Wednesday, 14 June 2017 11:28

The Art of Acing the Qualifying Exam

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Published in Careers
From Nick Youngson From Nick Youngson

If you’re a student in your second year of graduate school, you’re probably already thinking about your upcoming qualifying exam (QE), or preliminary exam. Most graduate programs have some form of a QE and passing it allows the student to officially enter doctoral research. In other words, it’s a big deal. The format varies from one program to another, but generally it consists of writing a proposal and defending it in front of a committee. Many students dread it for months, take weeks to prepare for it, and put it behind them as soon as possible, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The QE isn’t an exam to dread, it is an opportunity to learn.

Here are some tips that can help you not only pass the exam, but fully enjoy and make the most of it.

Ask for Help and Advice
Your dissertation mentor can help you shape your project, especially if the exam is about your project and the field. Some schools prohibit the mentor’s involvement so be aware of the rules of your graduate program. Your peers are another source for advice and help. Ask senior students about what to expect and the things they did to successfully pass their QE. It’s not cheating. It’s an important part of the learning process because by asking for help and using available resources, you improve your science. Finally, involve your committee. Don’t be afraid to meet with them if permitted and bounce ideas back and forth.

Read with Purpose
Most students start preparing 2-3 months before the exam. That doesn’t mean 10 hours of preparation a day for 3 months straight. Rather, begin slowly by incorporating reading into your daily schedule. I started with a single paper per day and made it to four per day as I got closer to my exam. Since you can’t read every paper in your field, be realistic and smart about what you read. There is no such thing as “the right number of papers to read,” but anywhere between 50 and 200 is a fair number to tackle. I read 150 in a span of 3 months and cited 40 in my proposal. Not every paper needs to be read in depth, but I recommend that you read every single word in the papers you cite because that’s the benchmark for your committee to ask questions from. If you’re citing the work of one of your committee members, pay extra attention to it; people like to ask questions about their own work.

Get Writing
Start writing your proposal as early as possible. You don’t need to read every single paper on your list before attempting to write since you can fill in gaps as you go. Have your draft done a few weeks before the deadline so you can have ample time for editing. Take notes and mark the papers you’re citing, it will make your life so much easier when it comes to writing references. In addition, you can use citing softwares (e.g. Mendeley, EndNote, F1000Workspace) to keep track of papers, notes, and citations.

Get Feedback
Edit your first draft by reading it out loud to catch awkward sentences and phrasing. Once you have edited your proposal a couple of times, you can start sending it to senior students and postdocs for feedback. For the oral presentation, plan to do 2 or 3 practice talks in front of your peers at least a week before the QE. Do not plan them the night before! Make sure you are well prepared for these and bring snacks as a thank you.

Keep Calm and Don’t Make Stuff Up
The days that lead up to the exam are going to be nerve-wracking. You will never feel like you know enough, and that’s okay. This is a common feeling; so accept that you’re not expected to be an expert (if you were, you’d be graduating!). What you must demonstrate is your ability to think critically on your feet and handle things under pressure. When asked a question during the exam, pause for as long as you need to collect your thoughts or ask for clarification before you respond, and if you do not know the answer, admit it and take an educated guess. The key is admitting because failing to do so could weaken the trust of your committee in the accuracy of your answers, even the correct ones.

Everybody is going to tell you that once you’re done with the QE, you’re going to regret having stressed so much about it. Despite holding that belief, my mentor had a very different perspective that I found soothing. During my preparation, he would always say “only the most paranoid survive.” In other words, don’t worry about feeling anxious because it means that you care about your future and success, and that’s what drives you to know more. However, recognize that this exam is designed to help you. It’s an opportunity for you to deepen your knowledge about a field (perhaps your field) and think critically like a scientist. It’s hard to look at it this way but cherish that you will get to talk science and express your excitement for research with experienced scientists.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14 June 2017 11:41
Alireza Edraki

Alireza Edraki is a PhD candidate at the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He received his B.S in Biological Sciences from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research interests are evolution, RNA biology and CRISPR gene editing. Ali is passionate about writing and teaching science. He started teaching when he was 16, and has been teaching ever since. His goal is to become a science educator, to teach the public about the wonders of science.