Preparing for Comprehensive Exams in Near Eastern & Islamic Studies
[Editor’s note]: Congratulations, you’ve finished your graduate coursework! If you’ve made it this far, you’ve completed more than your fair share of exams, tests, and papers. You know how to cram for a final exam, how to write a 10-page research paper in as many hours, and how to talk your way to an A participation grade. You may have even written a Master’s thesis. But even with all of this hard-won academic experience, there’s one thing you probably have no experience in: comprehensive exams. These exams, in which you must read dozens upon dozens of works before presenting a well-supported argument about the field to your committee examiner, remain a looming mystery for many 1st- and 2nd-year graduate.
To demystify the process, and to give you a head start in your own preparations for the exam, Maydan asked recent doctoral candidates for their advice on various aspects of the process: from the initial list-forming steps to the exam itself. Their responses have been synthesized into the following tips meant to help you through some of the major parts of the comprehensive exam process.
Contributors: Ida Nitter, Irene Kirchner, Hasan Umut, Tesneem Alkiek, Zavier Wingham
Editor: Ali Galib Cebeci
Part I: The Selection Process
The very first decision you must make during the comprehensives process is what your fields will be. For some, these will be pre-determined by your university, but for the rest, you will have to come up with your own specific areas of interest to study. When selecting fields, think of your professional goals: do you want to pursue a tenure-position immediately after graduation? If so, it would be a good idea to be aware of the job market prospects for various areas of interest, because what you do in your comprehensives may influence the trajectory for your future professional development. That being said, the job market is constantly fluctuating, so you should also build off of your own interests, as these are what will provide you with the motivation to pull through the comprehensive exams and then through the dissertation afterwards.
“Make one of your top considerations your dissertation topic, so that the comprehensives provide you with the knowledge and research skills to hit the ground running with dissertation research.”
Make one of your top considerations your dissertation topic, so that the comprehensives provide you with the knowledge and research skills to hit the ground running with dissertation research. If you do not have a particular dissertation topic in mind, use the comprehensives to familiarize yourself with ongoing discourses in the field – hopefully one of these will give you an idea for a dissertation topic.
Narrow and specific vs. broad and comprehensive:
Our contributors agreed that the key with selecting fields is to carefully balance between the specific and the comprehensive. Too narrow, and you miss exciting work that has cross-applicability in your own field. Too broad, and you miss the finer, more complex discussions going on in a field. One method is to narrow the content of the topic so that it is focused on a specific theme or concept, but keep the time and place broad (i.e. not limited to a certain century, geography, school of thought, etc.). Whatever you decide, keep in mind that the purpose of the comprehensives is to give you a “comprehensive” familiarity with your field.
“Our contributors agreed that the key with selecting fields is to carefully balance between the specific and the comprehensive.”
Forming a committee
When forming a committee, start by asking yourself what your expectations are for the committee members, and what your expectations are for yourself. What does either side expect out of this relationship? How often will you commit to meet? These expectations should be made clear as early as possible. Also consider how individual committee members might complement each other’s roles. One member might be particularly helpful in the start of the process – forming reading lists, tracking down books, etc. – while another might shine in discussing ideas that you’ve had during the reading process.
Some of the most important factors to consider are:
- Availability: How available is the reader? Will they respond to questions quickly, and follow up with you? Are they responsive and willing to engage in discussion?
- Personal investment: A committee member who is personally invested in seeing you become a better scholar will offer unparalleled support and feedback.
- Expertise and relevance: Is the committee member’s expertise relevant to your areas of interest? Will their feedback and support be relevant to what you are reading?
If you do not have enough personal experience to judge these factors, ask fellow students how their experience has been with the reader in question. While every relationship will differ, the aggregate opinion of multiple students will give you a good predictor of how the reader will be with you.
These considerations are important because the comprehensives committee can – and often does – serve as a launching point for the dissertation committee. Ideally, the relationship you develop with the readers during the comprehensives process will allow you to quickly transition into a productive dissertation dynamic. Conversely, if you have a difficult time with a committee member, you will have gained the advanced knowledge to consider another individual for your dissertation committee.
Limited by your department faculty’s expertise?
When trying to match your fields to the available faculty, there will be some give-and-take between what you need and what can be reasonably expected from your committee members. In general, you can trust in the expertise and versatility of your department’s faculty, and your priority should be to focus your fields on what you need first, with consideration given to what your department’s faculty are familiar with after. Keep in mind, however, that the closer your fields overlap with your committee’s expertise, the more relevant the feedback you receive from them will be. Finally, check to see if your department allows outside faculty to serve on exam committees – a major advantage of such an allowance is that the potential areas of expertise you can consider drastically increase, but understand that your ability to meet consistently with outside faculty may be limited due to geographic distances and asynchronous work schedules.
“When trying to match your fields to the available faculty, there will be some give-and-take between what you need and what can be reasonably expected from your committee members.”
Considering that “star” scholar for your committee?
When trying to decide whether to seek a “star” academic for your committee, first give deep thought to how much you will benefit from their inclusion. These figures might add some temporary shine to your scholarship, and may even generate some advance interest in your work among the broader academic community, but ultimately, you stand to gain the most in the long-term from a deep relationship with a scholar who is working directly in your field and has the time to give you direct and sustained feedback.
Forming a reading list
The first choice you will be faced with when forming a reading list is whether you will create your own or stick to a pre-made list. A major benefit of making your own list is that you learn from the process itself. The contributors noted that forming a reading list is a good opportunity to explore the field in detail, familiarize yourself with the most notable works, and form a panoramic view of the state of the field. In this process, you will also begin to see the outlines of the most important questions and methodological issues in the field. In this way, you will be more able to tailor the list to your needs, an especially useful prospect if your reader’s area of specialization is not directly related to your topic.
“The contributors noted that forming a reading list is a good opportunity to explore the field in detail, familiarize yourself with the most notable works, and form a panoramic view of the state of the field.”
A downside of making your own list, however, is that it takes a lot of time. Faced with thousands of titles, you will need to quickly assess which texts are foundational, which are new, and how to balance between them. So while there is a lot to say for making your own list, it wouldn’t hurt to look over some ready-made lists. This will help give you some familiarity with the field, and help you understand different approaches and organizational schemes previous scholars have used to capture the spirit of the field.
Tools and tips for making a reading list:
- Use encyclopedias and bibliographic lists (e.g. Oxford bibliography), as these will present crucial texts in the field, ranging from the earliest references in a debate to the most recent rebuttals.
- Start with what you know, then use their bibliographies. Chances are, you have an idea of at least three or four crucial texts in your field already. Read their footnotes and bibliographies, make a list of what they are citing, and then review abstracts of those referenced works to get an idea of their contents and to determine whether to add them to your list.
- Check any available syllabi. Go over different syllabi, especially those used by experts in the field. These will be helpful not just as bibliographic sources, but as digests of the major discussions in the field. Unlike your coursework period, here you shouldn’t skim past the “suggested reading” sections, as these will provide you with enough sources to dig deeper into a specific topic.
- Ask friends and colleagues. Other students both inside and outside your department will likely have their own list of important books in the field, or interesting pieces they’ve stumbled across – with their input you might find some lesser-known books that are still important in the field.
- Search through Google and library databases. It goes without saying that you should search Google and library databases. But use targeted keywords, and be forewarned that with Google in particular, you will find many sources not to include in your list.
- Take advantage of your reader’s expertise. Once you have a draft of a list, take it to your reader as soon as possible. Their feedback will be an important part of fleshing out the list.
Organizing your list:
As you add items to the reading list, you’ll need effective organization schemes. There is no golden model for organizing, and you should explore a range of organizational criteria – including chronological, thematic, geographic, ideological, etc. – before deciding which arrangement best helps to answer the questions you have in that topic. Some topics will be best dealt with in straight chronology. This is especially true for “development of…” topics. Other topics will be more amenable to thematic or geographic divisions. There is always the option of mixing organization schemes: separate items in the list into broad chronological groups (two or three major time periods, for instance) and organize items geographically or thematically as needed within each period.
Part II: The Reading Process
How long is long enough?
When it comes to the length of the reading period, understand that there will never be enough time to read everything, and stretching your reading period beyond a certain point will end up producing more questions than answers. Our contributors noted times ranging from 4.5 to 12 months in the reading process – any longer than 12 months and the process becomes unmanageable, and also eats away at your funded program period.
Should I really read the whole thing?
How much you should read of each work depends on its relevance – if a text is directly related to your research interests, then you should read it start to finish. For all other cases, make a reading system to help you get through texts quickly. Try reading the introduction and the conclusion closely and skimming the main body, focusing on section headings. If some chapters within the text are of particular interest, read those closely as well. Then read book reviews. It goes without saying that book reviews are the premier tool in this process, but they are not the only one. Be wary of using book reviews as a crutch – while they will provide useful insight, they should not get in the way of you forming your own opinion of the text.
“How much you should read of each work depends on its relevance – if a text is directly related to your research interests, then you should read it start to finish. For all other cases, make a reading system to help you get through texts quickly.”
Never open a book from your list without some forethought. Before reading, have a goal in mind: you want to be able to understand the main argument of the piece, how each chapter ties into that overarching argument, and how this argument can be put in conversation with other works on your list.
The amount of knowledge you are expected to have for each text is linked to how many books are on your list – if your list contains 30-40 books, you will be expected to know more about each item than if your list contains 100. Adjust your reading approach accordingly.
Note-taking systems and tips:
For most of us, the biggest challenge will be retaining information from a multitude of publications over a span of 6-12 months (and hopefully beyond). What is the best way to sort through the tensions, nuances and competing arguments? How we answer this is at the crux of the entire exams process.
“Start by taking rich notes. Avoid shorthand if possible, unless you are confident you will understand your own scrawlings one year from now.”
Start by taking rich notes. Avoid shorthand if possible, unless you are confident you will understand your own scrawlings one year from now. Maintain a clear organizational framework for all your notes – reference the book’s table of contents beforehand to help you organize your own structure. The key here is to balance between too many notes and too few. Focus first on the main argument(s), then identify how each chapter fits into that main argument – this will form the basis of your main take-away from that text.
As for quotations – your policy here should depend on the type of exam you will take. If your exam is a longer, take-home exam, then it may help to note down central quotations from each work. However, avoid getting bogged down in these, as typing (or worse, copy-pasting) quotations requires little to no mental activity and will not be as meaningful for your overall understanding as your own digested notes. Also, be aware that you may not be able to access these quotations if your exam is closed-book.
Apart from the above, make sure to also include:
- Your own thoughts and reactions as you are reading. As you go through more and more readings, you will have a better idea of major trends in the field, and your immediate reactions to each individual text will become highly relevant. Have internal discussions about the arguments and evidence, and try to analyze both the evidence for and against these arguments. Note these reactions down, as you can later use these as valuable seeds for forming general thoughts on the entire list.
- A 1-paragraph abstract of the text immediately after you have finished reading it. Not only will this abstract come in handy when you’re reviewing at the end of the reading period, but the act of writing an abstract immediately after reading will help transfer the information you learned that day from short-term to long-term memory.
- A short reflection on how this book connects to other texts in your list. This kind of metadata will be of great use when you have finished all your reading and are trying to identify the common threads that run through the field.
To format these notes, consider using the following template for each publication:
- Objective: [What is the specific question this work seeks to answer?]
- Arguments: [What are the main arguments of this work? Name no more than four, as even long works can be boiled down to three or four core arguments.]
- Evidence & Examples: [What evidence is the author using to support their arguments?]
- Context: [What is the general historical context of the work’s subject matter? Do not go overboard here, but make sure you understand the basic sociopolitical and intellectual context of the subjects being studied.]
- Relevance: [How is this argument relevant to the broader field?]
- Evaluation: [What do I think about this work. Do I find its arguments convincing?]
- My Notes: [An umbrella section to jot down ideas you may have that are not directly related to your evaluation of the text, but are fruitful leads for future research.]
- Metadata: [Who wrote this work? When? What is the scholarly context of its publication? For example, is it meant as a rebuttal to another work, or a reaction to a contemporary issue?]
Finally, while taking notes you may be tempted to prepare drafts responding to possible exam questions. While your forethought is commendable, be aware that this will be a wasted effort if the essay you write does not end up applying to the questions you receive. Instead, spend that time ensuring you have a firm idea of how various texts fit together in the field, so that when the prompt does come, you know exactly what texts will be needed, and where. If you do want to pre-write anything for the exam, prepare properly-formatted citations (for take-home essays), so that when you are taking the exam, you can drop in a quote or reference and then copy the citation in without rummaging through style guides or reference materials.
I’ve read 20 books already and I need to read 30/40/50 more – how do I keep this up?
- Be consistent. Keep as steady a pace as possible – once you have set your goals and timeline, make sure to hold yourself to them.
- Plan ahead. Use the first 1-2 weeks to see how long it takes you to get through a book or an article, and then use that information to estimate a general pace that you can keep up for the next few months. When doing so, make sure to build in some buffer time in case of an emergency.
- Make time for breaks. For your own sanity, don’t neglect to take breaks for personal time or to pursue other things you are passionate about. There is no ideal formula for breaks vs. brainwork here, and you will know best what works for you, but the goal should be to make sure you stay energized throughout this marathon.
- Avoid unnecessary projects as much as possible. Here you must consider your financial situation. It would be ideal to focus only on reading your texts, but that isn’t a lifestyle that most can afford for a myriad of reasons. As a graduate student, you will likely have to hold a TA, RA or teaching position to receive a stipend. It is important to maintain these positions – primarily to meet basic financial necessities, but also for long-term professional development. Make sure to schedule well so that you can responsibly balance between these duties and your readings. However, when it comes to other professional projects beyond the teaching or research that is built into your graduate program (like organizing conferences or writing and publishing articles), it may be best to avoid committing until after the exams finish. Short-term academic projects will eat up a lot more of your time and mental capacity than you might think, and unless the work is something you really enjoy, it will also leave you with little energy for the reading process.
Part III: The Examination Process
Much of the examination form will depend on your department, so the responsibility is on you to familiarize yourself with your department’s policies. However, the universal test-taking advice that you already know well still applies: get rest beforehand, make sure everything is prepared well ahead of the test date, and start the test in a clear state of mind. Apart from these general pointers, also consider the following:
If given a decision between a sit-in exam or a take-home essay, weigh the advantages and disadvantages. With a take-home exam, you will be able to take breaks in between writing sessions, grab something to eat or drink, and reference books or notes in the comfort of your home. However, you will be expected to produce a higher-quality piece than if you had opted for a sit-in exam.
“Whatever format your exam takes, understand the expectations of your committee members. Given the time constraints and the massive amount of reading, they are not expecting you to name every item in the list, nor are they expecting the most novel piece of scholarship.”
Whatever format your exam takes, understand the expectations of your committee members. Given the time constraints and the massive amount of reading, they are not expecting you to name every item in the list, nor are they expecting the most novel piece of scholarship. Instead, they want to see you demonstrate mastery of a field. This means showing that you understand how arguments and texts come together and that you are able to arrange texts into a conversation that supports your own position. That last part is crucial. While it is important to demonstrate mastery of the field as it is, you should also be staking a position in response to the specific exam prompt. Your mastery will be fully evident when you can muster evidence from the texts that agree and preempt counters from the texts that disagree.
What if one of my readers is featured in my list?
“If a reader on your committee has authored a text included in your list, treat their works like you treat all of the other readings: with professional charity. That is not to say you don’t offer criticism.”
If a reader on your committee has authored a text included in your list, treat their works like you treat all of the other readings: with professional charity. That is not to say you don’t offer criticism. Chances are the reader in question will happily push you to disagree with their conclusions so long as you have the arguments and evidence to back it up. They want to see that you grasp the arguments strongly enough to take a position, even if it disagrees with theirs. However, if you vehemently disagree with their arguments, the exams are not the forum to blatantly proclaim your feelings. Instead, if you foresee this becoming an issue, try visiting the reader beforehand to talk through your position in a friendly way.
Part IV: Parting Advice
Throughout this entire process, remember to:
- Pull back. Don’t get overwhelmed by details, and always keep the big picture in mind.
- Play to your strengths. If you get an open-ended question, don’t give an open-ended answer. Instead, answer in a way that builds off of material that you excel in and topics you are well-versed in.
- Get started early. The earlier you start this process the better. If you are in your coursework period, begin thinking about what fields you will select, what texts these might include, and who could serve on your committee.
- Connect to your peers through your shared suffering. Reading can be an extremely solitary act. Try to connect with your peers, and maybe you will find that you develop a “we’re in this together, see you on the other side” mentality that enables bonding over your struggles getting through the readings, disliking some texts, and loving many, many more.
- Go easy on yourself when faced with setbacks. This is a difficult process, and rest assured that your professors recognize that fact. They went through the same process, faced their own setbacks, and had their own failures. Everyone does, so remember that you are not the only one having a hard time with your comprehensives.
Contributor: Ida Nitter. Ida Sofie Nitter is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. As an ARCE Research Associate she is currently living in Cairo and conducting her dissertation research, which focuses on tasawwuf (Sufsm) in 19th century Cairo, and the religious practices associated with tasawwuf. Nitter is passionate about what religious practice and Islam looked like in Cairo in the early modern and modern period across social and economic divides.
Contributor: Irene Kirchner. Irene K. F. Kirchner is a Ph.D. student at the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, working on the reception history of Hadith forgeries. She is exploring the potential of computational analysis techniques and the intersection between Islamic Studies and the Digital Humanities. Irene is also the founder and director of the Islamicate Digital Humanities Network (idhn.org).
Contributor: Hasan Umut. Hasan Umut completed his Ph.D. at the Institute of Islamic studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in 2020. The title of his dissertation is “Theoretical Astronomy in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire: ʿAlī al-Qūshjī’s al-Risāla al-Fatḥiyya.” His fields of research include history of astronomy, history of science in Islamic societies, Ottoman science, and Islamic intellectual history.
Contributor: Tesneem Alkiek. Tesneem Alkiek completed her undergraduate degree in Early Christianity and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. Her dissertation research focuses on legal discussions of harm in marriage and divorce.
Contributor: Zavier Wingham. Zavier Wingham is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program for History and Middle East and Islamic Studies at New York University. His dissertation research explores nineteenth century Ottoman conceptions of race, slavery, and blackness and how Africans might have navigated unfolding processes of racialization.
Editor: Ali Galib Cebeci. Ali Galib Cebeci serves as an Editorial Research Associate at Maydan. He completed his undergraduate degree in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, his M.A. in History at Istanbul Sehir University, and is currently a Ph.D. student in Arabic & Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. His fields of interest include hadith studies, Companion prosopography, and the history and historiography of early Islam.