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One of the most awesome experiences of grad school (besides landing the coveted spot for the interview, getting into your favourite lab, or finishing your degree sooner than planned) is passing the qualifying or comprehensive exam. For short, I'll call it qual. In a way this exam is designed to not only test your capacity to create new and test an idea, by teaching yourself new concepts, challenge paradigms, establish a new line of thinking, but to “filter”, in a way, the incoming talent of the department. Passing the qual, in a way, serves to welcome you into some sort of club, where students (usually) don't take any more exams, that of senior grad students who are held up as the best and brightest within a department. It was understood that if you passed this rigorous examination you had fought hard and earned your spot in the department. At least that's how it seemed to the 24-year-old-super-scared me.
This is my story about passing the qualifying exam on my second attempt. Yes, my second attempt, as I failed it the first time. I failed the qual and eventually got my PhD.
Some aspects of quals remain similar across universities. I’ve heard of people who need to read a certain amount of articles or books and write long essays to answer questions on the topics. This seems to be a more traditional approach to the qual. In some other departments you get to do a written part, testing the theory, and then have an oral exam, in which you are grilled for a certain. Quals are pass or fail situations, no middle ground. In my case my department did things differently. You had to find a topic, similar (but not identical) to something that was being done by your group, write an NIH-type proposal and defend it. To me, it was similar to presenting your thesis project proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your examination committee and by no means you could get help from the boss or labmates.
This process was extremely new for me. I went from undergrad into grad school straight, no master's, no other experience other that 18-20 years of schooling, and though I was a science major, I never had to write proposals and such during my undergrad. There was a 6-month prep course in my department. You would write different sections of the proposal (this modelled on your real thesis project/s) and were evaluated by a much smaller committee than the qual one (3 profs, rather than 6). People, I tell you …. it was HARD. Now, one problem in my field (biochemistry and biophysics) is that not all the research starts from a traditional hypothesis. Yes, we formulate hypotheses, once we have investigated/determined structures of the biological molecules we studied,and then postulated the next direction. There was no knock-out this and Cre-loxP that. But because my former department had mostly “traditional” labs, I had to follow the majority, and do a hypothesis(first)-driven proposal.
My first hurdle was finding a topic. Sure, I could try to find something that was in a grey area, like some students had done in the past. But I wanted to be original and use the techniques and approaches I was learning, to tackle an interesting problem; something that wasn't foreign to my exam committee either. I went through ~50 papers before narrowing it down to 1 specific topic. Since I could not have any input from my boss, asking questions like “does this make for a sound project?”, or “am I too ambitious?” were out. I could pose hypothetical questions, but that could get me a stern email from the director of grad education. The last, but definitely not least, hurdle was that once I found a topic I had to write the proposal in 1 month, while reviewing the literature and learning about other approaches I could apply to my selected problem/topic. After handing the proposal the examination could occur almost immediately. Lucky me …. I took the exam 80 hours after hitting the send button. And I was FREAKING out.
The examination was to last for less than 2 hours. I would be answering questions about any and all possible things about the topic/techniques/approach and biological/biochemical reasoning behind it. I killed the biological questions (after all, my college degree was in biological sciences, I should have been able to ace something), but when the hardcore questions came, those that were based on extrapolating knowledge, and concepts, that was the killer for me. I don't think I had formulated my hypothesis properly (really) and what I wanted to test was a bit .... crazy. I could not answer well, and for it I failed.
It. Was. Tough. I mean, I felt like the most stupid, worthless piece of crap. EVER. I was devastated. I cried, I felt like I did not want to show my face around the professors. I was a failure, and that’s all they would remember about me. Utter failure. I also felt like I was bringing shame to my group.
I thought failing this exam would define me for the rest of my life. Luckily, it didn't!
I realized that there were areas I needed to improve, there were topics to be studied, and I had a LOT of researching and teaching to do. As incredible as it may sound, the areas of formulating a hypothesis and writing the proposal were the hardest ones for me. I had no formal training, other than following instructions out of books and booklets for 4 years of undergrad, and somehow, I had missed the part of formulating hypotheses and writing things up in a coherent manner. Sure, I handed reports on labs and such, but it was pretty formulaic. At this point I realized how helpful it would have been to do a master's and fine-tune those skills. But, if I was to pass the qual in my second and last attempt, I had to give it my all and learn to do that one way or the other. Overcoming and developing those skills were part of the game, regardless of how little training I had related to the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts (undergrad). I had to sit down, ANALYZE an interesting problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion with scientific experiments.
A college education is supposed to prepare you for reading, researching and hypothesizing. And while you do lab work, you are supposed to learn and practice these skills. But I can honestly say that I went through college without paying attention to that. All I was focused on was getting the highest grades possible, to get into a good medical or graduate program, because the highest grades and scores were all that was needed to get into the best school, right? Wrong! What about surviving and thriving in the post-undergrad environment? What about analytical skills? And constructing sentences in a coherent manner?
There was such a disconnect in my mind. It was never clear to me that the concepts and problems you learned in chemistry and biology 101 would be useful some day, and could be applied to life in general. More specifically, that I would need the overall process to help me succeed in grad school. The only time I remember something was when I was taking Physics 2 and we had to solve a couple of problems using soh-cah-toa (good thing I remembered, I scored a 90+ in that one). Other than that, I felt like I was just memorizing facts, and nothing more. Like it was all “useless” (Oh, that carefree, undergrad mentality).
I could go around blaming people for the things I didn’t learn in college, or how it seems like the system failed to prepare me for grad school. Ultimately, situations like failing your qual bring you back to the reality that you are in grad school, and like my mentor used to say, “you’re here because you have the capacity to teach yourself, and then apply those concept to help answer scientific questions.”
Luckily, the committee was very understanding (they were not the ogres I imagined) and they provided feedback as to where they found the biggest deficiencies. My boyfriend, who’d taken at least a gazillion methodology courses, gave me a quick brush on methodology and sent me my merry way to rewrite the exam. It was extremely helpful, and equipped with readings the BF provided and lots of patience, I reformulated my hypothesis, rewrote the proposal and a month after failing my qual the 1st time, I took it again (with the same committee) and passed with flying colours. What I am not telling you here is that I was working day and night on this, so there was an insane amount of time invested in this. At the same time, I was working on my thesis, since I had taken all the time off I (thought) I needed preparing for the first round.
The examination committee met with me afterwards and said they were proud and pleased to see that I had overcome my deficiencies and that it was beyond clear to them that I had taken the time, studied and put in the effort to make things clear, for me and for them, and for that I was worthy of passing. I was also much more confident the second time. Partly because I was better prepared and partly because I had taken the time to learn (or relearn) the skills needed to make the qual experience a success.
All in all, I would not have it any other way. Whenever I tell this story I say it proudly, because my efforts (and a very patient boyfriend) got me through the process. It is not the end of the world. And after all this, doing the research to complete the PhD seemed like a piece of cake. I can honestly say that I can probably teach myself many things, and that even if I didn’t learn some things in grad school or college, I can always look for a good book, tutorial or discussion and teach myself something new.
So there you have it. Do not feel discouraged. It is not the end of the world, and better times are ahead. Trust me … I am now a doctor.
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Hell yeah, way to own it. Its not that uncommon here for students to have to do rewrites, especially since we are given no training into proposal writing and our only preparation for the exam is here is what an F32 fellowship looks like. Great post!
Wow- great story! You will be a really great, understanding and kind professor (or boss) one day. The hard experiences give us empathy for others.
Thanks for telling your story.
Awww you guys! That's so sweet :-).
@Genrepairman: I don't know if my former department's prep course has improved, but, I'm happy to say that a few years after I took the qual they had a bunch of profs meet with all grad students and ask for input on how to make the qual better. They at least put effort on that, and for that they should be recognized. There was another department that offered a better methodology/grant writing course, and I think I should have taken in it ... stupid hindsight. More departments should work on having a grant-writing course, especially for students who come directly from undergrad and have little experience in writing proposals and applications.
@Jade: you're so sweet. Thanks for your kind words. I hope to be the kinds of boss you mention someday ... for now, I just want to be done with my postdoc and get a "real job" in science ... we'll see how that goes. Thanks for your kind words :-)
This was a great story! i was also terrified of taking my qual. Even though I passed, now that I know a lot more, I probably would have done much better a second time around. Formulating a hypothesis was also the hardest for me, especially since we had to describe all possible outcomes of an experiment without having done any preliminary work.
Great story! If you want it you will do what it takes. And you learn from it thats the key. I failed my quas (Entrance exams) and I studied my ass off and have passed one of them and am retaking the other two soon. I have to say I learned more this second time around than if I would have passed it right away. It makes me a better scientist, teacher etc. Your story is inspiring and shows what tenacity really is. Good for you! Thank you for sharing!
I really liked this post. I think a lot of us can relate to it. I think I spent about a month with my head buried in papers getting background information and coming up with ideas for a topic. One thing that did help is that once I came up with an idea, I e-mailed a couple of experts in the field to ask them if they thought the hypothesis was sound. I didn't try to do anything crazy, but it was reassuring to hear people in the field say whether or not they thought the ideas were reasonable.
Thanks Carolina! Yes, the formation of a solid and sound hypothesis was the hardest. We also didn't have the luxury of having any prelim data to back up our stuff, other than whatever was on the literature, so yes, not having that groundwork backing up your claims was tough. Thanks for commenting!
Thank you for telling the story. It takes guts not only to redo something such as qual but also talk about it in public. So, good for you!
Thank you thank you! That tree is one of the works I love most. I will be posting friday or saturday. School work calls! I hope you are correct! And thank you for support. Its nice to hear the true story of "I struggled" its ok you are too, not "oh it was so easy blah blah".
I was terrified going into grad school (Biology) because I my undergrad was a Philosphy BA. Imagine that. I'd only taken a couple lab science courses the couple semesters before enrolling in my PhD program to get used to the idea of school after many years away. So I had very little bench experience. What I soon realized, however, was that all those years writing papers - analyzing theories and arguments, synthesizing ideas, classes in symbolic logic, etc. paid off nicely when I went into science. I had skills no one else seemed to have - in addition to being able to read and critically analyze, I could bring together different ideas and write coherent proposals and papers. So I would definitely advise any science undergrad to step out of the lab and take a handful of liberal arts classes: litereature, philosophy, history, and even try something radically creative like studio art courses!
Perfectly put Phytoalchemist. That's exactly how the boyfriend helped me. Since he wasn't in the "hard core" sciences, yet had taken classes and classes on theory, methodology, etc he was able to find me a couple of good resources to read and help clear my head on how to compose and defend what was being asked of me. I highly recommend a methods (theory) class to anyone and everyone who asks. Thanks for commenting!
@Alchemystress: I have a tat too and LOVE it. I admire good ink when I see it :-). Best of luck and kick the exam's arse :-).
@Anthea, thanks for your comments on both blogs. It's greatly appreciated. It does take guts to talk about the trials and errors in grad school. I seriously wish I could have talked to the student's who didn't pass the test the 1st time in my former department, but some weren't as approachable as I think I am, hence my hesitation. I wish departments encouraged peeps to talk to older generation grad students on how to prepare and overcome fears and failure. It would have been such a great help to me. Thanks again for commenting!