PhD Language Exam Exhaustion or Why I Am Looking Forward to Comprehensive Exams

PhD Language Exam Exhaustion or Why I Am Looking Forward to Comprehensive Exams September 21, 2010

These last 18 months have been brutal.  Since April of 2009 I have prepped and sat for 4 language examinations and I am two to four weeks away from sitting for my last one.  First French, then five months later Greek, then two months later Latin, then five months German, and now Hebrew.  I have actually enjoyed studying for each of the exams and I have relished adding further linguistic/academic implements to my tool-belt.  But I am getting a bit weary.  I stare at Hebrew words and my mind refuses to register the morphology or determine what word these three consonants are making–they all look the same.  But the end is in sight and just today I was looking at the reading lists of some of my senior classmates’ comprehensive exams and I got a sick nervous feeling but also a thrill of excitement–soon I will be forming and reading my own lists about stuff in which I am interested.  Praise Yah!

So, for all of you readers who are interested or curious about doing PhD work in NT and Ancient Christianity, I give you a breakdown of language exam requirements for my particular program (others’ programs are sure to differ, however).


Three passages covering two pages to be done in two hours.  This test was easier than the German exam but it had its own tricks.  One passage was on modern methods of high-speed travel, including a paragraph on hovercrafts and hovercraftery (as all of us being examined hit the passage within a few minutes of each other, it was amusing and distressing to watch those around me freak out when the word didn’t appear in their dictionaries–luckily, my dictionary had it, hats off to the Robert Collins Unabridged!).  This test is administered university wide so the topics are almost guaranteed to not be one’s field.


Two passages, slightly shorter than the French exam.  This was one was especially tricky since the first passage was an op/ed piece about the Austr0-German conflict (or something like that) from a 19th century German newspaper that included a patchwork of half a dozen quotes from contemporary politicians and pundits.  Painful.  This was also a university wide exam, so again neither of the sections was in my field.  Dictionaries allowed.


This is the grand-daddy of them all for my program and it is a beast.  The exam contains two sections with two passages in each section.  Each section is budgeted 2 hours for a 4 hour total.  The first section is the harder of the two.  It covers the entire NT–no exceptions.  And no lexica.  All 650 odd pages of the Nestle-Aland Edition.  The two passages that appeared on my exam (both of about average chapter length) came from the latter part of Acts (during one of Paul’s trial scenes, I can’t remember which now) and the other from Hebrews 5 and 6.  If you are wondering how one studies for this, here was my method:  I read the NT cover to cover 5 times and re-read a 6th or 7th time the hard passages like Hebrews, 2 Corin, Petrine epistles etc.  The second section covers 50 Oxford Edition (or equivalent) pages of Greek ranging from Classical to Late Antique chosen by the student in consultation with the examiner.  My selection included Plato (Statesman), Corpus Hermeticum (Poimander), Origen (Treatise on Prayer), and an epistle of Ignatius.  For this section we are permitted the use of a lexicon.  On both sections there are about 15-20 questions on parsing, syntax, style, and rhetorical devices.


This was the least awful of the five for me since it only covered 50 pages of Oxford Edition Latin agreed upon with the examiner.  The exam is two hours long but with no lexica.  30 of my pages were drawn from one of Cicero’s defense speeches (pro sulla) and the other 20 were from Lucretius’ de rerum natura.  There were about 20 questions total on parsing, syntax, and grammar.  The test was challenging but enjoyable since reading Lucretius is one of my joys in life and since I love/hate Cicero.


This exam covers the least material but has been a hard one for me since I do not have any training in Semitics beyond basic Hebrew Bible grammar.  The exam is two hours long with two passages culled from a pre-set list of 30 chapters from the HB.  I have not yet taken this one but so far the preparation has been tough but somewhat enjoyable.  I struggle with prophecy chapters (esp. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel) and with poetry (esp. Psalm 22, Song of Songs 1) but the narrative chapters are not so bad.   I have gotten through all 30 chapters 3 times as of today, and I think that after one more time through, I will sit for the exam.  The exam, from what I have heard, has several questions on morphology and a few on poetic structure.  No lexicon.

So there you have it.  This is what my life has been dedicated to for the last year and half (aside from coursework) and this is what you have to look forward to if you are self-hating enough to sign up for a PhD program in this field.  Perhaps the most depressing part about all of this is how fast one language fades as others are bolstered.  At one point last year I could cruise through a French article in my field–not so fast now.  But luckily, all of these seem to come back just fine with a little polish.

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