Areas Exam

On this page, you will find information about the Areas Exam from graduate students who have been through it.

The Areas Exam is the last step before you become ABD (all but dissertation). This is your opportunity to become an expert in two areas of literary study, hopefully with a view toward developing your dissertation. You will ask an appropriate faculty member to head up each area, and they will help you develop the lists of books you need to read for the exam.

You are asked to write a rationale for each area. The rationale is a short paper (ideally 15-20 pages) which your examiners will use to guide your exam. You must hand your rationales in to each area advisor a minimum of three weeks before your exam, so that they can suggest changes, and you must get the final rationales out to your committee two weeks before your exam (i.e. following this procedure, you will have one week to get feedback and make changes before having to hand out the final rationales).

Your areas committee will consist of the head of your primary area (who will also be the chair of the committee), the head of your secondary area and two readers whom you select and ask. When you and your area advisors feel you are ready, you will set the date for your exam which will last about two hours.

The official requirements from the English Department can be found here (you have to scroll down to the section headed “PhD” where it is called the “Doctoral Examination”).

Student Experiences

Amanda’s Areas Exam

Here are some tips that I learned from my Area writing and exam taking experience; these tips are also informed by the experiences of friends and and colleagues in the department.

Writing the Areas:

1) Create your lists early on, and know that they will change. I don’t think it’s ever too early (well, maybe your first year is too early) to begin compiling your area lists, especially if you are one of those graduate students blessed enough to know your interests. By your last semester of course work, you should aim to have your two reading lists drafted, as well as two faculty members willing to work with you on your areas. Once you’ve finished course work, it is easy to lose your work ethic and sense of purpose: DON’T! One way you can combat post-course work malaise is to have these lists tentatively worked out. So, how do you figure out what to put on your lists? Ask your area faculty advisors, other graduate students, look at other grad student area lists, etc. Put stuff you’ve already read on there if it’s relevant to your field—this is a highly recommended time saver. It is also important to note that, once you have your list ready and begin reading, you may decide that texts you originally thought might be relevant are no longer. Have no mercy: delete them. And remember, if you don’t feel comfortable talking about a particular text in public during your exams, don’t put it on the list (or, more responsibly, learn it!)

1b) Draft lists with dissertation in mind. Yes, you will be compelled to write a dissertation after you finish the areas. You should think of them as the doorway to this larger project, and compile them with the future in mind.

2) Write as you read, and read, and read. As you tackle your now complete reading lists, don’t forget to write every day or so. Summarize what you’ve read, comment on it, critique it, whatever; just so long as you write something. Once you actually start drafting your rationales, these notes will be priceless and will save you a lot of time (ie. questions like “What was that book about? What didn’t I like about it?). Think about it like you’re doing ground work for your dissertation.

3) Don’t stress too much over form, length, etc. As Ann wisely remarks in her Area advice page, the form of your area papers may vary widely depending on your topic and who you’re working with. You will not be able to address everything you’ve read in your papers, as they are (should be) short. A general outline: 1) Establish knowledge about the “conversation” around your topic and outline the important scholars/issues that relate to it; 2)what is your interest/argument/potential intervention in the field? lay this out, you might do some close readings, etc. 3) lastly, pose questions, difficulties, issues that you’ll need to address in a future project….the dissertation.

Taking the Exam:

1) Prepare yourself, but don’t overload your brain. Remember that you, more than likely, know more than the faculty members on your committee about this topic, or at least the information is freshest in your mind. Look over the notes you took diligently during your reading process, and make sure that you can intelligently discuss any fiction/poetry on your list that you did not address in your rationales.

2) The exam is, for the most part, rationale centered. As stated above, your committee members may ask you to develop your argument/ideas in relation to the literature that you did not discuss in your rationales. They almost certainly will never ask you about theoretical texts that you included on your reading list but did not discuss in your rationales. Of course, all bets are off if you’re strictly a theory person, or if you have very theory-oriented faculty on your committee. In general, the rationale will serve as the focal point for your discussion. And, unless you have an inordinately cruel committee member, the exam should feel more like a conversation than a question and answer session.

3) Get sleep the night before, if possible. Sleep, of course, is a good thing for the mind. You know this.

4) Prepare an opening statement. At the beginning of the exam, they will ask you if you have an opening statement. You will. This is a great way to take control of the exam and show your articulate self at your best, before the blustering, blundering fool you will inevitably become in the midst of the exam. Make it short (no more than 5 minutes or so). Things you may want to address include: how you came to your topic, ideas you have been thinking through since you finished writing, the direction you would like the exam to go (questions you might want to think through), potential problems, issues you may face in the future. It’s best if you can memorize something or just go in with some talking points. This should not feel like a presentation.

5) Relax. Especially when you get a hard question. There may come a point when you are absolutely stumped by an incoming question. Feel free to take a minute to think about it; indeed, all faculty members that I spoke with before my exam encouraged me to take time out if necessary. This shows that you are a thoughtful person, not a dumb one. You can also ask your faculty advisors beforehand what kinds of questions they might ask; they will usually help you out with a few suggestions. If you really don’t understand something that is asked, you can ask them to rephrase or repeat it; again, sign of a thoughtful mind. Yet there may come a time when you have absolutely no idea what to say; save this for your “one pass” (ie: “That is a really provocative idea, and one that sounds like it has a lot of relevance to my project. I haven’t had the opportunity to think it through yet, but I would love to hear more about your thoughts…etc). If they suggest something, write it down. Again, you are a thoughtful person.

6) Wow them with snacks. When all else fails, bring snacks (pastries in the morning, savory snacks in the afternoon. NO WINE). This is not a requirement, and no one will think the less of you if you don’t bring food; they may, however, protest openly if you do that “you shouldn’t have.” But this is a nice gesture. Moreover, the whole thing is a lot less threatening if they’re eating cookies.

7) Follow up with thank-you notes.

Ann’s Areas Exam
English Renaissance Drama/Performance and Courtesy Literature (Manners)

Ask seven different people what the area exams are supposed to be, and you will get seven wildly different answers. The truth is, I think, that the requirements of the area exams are a little nebulous in order to accommodate varying student needs and the varying views of faculty members about what the areas actually are. So your area exam will be whatever your committee members think it should be. Ask them how they view the area exams: what are you supposed to be proving in your rationales and in the exam?

The areas process has been for me the most grueling aspect by far of this entire program. My second area was very difficult to pin down and get approved. I went through at least three ideas and four lists before I even found someone willing to head up my second area. The exam requires expertise on the part of the faculty (they need to have read the books you are reading) so if you go outside their intellectual wheelhouses, you may meet resistance. Or you may not. It really depends on your committee members.

Here’s what I learned:
1) Put your areas together with an idea of your future (this idea never came up in the many, many talks I had with various faculty members – I think faculty members think this is obvious, but it wasn’t to me). Do you want to be at a Research 1 school? Then make sure your areas serve as pre-dissertation research. Do you see yourself at a smaller teaching school? Then consider making one of your areas a teaching one, way outside your dissertation interests.

2) The rationales are difficult to write. They’re supposed to be about 15-20 well-written pages. Are you supposed to be making an argument? Proving you did the reading? Again, this one depends on who’s heading your areas. Rationales of past students are available in the room across the hall from Wanda’s office. Try to find a model you like from someone who worked with your faculty members.

3) Your examiners will not be as familiar with your rationales as you are. In the exam, I was thrown because I seemed to keep getting questions that I thought I’d answered in my rationales. And then I panicked and thought they wanted me to approach it in a totally different way than I did in my rationales. They were probably just lobbing me easy questions, but I think I ended up babbling incoherently at times, assuming that they were starting with the base of knowledge that I had, but they just didn’t like what I said on paper. Just restate your case from your rationales, and if they want more, they’ll ask for it.

4) Stick to your guns. We’re supposed to be passing from student to colleague in this step of the program. If you have an idea you think is really good, then just be super-solid in your argument and be able talk about it with ease and confidence.