One of the landmarks on the road towards the conferral of a doctoral degree is a set of oral and written comprehensive exams. Different programs structure and schedule them differently. Mine took place in December and consisted of:
a) a 2-hour written exam in my field of specialization (Modern and Contemporary Spanish literature);
b) a 2-hour written exam in all other fields in my discipline (Medieval, Colonial, Golden Age, Contemporary Latin American);
c) a 2-hour oral exam in my secondary specialization (English literature of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries). In reality, this exam was supposed to last 30 minutes, but my brilliant professor of English lit was not a person to be detained by such rules. She interrogated me for 2 hours, to the point where I almost crawled home afterwards;
d) a 4-hour oral exam in all fields of my discipline.
To prepare for the exams, we received "The List", a brochure enumerating 468 major works of Hispanic literature. We were supposed to read all of the works in our area and most of the books from other areas. We were also expected to be familiar with the main critical trends related to these works of literature.
During the written exams you get questions that, for example, provide a few lines of a poem. You have to identify the author, the title, the date of publication (at least approximately), and analyze the poem. Another question might be: "What are the main critical disputes surrounding this novel?" In the oral exam, you are asked questions like: "What are the opening lines of novel X? And it's closing lines? There is a poem that appears in Chapter 16 of novel Y. Can you recite it? What did critic A say about play B? And critic C? And critic D? What was the color of the protagonist's clothes in the penultimate scene of the work?" In the meanwhile, there is always a professor who keeps interrupting your response by quoting unrelated poetry at you, and you are supposed to identify the poem's author and title and then continue your answer to the previous question. There was also a professor who kept scoffing at my every response and interrupting me with new questions whenever he saw that I was answering correctly. This was the area where I was prepared the best (aside from my area of specialization), so he never managed to intimidate me. On the other hand, another professor only asked me questions related to my work in the courses I had taken with her, enunciating each question as if I were hard of hearing.
Out of 468 works of literature listed in my brochure, I read 465. I wasn't required to do that, but I had felt so underchallenged in my graduate program that I wanted finally to do some serious work. The three novels from the list that I didn't manage to read still bother me. One of these novels that I started to read several times but couldn't manage to finish because it just isn't my kind of literature (and its male chauvinism made me want to vomit on every single page) was Julio Cortazar's Rayuela. Of course, I was asked about it during the oral exam. I could have tried to answer the question because I had read a lot of criticism on the novel and knew what it was supposed to be about. Still, I always prefer to be honest.
"I haven't read it," I said. "This novel is really boring. I prefer Cortazar's short stories."
"Thank you for saying it!" the famous professor who was questioning me responded. "I always felt the novel was vastly inferior to the short stories but was afraid to say so."
After I passed these four exams within 2 weeks, I felt completely exhausted. I went to Cuba for a week on a trip that I couldn't afford. Still, my need to be far away from anybody I know and anybody who might talk to me was overwhelming. During that entire trip I acted like a shell-shocked person. Once, I woke up in the morning to discover a huge flying cockroach sitting on the pillow right next to me. I'm entomophobic and normally my reaction would be to fly out of the room, screaming and crying for help. This time, however, I was so exhausted that even my entomophobia abandoned me.
All in all, the exhaustion of the comprehensives was definitely worth it for me. As painful as the process was, that was pretty much the only time in my doctoral program where I felt I was doing something worthwhile, something to promote my professional development.
For those who are preparing to pass their comprehensives this winter, I have the following piece of advice to offer: prepare for the weeks after the exams. In my experience, even people who hated the entire process of preparing for the comprehensives hated the weeks after the exams even more. "I thought I'd love the freedom of not having to think about the comprehensives," a close friend said. "But now I feel that I don't have anything to structure my existence. It's almost like there is nothing to live for." My friend and I did better in our exams than anybody else in the previous 15 years of our department's existence. Still, the depression set in as soon as we discovered that "The List" wasn't there any more.
Ten days after passing my exams I downloaded Harvard's reading list for the comprehensives and started going through it.