Prelims: WTF Are They?

In my program, it is customary for students taking their prelim exams to kick off the blessed event by sending their committee a list of question they, the graduate student, thinks would be good questions for their exams. Some committees use these questions as a guide for the questions they send to the student.

Mine, at least as far as I could tell, completely ignored the (excellent) questions I sent them.

At the end of the oral defense of prelims, my committee asked if I had any questions for them. I did. I asked why they hadn’t used the questions I sent them in the first place. “Those weren’t prelim questions,” they said, “Those were the questions you’ll be answering in your dissertation.”

And that moment, that particular moment at the very, very end of my prelims was when I finally got what prelims actually are.

Before that moment, I had thought that the purpose of prelims was to make me read a bunch of things so that I was prepared to write my dissertation.

And that is the purpose of prelims. Sort of. In a roundabout kind of way.

I’ve yet to notice any significant difference in the structure of exams between programs that use the term “prelims” and those that use the term “fields.” However, in some ways, the term “fields” is a little more instructive because “fields” is short of “field exams” which is short for “field of study exams” while “prelims” is short for “preliminary exams.” Technically, both terms are accurate as the exams are a preliminary to your dissertation, but that doesn’t tell you what they are.

In contrast, calling them “fields” highlights the fact that the purpose of the exams is to ensure that you are qualified in your chosen fields of study by a panel of experts.

With all of this in mind, what actually are prelims/fields?

Essentially, prelims are the most high-pressure book report you will ever write.

When my committee told me that the questions I had sent them where dissertation questions rather than prelim questions what they were saying was that the questions I had sent them were questions geared towards producing new knowledge–which is the purpose of the dissertation. The questions they sent me were questions geared towards understanding the history of thought in my chosen fields of study.

One of my fields was Feminist Theory for which I was given the question, “What is patriarchy?” I was also given the question “How has feminist scholarship contributed to American Studies?” Answering both of these questions necessitated using texts from the history of my field to trace the evolution of the ideas being discussed. My job was not to provide my answer of what these things were (that’s the work of the dissertation) but to prove that I was aware of the debates in my field about the answers to these questions.

If you’re familiar with historiography there is a large historiographical component to prelims. If you’ve done a lit review then you can think of prelims as a more nuanced, more high pressure, lit review.

At the end of the day, what you are doing is showing that you understand the evolution of thought in your fields. In fact, prelims are the last grand exercise of being a student that you will complete in your journey towards the PhD. Prelims are your final act as a consumer of knowledge. The prospectus and dissertation are where you begin to produce original knowledge and do to that you need to be intimately aware of the existing knowledge and arguments on your topic. Hence, prelims.

Over the next week we’ll be covering how to think about your prelim list, best practices for creating your list, how to read for prelims, and how to take the damn things so check back soon!

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