The first thing to know, of course, is how your program does prelims. I recently heard of a philosophy program in which the maximum number of books for a prelims reading list was ten because that program wants an in-depth analysis of a few arguments. However, for programs that require a lengthier prelim list, including those upwards of 100 books, there is a definite way to read for prelims.
Reading for prelims is different than reading for course-work and it’s not just volume. I was never particularly good at the graduate-student-skim because my anxiety disorder convinced me there would be a high-stakes quiz on whatever portion of that week’s reading I didn’t get to. However, even if you are the most gifted skimmer that has ever lived I would caution against using the graduate-student-skim to get through prelims reading. The reason is because part of the purpose of prelims is to train you, albeit quickly and brutally, to discern what arguments are important to your field and may be relevant to your future work.
The graduate-student-skim is the equivalent of a Monet–it gives you a quick, broad view of a book but lacks specific detail. In contrast, reading for prelims is the equivalent of an M.C. Escher print–it doesn’t need to create a conventional image but it needs detail and subtlety.
Hey There! I’m so happy you found this post! In the first year of abd2phd, I did a month long blog series on how to survive your prelims. Since then, I’ve updated this advice with what I’ve learned from clients and what I’ve learned about executive function. I created a series of worksheets to cover everything from your prelim timeline to assignments you could give your students if you have to teach during your prelims. I’ve put that all together in one place for your convenience. You can buy it here.