We recently interviewed doctoral candidate, Rebecca Buchanan, on the process of qualifying. While her work focuses on teacher education programs and linguistic analysis, her reflections offer general guidance for students in the beginning stages of their doctoral studies in the Education Department at UCSC. These reflections are offered with the intention of contributing to one’s overall understanding and approach to preparing for qualifying exams (QEs) understanding that the specific topic of inquiry and advisor-advisee relationship will inform how the process unfolds for different students.
Understanding the purpose of QEs
The way I understand the qualifying examination is that it is a time in your graduate career where a committee of experts evaluates your work as a graduate student and deems you capable of conducting an independent research project. The QEs are a major milestone because they serve as an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise in a set of particular theoretical and methodological fields of study. For our program in particular, QEs take the form of two papers and an oral exam.
For my QEs, the focus of one of my papers was teacher residency programs as a form of teacher education. My second was a methodological paper on linguistic analysis. I analyzed several teacher performance assessments and explicated the different linguistic methods by demonstrating how one could apply them to these particular performance assessments.
General Advice for Students in the Early Stages of Identifying a Topic
Given that the process will look different for each individual there are some broad lessons and approaches that I think might be useful for students approaching the QE process. To begin, my advice is simply to find what it is that really interests you–what seems like the issues, practices, concepts, etc. that are most fascinating to you right now? I ended up at this particular dissertation study because residency programs seemed like an interesting new reform, but it was actually helpful during the qualifying process to reflect on how I arrived at my topic.
My work sits at the cross-section of multiple interests: different models of teacher and teacher education reform writ large, language analysis and the ways in which we use language to both construct and to make sense of the world, and what it means to prepare teachers to teach for equity and social justice within historically marginalized communities. The QE process is about figuring out where your interests intersect and designing a line of inquiry that fits into those various fields.
Creating Structures to Support Concept Development and Writing
The hard part is knowing what you want to begin investigating. What I would have done differently is enroll in at least one independent study each quarter of my third year. I would structure these independent studies by assembling a reading list in the first week and asking my independent study sponsor to provide feedback and additions to the list. At the end of the independent study, I would produce an annotated bibliography. By structuring an independent study in this way for both the fall and winter, one can produce an annotated bibliography for each QE paper. I think the drawback to this idea is that it is a little rigid, but that structure would have really helped me. When you’re also working (as a TA or Graduate Student Researcher), it is easy for other things to fill your independent study space.
Another way to build in supportive structures is to engage in weekly check-ins with colleagues who are also in the midst of the writing process. I’ve tried the “I’ll make myself write however many words a day” approach, but what I found most helpful was having regular Skype meetings every week or two weeks with a couple of other students. It was a form of accountability that worked for me as well as a forum for hearing strategies that others were using to support their own writing.
I would also encourage students to write several drafts of each of their papers and to meet regularly with their advisors and/or committee members. I would send my advisor a draft of my work, and we would set up a meeting to discuss the drafts. During the meeting, I would take notes, and then I would leave with a long list of items to address. I would begin addressing these items the day after our in-person meeting. This system helped to ensure that I was constantly working toward refining my ideas and thinking around my two topics.
Bridging QEs and Dissertation Research
I’m currently collecting data for my dissertation project. The work of reading and thinking about teacher education has informed my focus on what kind of data I want to collect. And I am constantly making connections between the work for the qualifying process and what I am seeing now in the field.