The vast majority of PhD students in the humanities experience a (rather horrible) process known as comprehensive exams. This often involves the creation of several lists of fifty to one hundred books centered around a given topic, which the student must then proceed to “read” (however you choose to interpret that), and then be tested on at the end of the year. While I’d never wish this process upon anyone, after having gone through it myself, I came to realize the potential value this approach could offer those outside of academia. If you’ve been hankering to explore a new topic–whether for professional purposes or just curiosity—read on to see how you can harness the methods of graduate education.
1. Build your reading list—choose a topic
Your topic needs to be relatively broad (as in, there are more than three books written about it), but not so broad as to be overwhelming and disconnected. Too broad would be something like “business.” Overly specific might be “leadership for women in virtual offices.” A happy medium might be something like just “leadership.” To take this example into a different subject area, consider a list like “Impressionist art” or “digital typography.”
2. Find the books
You may already be aware of some of the major works within your chosen topic. Start with those. But the best way, as we all know, is an Amazon search (also look at recommended books) and of course Google (try searching “the most important books on X”). Your list should contain a few of the classic works on the topic, as well as newer publications. Don’t go overboard. More than thirty books tends to become a bit unmanageable, and you may do better with as few as ten. But it all depends on your timeline.
3. Organize your list
Organize your reading list in reverse chronological order by publication, with any classic books listed at the top. This will give you a sense of the trajectory of the topic, and how understandings have changed over time.
4. Devise a note-taking system
Take notes by hand in a notebook, with a smart pen on your iPad, or in a computer program like Evernote or Onenote—whatever works for you. Just make sure you’re consistent, and that you’re storing your notes in one, easy-to-access place. Depending on how detailed you want to be, you might want to take notes by chapter, or just record whatever strikes you. However, no matter how you take your notes, I always recommend noting the page number for easy reference. While writing in the margin can make note-taking easier, you want to make sure you then transfer over your notations into your notes.
5. Start reading!
In grad school, we skim—it’s the only way to make it through 200 to 300 books. However, with a short list of 15 books that are probably much less dense than academic texts, you should be able to read much more in-depth. Set up a reading schedule—dedicate a certain amount of time each day to work through your books.
6. Put your knowledge to work
While most of us who take comprehensive exams try to suppress the memory as soon as it’s over, we go through a process of studying and synthesizing information after we’re done reading and before we take our exams. This is how we transform our reading notes into actual knowledge. While you (happily) will not be tested on what you’ve read, you’ll get much more out of the process if you transform your notes into something bigger. And I think the best way to do this is via a project. Here are some suggestions: Write a blog post or article synthesizing and summarizing what you’ve learned from your readings. Create a presentation or a written summary for work. Teach others what you’ve learned: make a YouTube video, present at a school or organization, etc. Or, simply write a synthesis/summary in your notes, for your eyes only.
What topics are you interested in exploring?