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Navigating Field Exams


As a second year PhD student in Art History, I am currently in the process of preparing for my Field Examinations. When I mention this to upper year PhD students, they often tell me that their Fields are the one thing that nearly got the best of them. Most found having to whittle down decades of literature for their topic down to 60-80 sources too overwhelming to the point they felt the familiar feeling of analysis paralysis. For this post, I thought I’d share some of the most helpful tips I’ve gotten from PhD students who have successfully passed their Field exams.

Get familiar with the Graduate Student Handbook

Look at the Graduate Student Handbook for your department. It’s a good way to clearly understand the expectations both from your supervisor and your department. Some department handbooks also have helpful examples of previous Field Exam topics and how they should be structured. The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) also has helpful general guidelines on Field Exams which can be found here

Start reading early

Because your Field Exams are about selecting the key literature for your topic, it’s a good idea to start reading early. Often, you will have to weed through mountains of sources in order to find a handful that you will include in your bibliography. But don’t worry! All the reading is helpful in understanding the shape of your field. 

Ask for help

The most helpful advice I’ve received is to ask for help early and often from my supervisor. When embarking on your Fields, it will save you a lot of time if you and your supervisor are on the same page. It’s a good idea to go through the graduate student handbook for your department together so that both of you are clear on expectations and deadlines. A meeting early on in the process will help you both establish key dates which can help you structure your work schedule. Regular meetings also ensure that your supervisor is aware of your progress and in case you are facing some challenges, they can perhaps connect you with other scholars who are working in your field who can give you valuable feedback on your reading list. 

Think about how to organize your notes

Ideally, most of the sources that you read for your Fields will be useful when you finally get down to writing your dissertation. This means that it’s important to think carefully about how to organize your notes so that you can go back to them months or even a year or so later. Some colleagues of mine stick to the hard copy method and print out every single article they read while some have gone completely digital so that they can easily search for keywords in their notes. Due to my travel schedule, I myself use OneNote and Evernote religiously so that I can take my iPad with me wherever I go. Regardless of the method you choose, try to stick to it and think of ways to make it more easily accessible for yourself long term. 

Get a bibliography manager

When I asked my supervisor for help early along in the process, she recommended that I get a digital citation manager. Honestly, it has been a life saver! If you’ve never used one, Queen’s offers some great information on what they are, how they work and which one might be best for you here.

 Perfect is the enemy of the good

Working on your Fields can often be a daunting experience. As graduate students, we always want to turn in the best version of something but this leads to a lot of overthinking and sometimes results in procrastination. The most helpful strategy I’ve found is to think of doing your Fields in pieces rather than imagining it as an unconquerable behemoth. Also, remember that other students who have successfully completed their Fields are usually more than happy to help you through it!

If you have have any more helpful tips for Field Exams, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!



Posted in Comprehensive Exams, Field Exams

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