Guide to Writing Exam Bibliographies and Taking Exams

Written by Elizabeth Ferry, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University

One way of looking at a doctoral program in anthropology (or in anything else) is as one of those "function" problems in math, where a number goes into a box and comes out as a different number, and you have to figure out what the function in the box did to it (multiply by 2 and add 3, or whatever). The doctoral program turns bright and motivated students into (still bright and motivated, one hopes) scholars of anthropology, with specializations in particular geographic and theoretical areas. This memo and its companion on the dissertation proposal are intended to help you look inside the box and see exactly how this transformation happens, before and as it is happening.

Until the qualifying exam process, which – barring exceptional circumstances - takes place in the third year of the program, most of your direct assignments have been formally similar to things you did in your undergraduate work. Of course, you have also been attending colloquia, defining your research question, becoming an expert in your chosen field, doing preliminary fieldwork, and so on. But the exams are the first time that these new scholarly activities are formalized, and they represent the first extended work you are doing almost entirely on your own. For this reason, they are both extremely daunting (especially at the beginning) and extremely rewarding (especially at the end). Here's what two of your colleagues have said about these aspects of the process:

"Having to write a long bibliography, and then having to read and take notes on all those items, seems very daunting unless you fragment the job a little bit."

"I think that the process of preparation for the exams is a very productive and useful experience because you are actually forced to read a significant amount of literature on the subjects you have chosen to work on and so should anyways know a lot about."

I hope that this memorandum will help to reduce the first feeling and increase the second.