failing prelims, failing comps, failing quals
graduate students in sociology and criminology must typically pass some sort of qualifying examination before writing their dissertation. some students pass over them like speed bumps, others crash but pass them eventually, and a fair number crack up, write themselves off as totaled, and leave academia for good.
as the scan at left makes clear, i was in the second category. it was a fair exam and i'm in no way bitter about the experience. i'm writing about it now in case someone else finds themselves in my air pegasus' this summer. let me state it as simply and clearly as i can: just because you fail an exam doesn't mean that you won't become a good professor.
for those who've never failed an exam, this probably seems too obvious to mention. still, it is easy to doubt yourself, especially if you are not really sure you belong in grad school in the first place. moreover, there is a huge asymmetry in the positive and negative information that people self-disclose. for example, i proudly list the exam that i "passed with distinction" in the honors and awards section of my cv, though i haven't reported "failed 1991 preliminary examination in social stratification." maybe i should.
at wisconsin, the prelim procedure involves two six-hour departmental written examinations, along with an oral. at chicago, there is also a very general comprehensive exam that everyone must take at the start of their second year. at minnesota, we ask students to produce and defend a paper that critically evaluates the state of knowledge in their areas of specialization -- something like an annual review of sociology article. most other departments seem to adopt some variant of these approaches.
a written exam system such as wisconsin's might be toughest on those working in new areas or the interstices of the discipline, since they will be tested on stuff that is worlds away from their own work. i really like the idea of the chicago system -- identifying the core of sociology that the department believes every student should know -- but can imagine this is a contentious process for the faculty and daunting for the students. our system seems to work very well for students who are already reading voraciously in their areas, writing articles, and attending professional meetings, but less well for others.
i can't say that i thought seriously about quitting academic life after failing the prelim, though the tortured scrawl on this page suggests that it stang me pretty good. i hadn't been a sociology major as an undergrad and since i had applied to the wizversity's creative writing and social work programs as well as sociology, i did consider dusting off that novel and renewing acquaintances in the madison social service community. but i had too much financial and social support to leave sociology, as well as the knowledge that several sociologists i respected had also failed the exam. the latter knowledge helped a lot.
so, i sucked it up and studied hard for the next stratification prelim. you know how a computer's welcome screen sometimes gets burned into a cheap crt monitor? to this day, there's a path diagram of the sewell, haller, and ohlendorf (1970) status attainment model similarly etched onto my memory.
i still believe that the system was fair and that the standards were appropriately applied in my case. that said, allen ginsberg surely had some exposure to grad comps, quals, and prelims:
"i have seen the best minds of my generation ...
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating ...
who were expelled from the academies for crazy ...
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement ...
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head ..."
just because you fail an exam doesn't mean that you won't be a good professor. as the chronicle is constantly reminding us, there are plenty of good reasons to quit academic life. failing a prelim is not among them.