During my years at grad school thus far, I have been plagued with the obligation to pass the 494 qualifying Master’s oral exam. Techincally, one is supposed to take the test during their first year, on the basis that the reading list should give you a foundation for graduate work, blah, blah, blah. But like 95% of my fellow grads, I put it off. And off. And off. (After my class they amended the English graduate handbook so that taking the test is a requirement for the first year. Wise decision, people.)

Enter my last year, when I need to advance to candidacy and finish my thesis – oh yes, and pass the 494 exam.

Perhaps I should preface this by saying that the reading list for the oral is a collection of 40 or so items including novels, poetry, and critical theory. not horrific in any sense. Thankfully I had read over half of it as an undergrad (this, however does not guarantee that one remembers anything about the text, including the names of the main characters.) And I’m not someone who feels they need to read every word of a text to get what you need to know; usually if you read most of it, and you know what happens, you can pass a test (I’m not advocating this for serious study mind you, but just for certain required readings that you’re no very into. Once cannot write a thesis based off spark notes.) Though there is one student in my program who is reading every single text in entirely, which I commend, but which takes a boatload of time. Eessh.

So at the beginning I contacted the head of the English grad department, and finally -dun dun DUN! – scheduled the exam for Tuesday October 5th. Let the studying cramming begin!

I printed out a 75+page compilation of sparks notes of all the books (just to brush up, you see) and summaries of all the theory texts, and proceeded to re-read all the poetry selections, skim the short works, and make page after page of notes summarizing main ideas, concepts, memorable lines, etc. I memorized publication dates and biographical information, and read Norton introductions to all of the time periods. I reviewed the texts, reviewed the notes, re-reviewed the notes, and skimmed pages right before going to sleep.

Finally, Tuesday arrived. As I got closer to school and the department building, the nerves started to kick in a bit, and my heart began to pound (my usual trick to calm myself down is to cup my hands in front of my face and breathe in some carbon dioxide. Usually works. Like a paper bag, only less psychotic.) I did a quick review in the bathroom (don’t judge) and then arrived at the conference room, 10 minutes early.

But I should tell you, my school operates at a usual delay of about 10-15 minutes, so my exam started at 12:10-15ish. And a strange thing happened: as I sat there in the room, I started to calm down; I knew I was prepared, and that I was going to pass, and that it was not frightening at all – mostly just getting it over with was exciting!

And then a small act of God: one of my questioners – who is notoriously combative and harder to please –  was out sick, and replaced by the dept head, who is a fluffy bunny in comparison. So it began.

It opened with a question about the Fairie Queen, and as a medievalist, that made me a little happy (though we did skip over Chaucer, sadly). We discussed Keats, Melville, Roth,  and Woolf – and that was it. I brought in a few other texts, some critical theory, some fiction, to support my answers, but in all considerations the exam was not comprehensive. The hour passed like it was 5 minutes, and the professors not only asked me questions but commented on them themselves, making it feel more like a conversation than an intense question-and-answer session.

So here is the secret my fellow-grad friends: From what I experienced, and what the examiners told me, what they really want to see in a qualifying oral is not that you can read 50 books and rattle off the information, but to instead be able to engage critically with texts and bounce ideas and concepts around texts easily. They want to see if you can take an issue like racism and see how it works out in different texts, to make connections. But most of all, they want to see that you are at a graduate level of engagement. If there’s a question that you don’t know the answer to, admit it, and talk about what you do know.

What I found funny was, after about 40 minutes, the dept head simply said “I think that’s enough” and let me go, saying that it was clear I had proved what needed to be proved well. It was a strange feeling; it felt like I had just gotten there, and there were so many other texts that I wanted to talk about. But that’s not important, because after all this time I was finally done. I can now move further into my thesis without having the 494 in the back of my head, and that is certainly worth a couple days of cramming!

Now I know that Ph.D orals are notoriously awful, but if you are worrying about your Masters orals, relax. It may put the fear into you, but it’s not there to trip you up!

[And holy $%@# does it feel good to have them over with!]