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

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.

15 Replies to “PhD Language Exam Exhaustion or Why I Am Looking Forward to Comprehensive Exams”

  1. When I thought about switching over to theology/religious studies (about a decade ago and about 5 years before blogging), the heavy language emphasis, even for somebody looking into religious ethics scared me away. Now, I think that I would be better off if I knew more languages, especially French and German…but I am not very good at it.

    I now regret not making the effort…but life has turned out very well. So, no complaints.

  2. oudenos,

    Thanks for sharing this. I just began a Master’s program, and I am very much interested in the language requirements and language exams for PhD programs, as I wish, one day, to enter a PhD program (albeit in Hebrew Bible). I have a few questions: would you mind divulging what courses you took in preparation for these exams (perhaps the number of semesters, or something along those lines). What kinds of degrees did you receive before entering your PhD program, and what were their language requirements like? Finally, how did you find the time to prep for these exams while still taking (4?) courses a semester? Thanks again for this write-up!

    Best wishes,


  3. Sounds tough.

    For the Hebrew reading, check our the Reader’s Edition of the Hebrew Bible. Search FPR, I’ve talked about it several times before and some other things that may be useful to you in prepping.

  4. TYD,

    I wish you luck on your recently started MA program and in your future run at PhD programs!

    To answer your questions:

    For the Greek and Latin exams, the most significant prep was doing a BA in Classics, an MA in a Classics related field, and three years of PhD coursework in which I was trained in these languages and during which I used them extensively, often daily. So I can’t really point to a single class that prepped for the exams. However, one class stands out in particular as being most beneficial to my Greek skilz, that was Greek prose composition. I took that my first quarter of my first year in my PhD program and it nigh on killed me. But it taught me Greek like I never knew Greek before, and even though the Classics kids had a few steps on me, by the end I could kind of keep up with them. So I would say, if you can take a composition course any ancient language, do it!

    As for French and German, I took a French reading course as an MA student and using that as a base and then personal studying French, I was able to pass the exam. I did the same for German, but I didn’t take the German reading course until I was in my PhD program.

    For the Hebrew exam I took the first full year of Biblical Hebrew grammar during the first year of my program and now I am studying on my own. It is yet to be determined whether that will be sufficient.

    Finding time to study for the exams was difficult, especially the French and German exams since they are administered mid-quarter, right when classes are really ramping up. I just made sure that I did an hour or two of study each day. For the Greek and Hebrew exams, I spent entire summers in preparation for them–I didn’t do anything else but exam prep. All work and no play makes oud a dull boy :(.

  5. sounds insane, oudenos, especially the greek.

    care to comment on any of these related topics?

    1. how have your language study methods evolved over the years? what would you do differently if you were starting out fresh today (heaven forbid)?

    2. what resources do you consider most helpful–from flashcards to printed word lists (by passage or frequency or root), form finders, and readers to computer programs? are there any that you think could actually be detrimental?

    3. you mention the depression that comes when the languages fade. what about the fading of philology’s prominence in the academy during the last century to say nothing of the plumetting value of the study of dead languages in general? does this get you down? (or maybe there has been no decline from where you sit.) how do you respond to the business professional who thinks you are wasting your time on the one hand and to the more philosophically/theoretically minded academic on the other who may admire your ability but deep down really thinks that for all your language training you are an unthinking robot? is it possible to attain and combine the philological prowess of the 19th century with the critical thought of the 20th/21st? or must trade-offs be made?

  6. g.wesley,

    1. I still study in my same old way: I force myself to first build a foundation of grammar since if you don’t know grammar, you don’t know a language (at least in the academic study of a language). Then I read texts, real stuff, not the simplified stuff one finds in primers. Then I just read as much as possible. If I had to start over, I would have started studying German and French as early as I did Greek and Latin, and I would study them to speak them as well as read them.

    2. I have used flashcards and frequency lists in the past but not anymore (although I may do some flashcard work for my Hebrew exam just to shore up some weak spots in my material). I find that best way to memorize and retain vocab is to read as much as possible. I find that I especially retain vocab when I read something that I am already familiar with in translation. For Greek and Latin I don’t believe in form finders since if you haven’t put in the work to learn the morphology up front, form finders or parsing guides will only delay the inevitable: finding out that you really don’t know the language. However, I totally cheated on this for Hebrew since I was trying to learn the language as fast as I could and I am not overly concerned about being a specialist in Hebrew.

    3. This last one is a tough one. I am the first one to admit that my language training has come at the expense of in-depth reading in modern critical literature. People in related programs at different schools put me to shame with their grasp of scholarly literature and controversies and I will ultimately have to catch up on this to some extent (hello, comprehensive prep!). But I can’t imagine approaching the field in any other way but philologically. I am still too fledgling in my studies to know whether my training and approach is so dinosauric that I will be laughed at or be perceived as obsolete or whatever. I just want to get a job. I don’t really have an answer to the other questions. All I can say is that studying dead languages, especially Greek and Latin, give a person a greater sensivity and facility in language, rhetoric, and communication than anything else to which I have been exposed.

  7. Wow, that was fascinating, oudenos! Kind of makes me glad I decided not to go to grad school… Seriously, that sounds really tough.

  8. g.wesley,

    A note on answer #2: For Greek I do use one crutch and surely I will never be free of it (N. Marinone and F. Guala’s Complete Handbook of Greek Verbs). It is a must have, as you probably already know.

  9. oudenos,

    sounds like what your saying is there’s no substitute for memorizing grammar and morphology and then reading actual texts (with the help of dictionary and maybe the occasional form finder). how wonderful.

    about reading texts that are already familiar in translation, i think you could be onto something. when i don’t know the text and i have to look up a word i tend to forget it quickly because what i am looking for and what i remember is the english meaning. i am thinking in english, using the ancient text like a cipher.

    but this gets at something i was wondering about the other week: at what point do i become dishonest or short circuit the learning process and criple myself linguistically in my use of another’s translation? for example, say you got to choose the texts (not the passages of course) for your exams. do you choose something that is availible in translation and then essentially memorize it in english? i suspect that we would both say no. so help me put a finger on the difference between this and the above.

    as for the dinosaurs, i hope they havn’t and don’t go extinct.

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