Preparing and Reading for Quals

Those of you who know me, know that I turned in my qualifying exam yesterday afternoon. Writing your qualifying exam in BCS is quite the affair, and it takes a surprising amount of preparation to get yourself through it. In many ways it’s actually a test of not just your knowledge in the field but also a test of perseverance. The following post is a list of things that I found helpful when prepping a reading list, and in reading for quals.

Making a list:

  • There are 3 sections to a reading list: general cognition, subfield (e.g., psycholinguistics, perception, cog neuro, etc), and then specific sub-subfield (e.g., pragmatics & acquisition, phonetics & categorization, etc). Generally the first section is broad and the shortest section, the list gets longer and more specific as you get more specific. For example (you can see what I read here):
    • General Cognition (17 papers): memory, attention, probabilistic models of language and reasoning
    • Psycholinguistics (20 papers): comprehension and productions
    • Pragmatics & Acquisition (58 papers): audience design, information structure, bayesian modelling, developmental pragmatics, implicature, communicative efficiency, etc
  • A good place to start might be to ask upper year students in a similar field to view their reading lists, this might help to figure out what kinds of papers you might want to have in the first two sections
    • Ask them if there were some papers that stood out as being helpful or unhelpful – having read them, they definitely know which papers were better than others
  • Consider which papers are considered to be classics in your field, papers that everyone should have read (e.g., Grice, 1975; Levinson, 2000)
  • It might also make sense to ask other professors who are specialists in your subfields if they have any recommendations
  • Your initial list will be super long – I think at one point my list of possible papers was 140+ papers
  • After building an initial list, you can ask your advisor(s) / committee members to look over the list and add / remove papers as they think reasonable
  • Finally, you should sit down with your advisor(s) and chat about the final set of papers of the list, this might be a good time to chat about what exact dates you will be writing your exam on

Reading for quals:

  • This is honestly the first stage of the exam that will test your perseverance: at this point you should know when your exam is, and how much time you have to read
  • Make a study plan: just reading at your own pace might not be the best strategy if you want to get through your list
    • If you set your exam far enough into the future, then you have the time to properly plan a schedule for getting through  your list
    • Previous lab mates of mine looked into the length of their papers and set up goals for how many days they thought it would to read each subsection
    • I used a website called strides (it allows you set goals and deadlines, and it will give you midpoint goals, and will predict how many papers you will likely get through by your deadline based on your progress to date).
  • Staying focused:
    • Pomodoro timer: Dave Kleinschmidt mentioned that he used one during his quals. The idea behind them is that you work for a short period of time (25 mins), then you get a short break (5 mins) – the nice thing here is that if you want to check your emails, or your facebook, waiting for 25 minutes is pretty easy to justify.
    • Forest:  While you can easily avoid checking things on your computer while reading, I found it much harder to not check notifications on my phone. So I really had to cut myself off of both. This app prevents you from checking your phone, by getting you to plant a digital tree. If you leave the app while the tree is growing (the time it takes for the tree to grow depends on you, but I recommend growing a tree for the same time as your pomodoro timer, or longer), your tree dies. If your tree grows to its full size you are rewarded with some coins that you can use to buy more trees for your forest (you can also label your trees in the forest with what you were focused on for that time). It’s weirdly motivating.
    • Consider printing out and reading your papers on paper – I later typed my comments into Mendeley, which helped me go over the things that I read.
  • Be organized: later you’re going to have to look up things from your papers and figure out which papers are relevant to what you are writing about.
    • Organize your papers: I used Mendeley, and kept all of my papers in one folder labelled “Quals”, this is helpful much later when building some reference lists.
    • Keep notes: I wrote both notes in the paper in-line, and then wrote a note summarizing the paper (this included my thoughts on the paper, things they discussed in the paper, models they considered, and points they argued for/agains).
    • Tag things: some people suggested keeping tags in Mendeley to be able to look up papers by keywords – I found this less helpful.
  • Reading strategies:
    • Originally, I tried reading from the start of the list to the end of the list – this strategy was fine for the first section, but it was hard to keep my interest this way, and also, I was reading over the holidays.
    • Instead, I wound up picking subsections to read – so, for example, I read all of the papers on Developmental Research in implicature and reference (12) across 3 consecutive days – this made sense, and luckily these papers we categorized correctly, so I could draw connections between them.
    • Try to keep some notes about things you are thinking about during your reading, maybe also think of some questions you hope to have answered by the time you finish your readings.
    • Know that you will need to take breaks, even days off.
    • Keep up with your regular activities – I found that still going to the gym, yoga, family plans, and plans with friends helped constrain my time (thus, reducing the time I had to procrastinate) and gave me something to look forward to.
    • If you are running out of time, knowing at the very least what the papers you might not get to fully read are broadly are about, is better than not even looking at them.