Roughly 55 weeks ago this day I completed my qualifying exams, an important step toward finishing my PhD at UC Berkeley.

Knowing myself, I knew that I would be more motivated by the idea of producing something that is of potential worth for others than I would be by the mere prospect of perfunctoraly checking a bureaucrats' box. However important it may be, filling forms, checking those boxes has never been a particularly appealing prospect.

My secret assumption has always been that everyone agrees with me (even the stuffy bureaucrats), but that others are better able to see past the grid into which they are placing themselves to the real purpose of whatever exercise is being conducted. I make the assumption of my own myopathy before I assume that the world truly revels in forcing people to do things that have a tenuous relation to what matters in the long run.

Naturally then, I considered what the goal of this process was — presumably there was such a goal — it was merely a matter of me discovering what that goal was.

The requirements were (approximately) as follows:

  • convene a committee of 4 people (3 within the department, 1 from without)
  • decide on 3 overarching topics on which you will be tested(as described later)
    • these topics should be fairly high level
    • they should be distinct from one another
  • turn each topic into a list of 30-40 articles
    • the article list
      • comprehensive of the subfield's
        • state of the art
        • history and major trends in thought
      • organized into sub-subtopics
  • Indicate which aspects of the topics I was interested in discussing via submitted potential questions
  • Receive written answer question prompts
  • In 9 hours write 3 essays, one for each topic
  • In one week after the essays were written have an oral exam covering the material with the committee

It seems to follow that the goal must have been at least some form of proof of my comprehension of the fields to which I was going to claim expertise. This seems to be the least impressive rubber-stamp picture of education as being capable of meeting some set of requirements, but it surely had some aspect to it that was like that.

Additionally, per the advice of one of my committee members, this was going to be one of the last opportunities I had to truly dive into books and papers and just read and think. And read. And think. And that I should savor it.

In the course of thinking about this I realized that I had little to no resources to turn to that would explain not the mechanism but the purpose behind this procedure. If I had, this would be quite less of a quandry. It became clear to me that a resource for demystifying the process would have been something I would have greatly appreciated. Thus, I made it a goal to create such a resource for others who will take similar exams in the future.

Finally, I was intrigued by the option of demonstrating both the comprehension and that which I was savoring as a continuously evolving process of thought.

My resolution:
1. Read every single paper, if it went on the list, it was important enough to read.
2. Write notes on each paper as I read it documenting my mind's journey through the words that were ostensibly to transform me into an expert.
3. Document the real-time writing process of the written exams.
4. Publish the writings (both handwritten and digital), as well as the video of as much of the writing process as possible.

Here you can find the list of papers, my final written exams and the notes that I took as I was reading.

Unfortunately I have yet to do a few things the books are not yet organized in the order of my writing them. I also have not linked the individual papers to the notebooks in which I discuss them. Additionally, I have not published the real-time writing process (4.). I intend to do all of these things.