Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide. Yes, it’s another reading post!

Congratulations again! You’ve finished your coursework, and now it’s time to start the process of reading for your comps or quals (whichever term your university uses).

Different universities have different models for the written portion of the exam, but they all start pretty much the same way: read every book written in your field in a given amount of time (usually it’s about a year). What could possibly go wrong?

Know your purpose

This is actually key to the entire process and, in my entirely scientifically invalid study of random colleagues who went through it, appears to be somewhat rare.

When I was getting started, my advisor sat me down in his office and asked me: what do you want to get out of comps?

What do I want to get out of comps? Is this a trick question?

It’s a benchmark.

It’s a necessary box to be checked on the way to the finish line.

… I don’t know?

And herein lies the problem. What are you doing? Why are you reading all of these books? How do you select the subfields for which you are reading (in some disciplines, these are set; in others you have some leeway)?

So, let me walk through a couple of answers here. There’s no right or wrong, but take some time to consider what’s going on here.

  1. You’re doing it as advance research for your dissertation. You want to get a good lay of the land and figure out where the lacunae (gaps) in research are so that you know where to start looking when you have to produce An Original Piece of Research That Hasn’t Been Done Before. (It seems weighty enough to merit capital letters). Bear in mind, you’re just doing broad background sweeps here – you’ll almost certainly wind up doing more after you’ve done your research, and this is perfectly normal.
  2. You’re doing it as preparation for your teaching career. This is what I was going for, myself. And here’s why: I’m a Middle East historian (don’t let all the hypotheticals about the French Revolution fool you). Unless an institution has a large enough history program to have both the Medieval Middle East Guy or Gal (who does Rise of Islam to the Ottomans) and the Modern Middle East Guy or Gal (who does Ottomans to Why They Hate Us), the same person usually winds up teaching both sets of classes.
    Well, as a Modern Middle East historian (which I came to kicking and screaming because I wanted to be a medievalist), my advisor suggested that I do certain subfields, but I insisted that one of them had to be the earlier period because I would probably need to demonstrate that it was a field I could teach. (And, in fact, I have taught it since. And actually enjoy teaching the medieval period more than teaching the modern stuff, mainly because I have grown tired of trying to explain that there’s more than one perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to students who are ardently opposed to the idea).

The reason why it’s important to know why you’re doing comps is that for most of us, coming straight out of coursework, comps reading is bewildering because we’re no longer accountable to anyone. We lose touch with our peers and we drift. And suddenly all that nagging doubt about whether we’re doing it right, and whether we deserve to be here, comes rushing in.

Having a sense of purpose keeps you focused when you’ve read the 50th book on the same topic and are trying to remember how and why you’re doing all of this.

black and white books education facts
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How to Read for Comps

Yes, I’m back to reading. This isn’t about the mechanics of reading (for which, see here), or about the logistics of it (for which, see here), so much as dealing with the sheer volume of books you’re expected to read and not losing sight of the prize.

There are many, many ways you can organize yourself and approach this, and I will say first and foremost that this is what worked for me. The most important aspect of this step in the process is that you find a system that works for you and feels natural, not that you mirror someone else’s process (especially if it doesn’t feel natural to you).

I divided my reading lists into subsections: History of the Ottoman Empire, History of the Ottoman Arab Provinces, Ottoman Society, etc. And then I read through each section in chronological order by date of publication, starting with the oldest.

I took notes on each book (this, for me, was the hardest part).

I set up a notebook in Microsoft OneNote.

(Note: My university has a massive user license for Microsoft Office, with which OneNote comes free. Other people I know have used Evernote, Google Docs, and I know a couple of people who swear by Excel or Google Sheets. I even know a couple of people who did it all in a moleskin notebook with a fancy pen because they liked the feel of writing on paper. There is no wrong answer. Come up with a system that works for you, based on your own knowledge and comfort level. You want to be able to do this easily and not fight with the tech trying to get it to do what you want every time you use it.)

Each of my three big lists had its own notebook, each subsection had its own tab, each title its own page.

My initial notetaking system was based on Sam Grace’s–as I’ve encouraged you to do, once I got more comfortable with what I wanted, I added and removed sections of her rubric and came up with mine.

My final list looked something like this:

  • Thesis and subarguments
  • Intellectual genealogy (I’ll explain this in a second)
  • Notes on the text
  • Relationship to my research
  • Questions
  1. Thesis and subarguments: What is the big picture argument that the author is putting forward? What arguments does the author put forward to advance them (these are usually, but not always, addressed in individual chapters).
  2. Intellectual genealogy: In short, what scholars work is this author expanding upon?Who did he or she study with? Who is he or she writing against? Part of your comps is understanding the way the field in which you’re working has developed, and what the major points of debate within it are.
    A quick illustration on how this works. As an undergrad I was assigned an essay called “An Agenda for Ottoman History” by Huri İslamoğlu-İnan and Çağlar Keyder. I read it. It was … okay? I guess? The professor didn’t really explain why the article was significant. I only got that she really liked this Huri İslamoğlu person, and really didn’t like Bernard Lewis or Stanford Shaw, but I didn’t really understand why.
    As a graduate student I was introduced to the work of the Annales school of Fernand Braudel, who saw the world as a series of interconnected regions. He was one of the first historians to work against the classical model of history, which saw European greatness as the pinnacle of historical development. Another scholar, Immanuel Wallerstein, developed the notion of a world-economy, which took this notion and developed an economic model explaining how economies work across national borders and are all interrelated (I am simplifying greatly here, don’t @ me).
    So, in our little Ottoman-history family tree: İslamoğlu was Wallerstein’s student at Cornell, and reframed our traditional understanding of Ottoman history–which was typified by scholars like Stanford Shaw and Bernard Lewis–along the lines proposed by Wallerstein, specifically writing against the traditional argument that the Ottoman Empire entered a decline after the year 1600 from which it never really recovered. Hence, we can draw kind of a family tree. Braudel begets Wallerstein, who begets İslamoğlu. On the other side, we have Shaw, Lewis, and their intellectual heirs. Each side rejects the other. (If anyone is actually interested in this, I wrote a seminar paper about it, which you can find here).
    Now, remember that when one scholar rejects another work, this is just as important as when one scholar builds on another’s work–because that’s what they’re, in fact, doing. Rejection isn’t the same as outright dismissal: rejection is a form of reaction. You’ll need to understand the rationale for it, and what form it takes in each instance.
    Understanding the intellectual genealogy will help you understand where a scholar’s ideas are coming from, and also help you more readily identify a scholar who does something unexpected or revisionist in line of the intellectual tradition he or she is coming from.
  3. Notes on the text: Pretty straightforward, I think. These are mostly for you – what did you learn that you didn’t know before?
  4. Relationship to your own research: Is this book important? Is it something you’ll want to come back to? Does the author identify the area you want to work on as one in need of further research? Do they ask unanswered questions that you want to answer?
  5. Questions: These are for questions you have after reading the book. Does the author pose questions they don’t answer? Does the book not satisfactorily answer questions you have? Are you confused about something?

As you work through each subsection, you’ll discover that the time you need to read subsequent books becomes shorter and shorter–this is why I recommend reading them in the order in which they were written. When you get to very new research, you may find that you don’t even really need more than a few minutes with the book because you’ve become so familiar with the subfield that you know most of the facts, and know exactly where to place the author’s argument.

You’ll also want to remember what it’s like to start a new subsection, because you may get startled when you start a new one, instead of being able to zip through one book in an hour, you’ll suddenly need a day and a half. This is going to happen, but it’s a bit jarring each time!

adult book boring face
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Avoiding Drift

Your comps year is likely to be your first academic experience being almost entirely independent, and it can be extremely overwhelming. You go from meeting in seminar regularly with other groups of people who are all reading the same thing to having your advisor and committee members saying “come see me when you have something to talk about.”

If you’re not meeting regularly with your advisor (and I find this tends to be one of two extremes: either you see your advisor when you’re done reading and think you’re ready for the exam, or they insist on meeting quite regularly), consider forming a reading group.

I did this with a couple of colleagues, and just being accountable to someone made a huge different in lighting a fire under my butt to keep working. We met weekly just to talk about what we’d read that week and be supportive. We weren’t even reading the same material. It just helped to be able to articulate things out loud to someone other than my chemical engineer husband and the cats.

Be sure to keep checked in with someone. Formulate ways to keep yourself accountable to yourself and others. And keep yourself grounded. You don’t need to read 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. As I said in my previous post, know your limits. Know how much you can read before you can’t take it any more.


This post has, again, gone on longer than I expected. What other questions do you have about comps/quals? Let me know in the comments!

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about the oral defense of your qualifying/comprehensive exams (for me, this was way more nervewracking than my dissertation defense!)

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