January 1, the real test will be starting the schedule and sticking to it.

To say I am slightly nervous at the prospect of this PhD rite of passage would be a gross understatement. I am terrified. But – like all the exams I have taken for my program – a stiff British upper lip, plenty of tea, and some strategic planning early on in the game should give me a fighting chance of passing well. Unlike previous exams that promoted panicked rote memorization rather than deep, thoughtful leaning, this exam feels like an opportunity to really cement knowledge of my subject as an academic and an instructor.

For those wondering, the Oral Exam tests knowledge of three main subject areas and, when successfully completed, marks the stage where the PhD student becomes a PhD candidate. Once Orals are over, the last hurdle is the dissertation. It’ll be a busy semester in spring. I can’t (and don’t want to) give up work, so it’s time to make a strict schedule to balance teaching, exam prep, other work, and a little relaxation too. So, for a few months I’m bidding farewell to Open Enrollment until I’ve passed this final rite of passage: my last higher education exam.

Come January (six days away, gulp) I’ll be prepping for discussion of my specialized area (post-war Western urban social housing), a major area of concentration (Architecture Since 1750), and a related minor area of concentration (Art Since 1900).  I’ll be sending out an email to close friends and family telling them I’m going into hibernation (this really helped during my last exam cycle),  and my social life will dwindle from “embarrassing” to “zero.”

The three professors who have agreed to be part of my committee will meet me in April or early May and grill me for two hours over any image, topic, historiographic or thematic concern relate to these areas. If they’re satisfied, I’m a little closer to being able to graduate back to the real world. If not, well… the power of positive thought means I can’t contemplate that. My mantra? Go big or go home. And my significant other will be awfully sad if I come home without a pass, because I’m not sure he can go through much more of me living in the library and bursting into tears when I forget the exact dates of the construction of every major building in the Western Hemisphere since 1750. So it’s settled. I’m passing this exam, if it kills both of us and our cat.

Happy New Year when it comes, good luck with your own projects this spring, and see you in a few months time!


  1. Charles says:

    Studying for your exams is a very personal experience, in both content and method. Each person has their own manners of studying, particular to their areas of research and individual interests. Unfortunately, the most helpful piece of advice is also the most obtuse: know the material.

    Understand your object(s) of study, but realize that you will not give a perfect answer (and that your committee likely has no such expectation). The exams are foremost meant to demonstrate proficiency, not expertise – that is the purpose of your dissertation. The members of your committee have also been in your position, and, hopefully, are able to empathize with you to some degree.

    In art history, we love specifics. The ability to recall names, dates, titles, etc., is something we try to impart to our students, but at this point in your graduate career you should be focusing your energy toward other concerns, namely context. Knowing ‘when and where’ is important, but you should also know ‘how and why’. Memorize the objective information to the best of your ability, but don’t get bogged down with minutia unless necessary. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a response that sounds plucked from Gardner’s. Be confident in your historical accuracy, but don’t be afraid to offer your own points of view.

    Also, flashcards. Make lots of flashcards!

  2. Michelle says:

    Charles, thank you so much for your funny and generous reply! Things I didn’t think about yet that your comment raised:
    – answers don’t always have to be perfect. In fact, if you can provide convincing/compelling context for your response, that’s more useful than exact dates but no real context.
    – knowledge can. to an extent, be general. The diss is the real area of specialization. So, I should be prepared for the part of the exam that tests the diss proposal!
    – Never underestimate the power of flashcards 😉 Or, my equivalent – PPTs for the iPad.
    Than you so much for sharing! The most useful part of revision is often the solidarity from friends and peers.

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