Studying for Generals

Schedule of the Summer

Schedule Advice

Before the end of the semester, as a group:

  1. Decide schedule of topics and meetings
  2. Know who’s putting together recommended reading per meeting
  3. Decide how you want to do meetings

May/early June: Take a month off

mid June, July, early August: Do one lit per week, taking notes on articles and literature

early August: Start writing timed practice outlines and essays (I did 10 outlines, 2 full essays. Swap and comment.)

How to know what to read

What literatures to know and what to read^[“Read” is a fuzzy term: more on this later.] from each:

  1. Field seminar syllabi
  2. Annual Reviews
  3. Previous years’ study guides
  4. Other schools’ generals lists and field seminars
  5. People who know the subject well
  6. Other subfield classes in the last two years

Do not artificially constrain the amount of assigned readings. Read what you need to know!

BibDesk and Managing Citations


  • Bibliographies are everything for open book exams! (And for writing a dissertation)
  • I use BibDesk: Mac only, but similar programs for Windows and Linux
  • Don’t use something that locks your data away: you’ll want this for decades


Overview of main pane. Articles in the middle, tags on the right.


Use tags to organize articles. Think about subjects (civil war) as well as methods (IV, experiment, etc)

Entry viewer

Clicking an article pulls up its info. Paste the key into your document to cite. PDF is available on the right

Adding Articles

Using Google Scholar to get the bibtex citation info. (Probably old hat)


Article Notes

You must have a system. An article you didn’t take notes on is an article you didn’t read. Conversely, an article you have notes on is an article you’ve “read”, even if you only actually read the first two pages or the paragraph summarizing it in an annual review.

Notes should include (I think):

  1. One (!) sentence summary
  2. Research question
  3. Brief summary of argument (5 pages of notes are worthless)
  4. Brief assessment of evidence and method (maybe)
  5. Some tagging system so you can find what you’re not looking for

Notes in BibDesk

I copied this outline and filled out for each major article

Notes in BibDesk

A good example

Literature Notes

Need some higher-level way of taking notes. This depends on how you think.

  1. IVs and DVs in a grid for each literature (Sara, Kelly)
  2. Narrative summarizies/“memos” (the cohort above us)
  3. White board intellectual histories (me and Tim)
  • Don’t be afraid to pair off when there’s a large group
  • Find people who like to study the same way as you.

Example whiteboard

Make stickies of all the articles. Put on the board in chrono order. Find debates and themes and organize vertically by those. This worked for me, but not for others.

Actual writing

A grab-bag of advice for actually writing the essays:

  • Start by outlining for 30 minutes. (You must turn in outlines)
  • Use your big-picture notes to understand the breadth of the question
  • Use your tagged notes to make sure you’re not missing any works
  • Begin your essay with definitions: easy to overlook, easy to write.
  • Don’t forget examples (I did…)

Mechanically: Markdown and pandoc (but that’s my usual writing). Nice for citations!

Cool stuff

Automating stuff using your structured notes

If you store your notes inside the .bib and they’re structured in a consistent way, you can do some cool stuff like:

  • extract all the research questions from your notes on a topic
  • make flash cards for going from author to one-line summary and back

ahalterman$ python -i MIT.bib -t "Civil War"
Extracting bibliographic entries from MIT.bib
Bibliography has 1116 total entries.
Found 15 entries for the tag 'Civil War'.
1. What is the effect of aid on civil conflict? Does it increase or decrease?
2. Does ethnic conflict cause civil war
3. Do economic shocks increase or decrease the probability of civil war?
4. Is there an "opportunity cost" mechanism in changing risk of war?


The past questions are terrifying at the beginning of the summer. By the end you’ll be able to answer them all.

I learned more from studying for generals than in any other semester.

If you put in the work, you will pass, so have fun!