This is going to be the most boring article ever. I sat around with my laptop for two weeks, surrounded by stacks of journal articles, and drank my weight in coffee everyday.
Despite this all being true, qualifying exams are an important PhD milestone and one that brings many (most) students anxiety. It’s very mysterious and is different at every university. Some students take a cumulative exam on material from courses, while others write R21-style grants. It is also common to have an oral exam component where a committee of professors can ask you any type of questions they feel you should know.
The Penn Bioengineering qualifying exam (which is the one both Heidi and I took) requires that students write an R21 grant on a topic related to the student’s research focus and it’s followed-up by an oral presentation for a committee of professors with expertise in complementary fields to the student’s work.
So, how did I spend my two weeks and prepare for my qualifying exam? Below is an estimated account of my days—by no means a roadmap for quals success. It is simply my experience. But, yes, I made it through alive!
Wed. June 17, 2015
First day of quals! So excited! I’m gonna do this! Caffeine! Adrenaline! So ready to do this thing. I received my topic in the early afternoon and was not surprised at all. Phew! No curve balls here.
Thurs. June 17, 2015
Watched a little bit of the Today Show to start my day before diving into reading papers and brainstorming. Savannah and Matt got my back. Made two pots of coffee.
For the areas of the literature I felt comfortable with, I dove right into the latest literature on the topic. For areas with which I had less experience, I read a lot of reviews. I found these to be extremely helpful, both for background information, citation recommendations, and general inspiration.
Fri. June 18, 2015
I began to panic on the third day. Are any of my ideas novel? Sometimes it feels like any idea you come up with has been attempted in some way, shape, or form. Another concern of mine was how “out of the box” to take my proposal. So I just kept reading.
Sat. June 19, 2015
After my Friday freak-out, I wrote half my proposal in a single day. (However, I certainly did not stick with everything I wrote down in this first draft!) I do recommend writing down ideas and starting to structure your thoughts into a proposal as early as possible. Once I wrote my ideas down in a coherent way, I could better see the holes in my arguments and places where more background research would be required. After my writing flurry I also went for a walk. I started taking a walk everyday of quals to maintain my sanity.
One place I found a lot of inspiration was in the Discussion sections of recent papers that I admired. This is the place where people talk about what they would do if they had more time, resources, and man-power. But, luckily, you don’t have to think as much about these aspects because your proposal is pretend. So use these jumping off points to propose something that might be a little too crazy for real life!
I should also mention that I went and did fun things during quals too. You don’t have to spend the whole time writing and reading in order to pass. I went to dinner with friends and went to a low-key birthday party. But, to each their own!
Sun. June 20, 2015
Once I had some structure to my proposal, I stated making figures. For some this may feel a little early, but I find figures to be inspiring and they help give me other ideas. Plus, it felt like art and crafts to me and I needed a little break from my Saturday writing storm. Oh, and no surprise, I drank more coffee today too.
Mon. June 21, 2015
I finished the first (bad!) draft of my proposal. I knew it was nowhere near ready at this point, but I felt good because something was on paper. That gave me security going into week two of my qualifying exam.
Tues. June 22, 2015
I started reading through my first draft and really picking it apart. I should also mention that the references were a little spotty at this point, so I made notes of where I needed to cite things. Then I went back into the literature to pull out more technique details, specific numbers/facts, and to look for interesting twists I could add to my studies.
Sometime in the second week of quals…
I don’t know exactly when I did this, but at some point in the second week of quals, I went through my proposal and pretended I was each of the members of my qualifying committee. I had the benefit of personally knowing most of the people on my committee, so I knew what types of topics they would be particularly interested in. For example, one of my committee members developed a piece of software I proposed to use in my studies, so I read more about the intricacies of the image processing techniques I proposed.
Fri. June 26, 2015
I finished my figures and did another pass through the literature. I ended up reading a lot during quals. I think this is one of the biggest benefits of this experience. It is protected time for you to immerse yourself in the literature. You likely won’t get another chance to do this without someone waiting for you to produce results, so take advantage of it!
The final weekend…
I pretty much took the second weekend completely off from writing and reading and gave my mind a break. Obviously this is different for everyone depending on your working style, but for me this helped clear my mind.
Mon. June 29, 2015
I read my entire proposal over again probably ten times this day. I was really brutal. If you can, print out your proposal and mark it up completely. Think about your citations, why you chose certain techniques, and back-up plans. These are all things you could be asked during your oral exam.
Tues. June 30, 2015
The day before my proposal was due, a paper came out that made me question an entire Aim of my qualifying exam. I ended up finding more papers from the same group that made me nervous—does Aim II even make sense? I toyed with rewriting an entire Aim. However, in the end I decided to include information from this paper in my qualifying exam update. Not all schools allow you to do this, but at Penn you are allowed to submit a one-page update to your qualifying exam, should you realize new things after you submit the document.
Wed. July 1, 2015
Could not look at the document anymore. Submitted it at 8am. Done!
As I mentioned previously, I also submitted a one-page update to my qualifying exam proposal. In the time between submitting the document and presenting to my committee, I found a lot of things I wanted to change in my proposal. I included some of these new ideas in my update and I let some things remain the same. It wasn’t perfect.
I also spent some time preparing for my oral exam. Although probably not completely necessary in retrospect, I read a few chapters from my favorite text books. (#nerdalert) It did make me feel more confident going into the exam, especially on topics I had not visited in a while. Things I wish I spent more time reviewing:
- Statistics: This is something that can be subjective, and it’s good to have some reasoning behind your choice of number of animals, subjects, or runs. Read: do a simple power analysis at the bare minimum.
- Epidemiology: Know at least some numbers describing the disease you are studying off-hand. This may include the current specificity of a clinical test that you wish to improve on or how common a specific sub-type of the disease is in a normal population.
One other thing you should not do in the middle of your qualifying exams time period is get your wisdom teeth removed. Although I was not technically in the writing time period when mine were extracted, I had this done six days prior to my oral qualifying exam. Hopped up on Vicodin is not the best state to be in for answering challenging technical questions. Just a little pro-tip from me to you.
Overall, I found the qualifying exam experience to be enjoyable. I drank tons of coffee and read about cool science all day. Though there are stressful moments (particularly when you are on the spot answering questions during your oral exam!) largely it was a time to take advantage of completely immersing yourself in the scientific literature. Plus, you can design a totally crazy project your PI would never let you do… and that’s pretty fun!
What your awesome friends will get you when you're done: