Qualifying Exam

One of the things about graduate school that continues to amuse me is the blend of the modern and classic. The facilities and research ideas are all cutting edge and yet there is so much about a PhD program that echoes the long traditions and history of academia. Nothing in my graduate school experience so far harkens back to old academia than the three major milestones in the program: the qualifying exam, the prospectus defense, and the thesis defense. The qualifying exam is, as the name suggests, an exam in which the faculty of the department determine whether you are deemed qualified to continue the pursuit of the doctorate degree. Here at BU BME, this is done after the first year. The prospectus defense is where you show what you have done in the lab to date and propose your path forward for the next few years, which is typically done after the third year. And finally, your thesis defense is when you defend your total body of work to the faculty and they decide whether that body of work is sufficient to be worthy of a degree being awarded. I took my qualifying exam this past week and wanted to write a post about the experience along with some advice for anyone who will have to take a similar exam in the future.

The first thing to note is that the format and difficulty of the qualifying exam varies greatly from program to program. Here at BU BME, our exam was an oral, paper-based exam, in which we chose two research themes of the eight our department covers, were assigned three papers per theme, and then questioned on the papers by a panel of three faculty: one specializing in the first research theme, one in the second, and a third chair that oversaw the whole exam.

I don’t think I did anything particularly unique in my approach to studying for the exams and because each program’s exams are different, I feel like any advice I could give here would not be applicable. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts on my approach and attitude the day of the exam, both leading up to it and in the room.

My exam was at 9am on a Monday morning so from the moment I woke up I was only thinking about being in that room, trying desperately to show that I understood the assigned papers to a full extent. What struck me the morning of was the feeling of nervousness I had was not akin to the nervousness I experienced in undergrad before a final or big exam, it went back further to high school, and was much more like the feeling before a track meet or a band audition. I realized that this exam, getting up to a board and answering questions, was much more like a performance than a test, and so I shifted my attitude and approach. I got up early and went for a short run, not too long to be exhausting but long enough to get my heart rate up and have some post-workout endorphins flood the body. I went through the same morning routine before heading to campus with plenty of time to make a cup of tea and relax before heading to the exam itself. As I stood outside the room waiting for my committee to show up, I did a lot of deep breathing, which slowed my racing heart rate and at least made me physically calm if not mentally calm (because my brain was certainly still freaking out).

When I walked into the room, the words of my high school track coach came into my mind: “trust your training.” I knew in that moment that I was not going to have any brilliant revelations or new ideas during the exam, my job was to simply execute on the studying I had done for the weeks leading up to the exam. With that attitude, when there was a question asked I didn’t know the answer to, I gave it some thought, either admitting I didn’t know the answer but could think out loud of some of the steps, or I would simply recognize I was not going to come up with the answer on the spot and moved on. This way, I did not get stuck on something I was not going to get the answer to and build up excessive negative energy in the middle of the exam. With this approach, I was able to demonstrate what I knew, wasn’t thrown off by what I didn’t, and finished the exam feeling mostly positive. I will also add here that I was lucky to have been assigned a committee that was true to the format of the exam and did not venture too far off track from the content of the papers.

One last piece of advice in terms of mentality when approaching the exam is, the night before, similar to the morning of, doing anything to take your mind off of the exam. No cramming you do the night before will pay off so instead I watched the penultimate and season finale episodes of Westworld with my roommate, the perfect distraction to get my mind off of quals and to allow me to get plenty (read: enough) sleep the night before.

A few days later, I received an email from my department that I had passed the exam and had met the requirements for PhD candidate status. My last piece of advice is that now, in graduate school, there are few preset ways to celebrate the milestones and so you have to go out and make your own. In the months leading up to the exams, I led an effort among my friends in my program to rent a beach house down on Cape Cod for the weekend immediately following the exams. So, after weeks of constant stress levels leading up to the first major milestone in our grad school journey, we were able to escape the city and sit out in the sun for a few days. So while the first few days as a PhD Candidate were relaxing and carefree, the email from my committee did not hesitate to remind me that my Prospectus is now just two years away so now it’s back to the bench.

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-Mark, PhD Candidate (!)

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