How to Survive Your Generals (History PhD Edition)

Greetings, Internet! It’s been far too long. I’ve finally reached that point in my PhD program where I’m trusted to teach undergraduates (well, trusted enough to lead a discussion section), and to handle a massive research project that may or may not become a book. In other words, I’ve passed my general exams!

What are general exams? They’re basically exams to prove to your department that you can handle a dissertation. The exams vary depending on the institution. In some programs, you’re not allowed to teach undergraduates until you pass generals, while other programs see teaching as good preparation for generals. At Princeton, it’s the former situation.

Preparation for the exam is about the same anywhere. You choose a certain number of fields, and then master (to the best of your abilities) a reading list that you and a faculty member assemble for each field. Here, there’s a major field and two minor fields. My major field was “Early Medieval Western Europe,” and my two minor fields were “Late Antique East” and “High Middle Ages.” If you want to keep up with the sheer volume of readings, you’ll have to read at least 15-25 books/articles per week from the first week of February until the last week of April. More on that later.

The exam itself also varies depending on the program. Some schools have sit-down written exams, some have oral exams, and some have a mix of the two. Here, you have a weeklong take-home test of anywhere from 6-8 questions to be answered in 12,000 words total (4,000 words total per field), followed by a two-hour oral exam the following week (one hour for major, thirty minutes each for minors). The oral exam involves three professors (your field advisors) sitting on one side of a table, and you on the other. They might ask you about your written responses from the previous week, or anything else that floats their boat.

For those who are planning to take their generals, or for those who are curious about how this whole process works, I’ve assembled seven takeaways/lessons from generals prep (because who reads 25 books a week?):

  1. Keep in mind that you will not finish reading everything.

I would say that this is a marathon, except that you’re allowed to take breaks, so it’s really not a marathon because no self-respecting long distance runner would take a break. Perhaps metaphors aren’t very useful here. At any rate, you need to pace yourself through your reading. Prioritize the books that you are pretty sure you’re going to be asked about (or the books that you’ll probably need for your dissertation prospectus, because that’s going to happen pretty much as soon as you finish generals anyway). If you reach the end of the week and you’re not done with your requirements for that week, it’s okay to read book reviews. It’s better that you have a grasp of what a book was about than allow yourself to fall behind on your reading. If you fall behind one week and let it spill over into the next week, it will pile up and you will start to panic. Panic bad. Reviews good.

  1. Sleep reasonable hours every night.

There are more than enough studies about how sleeping a decent amount improves your memory, wellbeing, and all that fun stuff. Personally, when I don’t sleep enough, I feel ill and can’t eat or focus. Sleep never takes a backseat to reading or writing. During the actual written exam, I went to bed around midnight every night, and woke up around 7:30am.

  1. You can take a weeklong break in the middle of reading preparation and still do well.

About eight or nine weeks into generals prep, I took a trip to D.C. with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece. I barely read anything and instead got afternoon tea with some of my HGSE friends (despite my hatred of HGSE as an institution, I met some pretty awesome people there), got gelato twice in one day (once with a friend; once with my uncle, aunt, and cousins), went shopping, and watched the NCAA Women’s Final Four with one of my college besties. It was a much-needed break and I would do it all over again. As a side note, you can also take one day off per week.

  1. During your oral exam, your examiners want you to give an answer. Any answer. Just know how to back it up.

You ever notice how during presidential debates or political town halls, a politician is asked a question and they pivot the question to get to the topic or answer that they wanted all along? Do that. Watch CNN town halls and learn the techniques of your favorite/least problematic politician (if you have one). Even if your answer is tangential, as long as you keep it within the focus of your field, it will in all likelihood be a better answer than “I don’t know” (which is an acceptable answer, but it leads to an awkward and judgmental silence).

  1. Notes? No notes? It’s up to you.

Some people are perfectly happy not to take notes when they read. I am not one of these people. I need notes, with fun quotes and the book’s thesis written down for easy reference. I like to ctrl + F my notes if there are themes that happen to match with other books. But if you’ve never been a notes person, then you don’t need to start now. I’d say to write up a summarizing paragraph of each book/article you finish at a minimum.

  1. Remind yourself that everyone wants you to pass.

For the sake of administrative purposes, it’s easier to pass you than to fail you. And the department already has invested two years’ worth of time and money into your development as a scholar, so they would prefer not to see you go. Is this really all that helpful for me to say? Not really, but it’s something to keep in mind whenever you’re feeling stressed.

  1. If you have a take-home written exam, schedule your writing such that you have one free day to research your answers.

There’s always that one professor who asks you about something that was never on your reading list. Anticipate this and block off one day to do a bit of extra reading. Here’s how I structured my writing responses:

  • Monday: Outline every essay, request/download articles to answer questions that never appeared on your reading list. Write answers for one field. (4,000 words)
  • Tuesday: Write answers for another field. (4,000 words)
  • Wednesday: Read articles downloaded on Monday for the final field. Write one field essay from said field. (2,000 words)
  • Thursday: Write final essay. (2,000 words). Review essays.
  • Friday: Review essays again. Submit answers.

I listed my writing schedule here because that’s what I actually did. As in, that’s doable. I also squeezed in two FES cycle sessions and over five hours of my standing frame during that five-day span, so imagine what someone who doesn’t have physical therapy obligations could get done in that time.

This can be an overwhelming semester. I mean, you’ve basically been given a free semester to read. How much can one realistically absorb in that time? Normally, it can take me a week to read and appreciate a lengthy monograph. For generals, I instead would spend three hours with such a book and move onto the next one. You might think that your professors expect you to be an expert in history by the time your orals come around. But we’re not going to become experts magically in three months (I mean, that’s what the PhD is for). We can, however, become familiar with the scholarship. If you can speak coherently about historiography and major events in your fields of study, then you’ll pass.

And hey, you might even get away with not doing the reading. There are people who read mostly book reviews and still pass. If anything, I might have over prepared. I mean, I don’t recommend just reading reviews because your professors will be able to tell if you blew off the work. But even if you end up reading a bunch of book reviews because you spent too much time reading other books, you’ll be fine. Just be sure to focus on the books you did read.

Now that generals are done, the real work begins. I just completed two daylong seminars that were all about responsible research and the history profession (or as I could sum it up: PLAGIARISM IS BAD AND MAYBE WE’LL ALL GET TENURE BUT LOL). I’m going to spend the next weekend writing up a 15-20-page prospectus draft, which is that thing that tells people what your dissertation is about and how you’re going to go about researching and writing it. Am I prepared enough to write a prospectus? Probably not, so, get ready Princeton History Cohort for: “Val Has a Lot of Questions About the Tenth Century.”

Would I rather be at my five-year college reunion eating Berryline with a bunch of lovely people this weekend? Yes, definitely. Alas, it was not to be. At least by the time the ten-year reunion rolls around, I can tell people all about my dissertation. Why yes, dear former classmate, I am still a nerd who loves the middle ages. Did you expect anything else?

Thanks so much for reading! If you’re interested in receiving updates about a wheelchair user’s attempt to balance a PhD program and physical therapy, feel free to subscribe or follow this blog! Now that my exams are done, expect more regular updates.

Also: Check the “Articles” page of this blog for my non-blog writing.

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