The Qualifying Exam: A Rite of Passage
As a typical second year Ph.D. student, I took my qualifying exam (QE) this year.
However, it wasn’t a typical exam due to the coronavirus outbreak. The exam generally happens in a conference room in the physical presence of your committee members but students this year get to be tech savvy and take their exam from the comfort of their homes. I’m not sure if it is a blessing or a disguise. I would like to think of it as the former!
The QE preparation begins almost 6 months in advance. The Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MIMG) has a scientific thinking course that prepares you mentally and intellectually for the QE. Every discipline has their own guidelines about the QE.
The MIMG QE process begins by forming a QE committee that involves a chair and two members of your choice. Two other members are randomly assigned to serve on your committee.
Next, the student is expected propose a unique, original scientific idea that is unrelated to your and your PI’s work. Once the question is approved, a three week time period is provided to complete writing a 10 page proposal. Once the proposal is approved by all the committee members, a date for the QE is set. Under usual circumstances, this would involve reserving a conference room and ensuring all your committee members are available.
However, due to the outbreak and social distancing I had to move my QE online. With the help of the MIMG admin staff, I was able to set up a virtual meeting on Microsoft Teams. I tried to familiarize myself with Microsoft Teams by setting up a mock with friends which eases anxiety on the day of the exam. During the whole process, it is important to read about everything that you have mentioned in your proposal and to identify potential sources of questions. The reading process is a weird one because the more you read, the less you know (or, you feel like it), but I continued reading. I felt prepared to an extent. You can never be completely prepared for it because you haven’t experienced anything of that sort before. I think everyone has a unique irreproducible experience. I toned down the preparation as I approached my QE and ensured I got a good night’s sleep before my QE as advised by my mentor and it really helped.
On the day of my QE, I got dressed as I would if it was an in-person QE. I did this to get into the QE headspace. I logged onto Microsoft Teams and so did all my committee members along with my advisor and the course director. Once we were all logged in and the preliminary technical tests were done, the chair introduced the committee members and I was signaled to start my presentation. It is a 10 min long presentation that includes background, significance and a short summary of your proposal. After this is when the exam really takes off. The members take turns to ask you questions that may or may not be related to your proposal and all this is fair game. Personally, I was flustered and stammered quite a bit during the first 20 mins of my QE, but later eased into the process and felt calmer and more confident. The questioning then seemed to turn into a conversation and was enjoyable. Once the questioning ended, I was asked to exit the call to allow for deliberation with my PI. Those were the most anxious 15 minutes of my life. I tried to replay the whole questioning period to self-assess if I would pass. I was then asked to join the call when my chair informed me that I had passed. I have no recollection of the few minutes that followed. It seemed absolutely surreal. That is an overview of my QE process.
In retrospect, my preparation included talking to a lot of people about their experiences. I spoke to senior graduate students who had passed their QE and carefully listened to their experiences and suggestions. Chances are they had the same faculty member on their committee and could tell you what they like to question students on. Some of the best pieces of advice I received include not faking, being honest and accepting that you do not know the answer to the question but to also propose alternatives. Another common piece of advice I received is to read and brush up on my basics because you are expected to think on your feet quickly during the QE. I think it also important to research the interests of your committee members and how that could be incorporated into your proposal because those questions are likely to arise. However, the coronavirus outbreak added another layer of complexity and uncertainty to this whole process. The guidelines of meeting and reserving a room were constantly changing which involved a lot of communication with the administrative staff. Finally, once it was decided that I would take my exam online, another problem arose. In QEs, the student is generally asked to draw out their thoughts and pathways on a white board. Translating this onto an online platform was quite a challenge. I used OneNote and a touch screen as my portable and sharable white board (it works really well!). It’s also a good idea to alternate between reading for your QE and other activities to keep yourself sane.
But, remember, the process is unique and irreproducible. Everyone has a different experience and being prepared for it helps embrace the experience better.
To all those taking their QE soon, good luck. You are going to do great.
About The Author
Raksha Parthasarathy is a student in the Molecular Immunology & Microbiology discipline in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Program. She is working in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Leadbetter where she is working on a project about memory B cells and cell death pathways in B cells and iNKT cells. Read an article about her: “Raksha Parthasarathy: My first memory of science was the Science Express, a science museum on wheels.”