If anyone were to ask me, “What are preliminary exams like?” I would say, “Indescribably exciting and torturous at the same time. You need to experience them to know.”
Preliminary exams, at least in my department, tell your committee members whether or not you are ready to carry out independent research. Are you ready to come up with a problem that is researchable? Can you use theories to analyze your work? Can you analyze your work and be sensible and not go mad when you finally finish your dissertation? Can you spell dissertation?
If you pass the prelims, you become a PhD candidate. You then need to work on your dissertation proposal, and then your data collection, and then your dissertation, and then your defense. After your defense, you win – ehem, earn – your PhD.
This is what my prelims were like:
On February 22, I received 11 questions that covered many of the fields that I had done coursework in: theories, the nature of science, sociology, communication, gender, the sociology of knowledge, and – adult education. I had never done coursework on adult education. So – well, yes, I still had to do research. Mind you, these weren’t multiple choice questions. These were essay questions that demanded a lot of reading and research.
I was given a week to answer the questions. I locked myself up in the library and emerged only to get food, restock my pile of granola bars, refill my coffee mug, dance, get more articles from my office file cabinet, and go home. During this time, I still bellydanced because I knew that I was going to go insane if I didn’t. I was reading at least 50 articles a day, skimming through as many as 10 books, and typing out everything that I found. In the end, on February 28 – twelve hours before my March 1 deadline – I submitted 120 pages of work to my major professor.
One of my committee members said that he was overwhelmed at the volume of work that I had submitted. Hello – I was overwhelmed at the questions! I didn’t have the time to pare the answers down to a bare minimum. So yes, they got the 120 pages that they had unwittingly asked for.
The committee had a week to read my answers. In that same week, I nearly went insane. I screamed randomly, at inanimate objects, at my computer, at my shoes, at my throbbing ankles. I had to dance, or I would truly lose my mind – truly lose myself in the byways and alleyways of my thoughts, now so well known to me through long hours of silent research. If I had lost myself in them, in those byways and alleyways of reason, I would never find my way back to the highway, back in the sunlight. Research is such a sad, solitary enterprise, they say; you can never feel the pain and torture of that solitude until you embark on preliminary exams and find yourself alone with your thoughts. You will never know how insanity begins until you save yourself from that urge to lose yourself in your theories, in the entanglement of imagination and sense.
So I danced, and I survived. I prayed, day after day after day. I prayed for mercy, for understanding from God, for help, because I could dance all I wanted – but only He had the power to completely heal me.
On March 9, I had to defend my answers. The oral defense is nerve-wracking, PhD candidates say. I say it wipes your brain clean. You think you know everything. You think you anticipate everything. A question comes. You answer it. Another question comes. Out. Of. Left. Field. And then your mind goes, “Oh crap.” And then it goes blank. At one point, all I could see in my head was deer. In a forest. Frolicking. Laughing at me because my brain was just going, “What? Help?”
After two hours of question and answer, I had to step out so that my committee could deliberate on my fate. I could not help saying, “I hope they have tequila out there.” My committee laughed. That was a good sign, on hindsight. Back then, all I could think was that I knew nothing and failed miserably. I also saw more deer.
The minute I stepped out of the room and shut the door behind me, all the answers that I had wanted to make flooded in. All I could do was sit down in the hallway, drink water, try to breathe, strive to relax, and shut out the deer that were still having fun in my head.
After 10 minutes, my adviser called me back in and congratulated me. It was that fast. The first words out of my mouth were, “What? Are you sure?” which were actually uttered out loud in front of all my committee members, who still kept on laughing. I felt as though they were all in on a joke, and in the ten minutes that I had been absent, they had laughed at how much I squirmed.
According to my major professor, though, I did really well. Really? Hahahahaha!
So those were my prelim days – days I’ll never go through again. Really.
And yes, world, you may soon call me Dr. Ponce de Leon.