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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Water Music

We walk, pace moderate but with intent, along the river with a vague notion of expectation. Yes we both indicated we were going on the Facebook event and there were multiple posts from the performance organizers on what exactly was happening but I did not read them in detail. Did I choose not to? Was I too busy? Was I just not interested enough? Regardless, there was a nice contrast in walking to something without a fully-fleshed out picture of what was happening; there is so little in our world left to mystery.

We hear the instruments before we see anything, a murmuring of low brass and percussion floating over the esplanade, over the lagoons, over the groups of runners and walkers, over the evening picnickers and the dog walkers, floating over us as well, carrying on from what was in front of us to what was behind us. The music wasn’t for us, it didn’t stop once it hit our ear drums, we were there for it. Perhaps we can try to have fewer things be there for us and have us be there for more things.

We arrive. Fifty musicians spread out along the Esplanade, spaced out to allow the audience to move among and about them. We are wary at first, so we walk along the sidewalk where the majority of the audience is standing static, listening to only the musicians that were close to the spot where they chose to stand. As we near the end of the length of the field, we walk around the edge to the back corner of the performance. We gather up the courage and begin to work our way back, not along the sidewalk with the rest of the audience, but among the musicians, experiencing the performance as it was designed to be experienced.

And it is stunning.

Walking behind some of the performers I see that each is running a synchronized clock while the sheet music is divided into repeating motifs marked to be played for a certain amount of time. For a given section of the piece, time is still as the performers repeat a simple motif, but for us, as we wander and weave our way through, it is the moving through space that provides the dimension of time: as we near a trombonist, their low notes crescendo as the soprano saxophonist we move away from diminuendos. Dynamics and layers of the piece become not decisions of the performers but our decisions, our movement as much a part of the composition as their playing.

As we walk with just a handful of other audience members who are experiencing the piece as it was meant to be experienced, I look to the shore of the river, to the sidewalk where the majority of the audience stands static, unmoving. I can only think of how limited, how narrow their experience is because they have chosen to stand. Not only can they only hear the eight or nine parts closest to them, but they are also missing out on the dynamics of moving closer to and further from different performers. I look at the mass of people and their limited perspectives, their bubble, and think about how I spend the majority of my time surrounded by people who are also pursuing graduate degrees in bioengineering.

As we are walking among the performers, among the ethereal and ritualistic composition, the sun sets over MIT and the music intensifies. Right next to us, a kettle drum starts beating out an aggressive rhythm. We jump. The vocal part ahead of us starts to decay into dissonance as the trumpets blare ominously. We are in the middle of so much change, so much is happening all around, it is overwhelming, disorienting, but we keep walking. As we move, the music decays back into ethereal tones and the piece ends harmoniously. When the percussion suddenly entered on the next piece, we were at the edge of the field and could only hear a few parts, we were not in the middle of it all, but we turn and walk towards it.

As the last piece nears its conclusion, the percussionists pick up rocks and start to click them together. The low brass holds out a few notes as the performers begin methodically walking towards the river, all staring at the horizon. The piece ends as the percussionists toss their rocks in the river, letting the Charles have the last say of the night.

I went to this performance last week, just a few days before my qualifying exam. Could I have spent the night continuing to frantically study and stress? Absolutely. But balance can be hard to come by in graduate school. And that’s okay. I am beginning to see the some of the beauty and joy in removing many distractions from your life and focusing solely on a captivating research problem, and there will be plenty of times like that in the coming years. But I also have a strong belief in balance of time and balance of ways of thinking and thinking artistically is something I certainly don’t do enough of, so I like to jump on the opportunities when I can. There’s a world inside the lab but there is also a world outside the lab; one thing I am continuing to figure out is strategically choosing when and for how long to live in each.

Committing to a Lab

The Biomedical Engineering PhD program at BU uses a rotation program for students to find a lab to do their thesis research in. This means that we spend our first year spending six to eight weeks in a number of different labs to find the best fit. Now, at the end of my first year of grad school, I am going to use this post to reflect on my experience in our rotation program and some thoughts and pieces of advice for future grad students in rotation programs. And, of course, I will end with officially announcing where I have committed to complete my PhD.

 

Step 1: Picking Rotations

Rotation programs are great because it breaks down the grad school decision of picking a school and picking a mentor into two decisions separated by about a year and gives you options. The bad news is that it gives you options. Picking your rotation PIs is as critical as picking your list of grad schools to apply to because, ultimately, this is the person who you will end up working under for five or six years and whose name you will be tied to professionally in the scientific community in perpetuity. No pressure.

Most of my fellow students in my cohort came in knowing at least one PI they wanted to rotate with because they connected well during our visit weekend. If you are an incoming grad student, there is probably at least one PI you picked the program you did for and so you will probably end up rotating with them first. From there, programs usually have some sort of seminar class in which PIs who are recruiting grad students share their research to generate interest in their groups. Most of the people in my cohort found their other rotation PIs either through our seminar class, by taking their classes, or through word of mouth and found them organically throughout the year.

I, on the other hand, was a bit more directed. I acknowledge the oddity of this approach and chalk it up to my type A, future-focused personality and do not condone it as the best way to go about setting up rotations, but, leaving my interview weekend last spring, I had three great meetings with PIs and knew they were the ones I wanted to rotate with. I contacted them over the summer and came into my first year with my rotations set up.

 

Step 2: Doing Rotations

When I started my first rotation, I was instructed to look for three things in a lab: fit with the research, fit with the PI, and fit with the lab (i.e. the other people in the lab). This is the framework that I carried with me through each of my rotations.

If your graduate program is structured like most and you are taking classes while also doing your rotations, one thing I would stress is that the goal of your first year is to find a lab home. This applies in that classes, while important, are not the main focus of grad school. Spending as much time in and around your rotation lab will benefit you more in the long run than perfecting that problem set or rereading that paper for the third time. On the other hand, the goal of a rotation is not to do groundbreaking research. When you are spending time with your rotation lab, along with trying out the kind of work you would be doing if you joined that lab, you should also be trying to engage with and integrate into the lab culture as much as possible to really get a sense of what it would be like to join that lab.

Other pieces of advice that I have heard but did not necessarily take advantage of is to go to lab meetings of labs that you will rotate with in the future or have already completed a rotation with. This way, you can keep up to date and in the know on what is going in the lab or feel out part of a lab dynamic before you start working. This will smooth the process of starting a rotation and ultimately joining a lab, especially if it was one you rotated with early in your first year.

I will leave this section with those pieces of advice. I had a wonderful time in all of my rotations here at BU so I’ll just move on to the decision section.

 

Part 3: Committing to a Lab

In my short experience on this planet, I have found that large life decisions which, to me, seem that they should stem from rigorous and objective criteria, often stem from a gut feeling or subjective nature. This applied to when it came time for me to commit to a lab. There were a few objective criteria like that the lab was actively growing and recruiting, which means there was available funding, that the PI had a fairly hands-on style and was willing to mentor directly at the bench if necessary, and the size of the lab was in the medium range so I would have a community around me while also not being lost in the shuffle. But, at the end of the day, I think I just had a gut feeling that I would work well with the PI of my third rotation. Luckily, when I asked to join, she immediately said yes, and thus I am now I Ph.D. student in the Sgro Lab at BU.

 

Overall Reflection

I think one benefit of a rotation program is that you get the opportunity to build relationships with the grad students and faculty member not only of the lab that you ultimately commit to but of other labs in the department or on the campus. At a practical level, this could spur some potential future collaborations but also simply lets you build up your professional support network at a new school faster. Life transitions are made more difficult because your support network is pulled out beneath you and having the opportunity to work with and interact with multiple labs on a new campus definitely eased the transition process for me.

Sometimes in a rotation program you may feel a bit listless because you do not have a home or a boss keeping you accountable on a day to day basis, but I think the benefits of connecting with more people throughout the department make up for that. Now that I am committed to a lab, it’s time to strap down and get some work done. Speaking of which, gotta pop over to the bench (i.e. my own bench in my lab!).

Embarking

The Biotechnological Revolution.

Our Bioengineered Future.

The New Digital Revolution.

 

These phrases surrounded me growing up. The promises of these headlines: lab-grown organs, custom-designed proteins, and effective gene therapy, tantalized and inspired my high school self. They did so to the point at which I decided that I would commit my career to see these headlines become reality.

Four years later and I am about to start a Ph.D. program in Boston University’s Biomedical Engineering department. Although I have the same goal in mind, four years can make a lot of difference. Having worked in a few labs, I have become acquainted, first-hand, with the slow, painful process of biological research. I have seen how hyped headlines have decayed into piles of complicated scientific, let alone, ethical unknowns. The same optimism and belief that there is much good to be gained from further developments in bioengineering fuels me, but has been tempered with an exposure to the field as an undergrad.

While much of the hype around developments in this field is fluff, there are real, difficult questions that both scientists and engineers as well as policy makers and the public must ask about what is coming out of these labs. In talking to friends and family (i.e. lay people), I have come to realize that public knowledge and fear about many fields in bioengineering is misguided; there is fear around things that have been proven to be harmless and there is no knowledge of areas which have gone through major developments and are asking tough questions.

It is with these thoughts that I embark both on the journey of my Ph.D. and of this blog. I hope to use this blog to chronicle my graduate school course, namely my transition from overeager and optimistic aspiring bioengineer to a bitter and exhausted expert on a niche sub-problem of a sub-problem of a problem in a small field. At the same time, and as to not turn this into an online journal, I aim to keep the focus of the blog wider, commenting on developments in the field and how they effect the field itself, the future of our healthcare systems, and our species.

I also want to spend some time exploring what it means to be training as a bioengineer in 2017. If with great power comes great responsibility and knowledge is power, then with great knowledge (i.e. a Ph.D.) comes great responsibility and I want to explore and consider what those responsibilities are as part of my training. As a member of a society with a capitalist economy (and potentially an aspiring entrepreneur), what obligations do I have to create value and jobs out of the resources at my disposal? As a member of a democracy whose success is predicated on an informed and active citizenry, what obligations do I have to speak out and take stands on issues to which I can offer informed perspectives?

I have no idea who is going to read one of these posts let alone follow along the blog nor do I know how often I will post (the first one is up to you all and the second will be figured out once I have a better understanding of how busy I will be in grad school), but I invite you all to join me on this journey.