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JanGay Dec 8, 2020

Preparing for Doctoral Qualifying Exams

Passing qualifying exams or comprehensive exams is a significant step in a student’s doctoral experience and often is a requirement for candidacy. The pressures of balancing the duties and responsibilities during a Ph.D. program can be overwhelming at times. Navigating a Ph.D. program during a national pandemic is an even more tasking process.

Counselor Education programs differ in format and expectations for qualifying exams. If you are taking your exams on campus without resources or over a weekend or several weeks at home with resources, it can be a lot to process while balancing all of your other responsibilities.

Here are some tips for preparing for qualifying exams and surviving the process:

  1. Meet with your department chair to talk through the exam process. Ask for examples of practice questions and responses. Speaking with your chair can provide insight to successfully passing the exam. Ask questions such as: Is there a page requirement or limit for written responses? Are there any expectations for references? What is the range of years from which you can pull sources? Are textbooks allowed for citations? Lastly, ask your chair about their experience with taking qualifying exams. Hearing their experiences may normalize and validate your feelings while also reminding you that it is possible to pass and move into a successful career.
  2. Start pulling articles in each domain for several weeks or months before your exam date. Use a literature review matrix or find a way to organize critical concepts from articles that may help you to answer the question entirely. If your qualifying exam is timed, you will find it helpful to have articles readily available. It will minimize your stress level if you are not spending hours looking for articles to cite in your written response.
  3. Use a trusted citation manager system like Mendeley, Zotero, RefWorks, or Endnote to keep up with references. Make sure to double-check all references and ensure that you are using APA 7th edition requirements. You can use sites like Purdue Owl to see APA 7th edition citation requirements. After completing all that hard work, you do not want to risk failing due to citing a source incorrectly.
  4. Create a game plan. There are so many moving parts involved in taking qualifying exams, and therefore lots to plan for during the exam period. Consider meal prepping or having friends or family deliver meals and snacks to you. If you have a partner or children, plan how you can work quietly for days without distraction, including arranging for a babysitter or identifying a quiet space in the house. You may want to ask family members to leave town for the weekend, or you may want to leave and set up a writing space in a quiet area. Also, consider your fur babies and make sure they are cared for during that time. 
  5. Create a self-care plan for the exam period. Consider planning time for walks, yoga, or brain breaks. Allow yourself time to process any emotions you may have about the exam process. Consider talking with a therapist and talk through any feelings related to the exam or test-taking anxiety.
  6. Speak to other students in your program to get their tips for preparing and taking the exam. Other students in your program can help normalize your feelings and provide recommendations for what helped them successfully pass the exam.
  7. Practice for oral exams with family or friends. Practice speaking to critical points and defending your written answers. Having a mock run may help you feel more confident and comfortable during your oral exam. 
  8. Plan a celebration or reward for when you turn in your exams! Do not wait for the results to determine if you are going to celebrate. Qualifying exams are a rite of passage for doctoral students, so plan to celebrate successfully enduring the process.

Lastly, allow yourself some grace during this time period. Qualifying exams can be a time for heightened stress, so utilize self-care techniques and accept the possibility of re-taking the exam. This is your journey and the process of becoming a doctor. Do not allow the process to wear you down and prevent you from continuing into higher education once you earn your doctorate. Enjoy the milestones and accomplishments along the way.

Jan Gay is a 2nd year Ph.D. student at the University of Florida in Counselor Education and Supervision. She has experience as a school counselor and as a clinical social worker. Her research interest includes anti-racist school counseling, multiculturalism, social justice, and advocacy.

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