Sunday, June 28, 2009

If I Were to Take Prelims Again

I finished my five PhD preliminary exams a week ago after a month of especially intensive preparation. Marking the completion of course work, prelims are a big hurdle on the road to PhD. While waiting anxiously for the result of my exams, I’d like to note down a few lessons for myself and future fellow prelim takers.

Lesson 1: Have a good study plan and stick to it. The study plan involves two main decisions: do I read on paper or on computer screen, and how much study each day. I prefer reading on paper because it’s easier on my eyes and allows me to flag super important pages using color coded Post-It plastic flags. Paper copy is also handy during the exam because I think better and faster when I can see the whole forest of papers in front of me, which is hard to do with electronic copy. I know paper copy is bad for the environment. But I just can’t find a paper-less way to achieve the same study results. If you have a good tip, let me know and I’ll be happy to try it. The second decision, how much study each day, is easy to make. After finalizing the reading lists with my committee members, I get a paper copy of every item in the lists and organize the material by professor then by topic. Dividing the material by the number of study days, I know exactly how much reading I have to do everyday. After a few days of trial, I also know how fast I have to read and how to schedule my day in order to finish the daily reading quota. Once my study plan was in place, I stick to it because I know it was the only sure way to finish the reading on time without cramming or worrying myself crazy.

Lesson 2: Take sketchy notes and make them searchable. I use pencil to underline important passages while reading. I find pencil better than highlighter because I can undo the underline and jot down notes beside the passages with pencil. After reading a batch of papers or books, I usually transfer those underlined passages, with their original page numbers in case I need a direct quote or re-read the original later, to a separate Word document, my own digest version. I have one such digest document for each prelim topic, and it takes one to two days to finish a digest document. I find it a wise investment to spend time making the digest documents. During a prelim, I can print out its digest document, use computer search to find the useful parts for the exam question, and highlight the parts in the printout. When I write answers, it’s much faster to just check the digest document rather than searching through the mountain of original material. Later on when I write my dissertation, the digest documents will also be a time saver because I don’t need to read the original material again.

I choose Word to take notes out of habit. It’s on almost every computer in campus libraries and public libraries, so I can work on my digest documents in any library without my own computers. Word also allows me to have a color coding system to quickly identify notes text by topics, importance, etc. But Word doesn’t allow search in multiple documents at once. Nor can I tag a document with key words and assemble a “play list” of Word files by tags. Although Google Desktop can search multiple Word files in a computer, it is not available on library computers. A great citation management software, Endnote has a field to store notes and offers easy search of it. But I can’t format the notes in any way, and, again, the software is not available on library computers. I wish there were a super easy notes management software that combines the formatting capability of Word with the search power of Google Desktop or Endnote. Does anyone know a good software or use a different strategy?

Lesson 3: Make a theme map with citations. During the last days of my preparation, I realized that I needed an overview document that maps out the major themes of research in a topical area with related citations. For example, in the topical area of social networking, several themes have emerged from my reading – features of network itself (e.g. weak ties and homophily), influence of social network (e.g. social capital), methodology issues, etc. My theme map lists in bullet points those lines (and sub-lines) of research with major citations and a super short summary (a few words) of each citation. During the prelims, my theme map not only saves me precious time in outlining the answer, but also helps me identify the unexplored or under-explored spots in the research area. Those spots become targets of my research.

Looking back, I wish I had started making notes and theme maps since day one of my PhD program.

Lesson 4: Develop a study routine. A good routine helps maintain productivity and reduce stress. I spent several days trying different study locations and hours. I settled on the Middleton Public Library as my location which has minimum distraction, comfortable desks and chairs, free parking, and good food and coffee nearby. Starting with an self-indulgence of latte, my study hours were from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with one hour of lunch break, six days a week. I didn’t study in the evening but rewarded myself with relax time, usually watching the Everybody Loves Raymond DVDs that I got from the public library (finished season five when my prelims were done). The daily reward and relax time are important because they keep me motivated and interested in the study. Also, out of a personal principle, I simply refuse to live like a machine just because of an exam. I’ve been through the gruesome Chinese college entrance exams and spent my last two years in high school like a study machine. Afterwards I vowed to myself never again to allow an exam to take my life away.

I also developed a routine during the prelims. The first five minutes after getting the exam question are the scariest: where do I start? Instead of staring at a blank computer screen, I find it calming to just type the question onto the screen. Somehow the physical act of typing breaks the spell of terror and my brain cells can move again. Besides, I need to include the question in my answer document anyway, so typing it is not a waste of time. Second, I make a paragraph outline before diving into writing. Utilizing my notes and theme map, I come up with an outline in bullet points with relevant citations. The outline not only makes writing easier and to the point, but also guides me how much exam time I should give to each bullet point to avoid rushing at the end.

OK, that’s my two cents on prelims. Good luck, everybody!

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