The ABCs of ABDs

We write a lot of congratulatory posts on this blog when our students clear another hurdle on their road to the PhD, and that includes successfully completing the preliminary exams. You’ve probably seen a number of “So-and-So, ABD” updates over the last year, and while that’s certainly a good thing–it means we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing as a program–it might help to know exactly what all goes in to the process. Previously, we featured a post about what to expect in your 3rd year, so let this serve as an expansion on that to focus more specifically on the exams process.

It’s a requirement shrouded in mystery to many students entering a PhD program. Hopefully, that mystery gets dispelled as quickly as possible during your coursework, but for some it’s still a lingering surprise to work out the logistics. Surprises can lead to delays, and delays can lead to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Take exams in the 3rd year, you will.

So, just how do CRDM exams work? According to our own program’s website:

Students must successfully complete two examinations in order to receive the PhD: the preliminary examination (written and oral components) and the final oral examination (dissertation defense).

The written portion of the preliminary examination will be geared toward assessing mastery of both core requirement subject matter and areas of specialization chosen by the student. The specific content will be based on reading lists developed in conjunction with the advisory committee. It will consist of three questions designed by that committee, focusing on the areas of specialization; answers to these questions are to be completed in a 72-hour period.

The oral portion of the preliminary examination follows successful completion of the written portion and includes a representative from the Graduate School. This portion will last approximately two hours, and while it may include material covered in the written examination, it should not be limited to the written work and will usually include discussion of the dissertation prospectus. A unanimous vote of approval of the advisory committee is required to pass the preliminary examination.

In practice, this means our fulltime students typically take their exams sometime during the third year after we’ve completed the coursework. A few of us have managed to take the exams in the fall semester but the majority take them in the spring. To every season, turn turn turn (unless of course you’re an Artificial Intelligence major, in which case–to every season, Turin, Turin, Turin).

To break it down, then, students:

  • study 3 exam areas, and are
  • asked 1 question for each area, for which they have
  • 4 hours to answer, and this repeats for
  • 3 days in a row, for a total of
  • 12 hours of exams.

The actual execution of the exams varies somewhat depending on the direction of the committee chair. For example, some students work with their chair to develop a possible set of questions ahead of time, while others study their reading lists in broader preparation for the unknown. How many pages should each question be? As any good writing instructor would respond, it should take as many pages as necessary and not a single one extra. In the past, we’ve had quite the range, from a solid average of 10 pages for each answer to upwards of 25 or more.

Regardless of page number, after the 3rd exam is in the bank and the 30th hour of sleep is recovered, the student’s committee will review the answers and determine whether or not additional supplements are required. Maybe you didn’t answer a question thoroughly enough, or maybe your answer ignored one of the sub-bullets in the question altogether. Either way, the committee chair will assemble the required additions/revisions and send them to the student with a timeframe for completion. Once everyone’s happy with the written exams, the CRDMer will work with the committee members to arrange a date for the oral defense. Meanwhile, the committee will have a chance to review the dissertation prospectus, which often doubles as the first chapter.

After that, it’s just a simple matter of a 2-hour meeting to cover both the written exam answers and the dissertation prospectus, all with an independent member of the Graduate School present to guard against the chances of ballyhoo, tomfoolery, and other incredibly outdated slang words for mischief. Once the committee unanimously agrees that you’re altogether an amazing master of your assembled scholarly areas, you’re free to go about your dissertation business and append the letters “ABD” to your email signature.

We recognize that each PhD program has its own unique way of handling the exams, so if you’re reading this and had a different experience we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Also, if any CRDM students–past or present–want to chime in on their own experiences, feel free to do so as well.



Filed under exams and dissertations, the program

4 responses to “The ABCs of ABDs

  1. Amy Gaffney

    Since I happened to see this, I thought it was worth chiming in with my two cents… When it comes to actually writing your exams, don’t forget to incorporate some time to edit/proof your writing in addition to having some time at the start to think about what you are going to write. Even if you don’t create an actual outline, take a few minutes to jot down some notes so you remember what hops into your brain right when you read the question. Then, at the end, go back through what you wrote and clean up any glaring disconnects/typos. It’s amazing how easy it is to change thoughts in the middle of a sentence when you are typing under pressure, or to just miss a big thing you were planning to talk about. Those little tweaks will help your committee know what you were trying to say and may even reduce the chances of additions/revisions (although I have no statistical support for this assertion. Take it as anecdata).

    Congrats to all the newest ABDs and to the soon to be PhDs (here’s looking at you Kelly!)

    –Amy Gaffney, PhD, “VP” of CRDM Alumni

  2. Pingback: Ashley R. Kelly, ABD | CRDM @ NC State

  3. Pingback: Come take a look, it’s on the blog (for 36 months and counting) | CRDM @ NC State

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