Almost any doctoral student will tell you that one of the hardest (if not the hardest) part of your PhD is your candidacy exams (also called Comprehensive Exams or Comps). They come in many formats, ranging from a written exam to an oral exam. They also range in subject matter. Some focus only on a candidate’s main field while others focus on the overall discipline. In my case, I focused on two fields: International Relations and Comparative Politics. My candidacy exams consisted of a written and oral component for each field. Three small essays were required for each field, with each essay answering a specific question. I was given three hours to complete each written component. In addition to that, I had to orally defend my answers (from both fields) in what can best be described as a 2-hour grilling session.

While studying for my exams, I received plenty of advice. Much of it I was glad to have been told. However, there were other things that I figured out on my own that I wish I had been told. Of course, no two candidacy exams are alike, with particular variation across schools and fields. However, I have come up with 5 tips that I think apply to almost anyone studying for their candidacy exams and am sharing them here in the hopes that they help other students. Are these tips going to be useful for everyone? Obviously not. However, I felt that it would be best for me to jot down what helped me the most with my experience still fresh in my mind.

Tip 1: Have A Plan

This doesn’t mean you need to formally schedule your time, but you should set deadlines for yourself and goals for those deadlines. Studying for candidacy exams is a lengthy and large process. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of reading and, given the perceived futility of doing something, do nothing. Splitting your reading up with deadlines and a loose schedule will do two things. First, it will force you to read in stages by making your goals less overwhelming. Second, it will give you regular feelings of accomplishment.

Tip 2: Develop A Note Taking System

Taking notes is an extremely important part of studying for candidacy exams. While it may seem at the time that you will easily remember an important point from a crucial reading on your list, when asked to recall that point 3 months and umpteen books/articles later, it’s easy to draw a complete blank. For this reason, you need notes. However, not all notes are equal. Scribbling down points in a notebook may suffice for some, but I found that a systematic note taking system was extremely helpful. This can include making a Word template that you fill in for each reading that contains, for example, a summary of the argument, questions/concerns/issues you have with the argument and why this book/article matters to the discipline. Having this for every work you read will allow you to quickly and easily find what you need to know about books/articles you read months ago.

Tip 3: Make Use of Other Students

Your colleagues are a wealth of information, intellect, and debate. Use them. Those who have already completed their candidacy exams have invaluable tacit knowledge of the process at your institution. They can offer advice on reading strategies, exam makeup, and other key elements of the process. Beyond those details, though, all your colleagues can be a great source of alternate opinions and interpretations of the works you are reading. Particularly in a social science field like political science, work is open to interpretation. Not everyone will take away the same things you will from Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. Engaging with fellow students allows you to hear alternate viewpoints and have your viewpoints criticized. This criticism will prepare you for your oral defense (if you have one), where you will most certainly be criticized!

Tip 4: Make Use of Faculty

Most, if not all, of the faculty in your department have been through candidacy exams in their doctoral studies. More importantly, many have sat on examination committees. Therefore, they can (if they are willing to) give you advice on the process. In addition to this, they provide a great resource for discussion. Discussing the literature with the faculty member responsible for putting it on the required reading list can be very helpful. Generally, they have intimate knowledge of the work and can help you put it into the larger context of the entire discipline. Going in to your department and meeting regularly with faculty members can be difficult but can be very helpful. Some of the best help I received for my candidacy exams was through weekly meetings with different members of the faculty to discuss what I had read, what I liked, what I didn’t and what fit where.

Tip 5: Use Good Book Summaries

Why is good in red? Because bad book summaries (summary and review are used interchangeably here) get you into nothing but trouble. Book summaries can be extremely useful. They can shorten the amount of time necessary to get the main argument of a particular work and can sometimes offer useful criticism of that work. While they will never substitute for reading the actual book or article, they can clarify points or potentially allow you to read less of a book in order to get the main points. However, not all book summaries are created equal. Good book summaries can be great; bad book summaries are useless. So, how do you find good book summaries? Here, I have two tips.

First, read more than one book summary of the same book. This will give you more perspectives on the book and more criticism of the book. In addition, it will allow you to learn to separate a good summary from a bad one. Second, try to find summaries in reputable places. While typing the title of your book and “summary” or “review” into Google can get you a review, it may not be the greatest. The best way to find reputable book reviews is to look through academic sources. This can be time-consuming. To make it faster, use a database of academic sources, like JSTOR. To quickly and efficiently search these databases, do the following: type “site:jstor.com ‘Book Name’ review” (no quotes) into Google. Replace ‘Book Name’ with the name of the book you want the review of and ‘jstor.com’ with the name of the database you want to search. While this method is far from perfect, it was a lifesaver for me in some cases. It quickly searches these large academic databases for reviews of books. Once found, simply get the citation and find the review article.