Insanity, table for one

So it’s that time of year again where amid the smoky remnants of summer BBQs and the promise of crisp fall air I can just barely detect what can only be recognized as the smell of burning second year grad student brains. It’s qual season. A handful of posts back I promised to elaborate on this terrifying right of passage and I intend to make good. But first a quick refresher for the non-students among us.

Graduate school is full of all kinds of hurdles but none of them is more daunting to the fresh-faced first/second year student than the qualifying exam (sometimes called prelims). At the end of your second year you are finishing up your course work and preparing to begin melding with your lab bench full time, but before you are granted the prestigious title of…drum roll please…’PhD Candidate’ you must pass your qualifying exam.

The qual is different at every institution but it almost always includes a written portion along with an oral defense in front of a panel of faculty. Here at OHSU students are asked to write a 10-page NRSA-style grant on a burning science question that keeps them up at night. For most departments the topic can be centered on your actual thesis project; a change in recent years that has divided faculty.

I have the luxury of being a few years removed from my qual so I can laugh about the absurdities of it now, however as anyone who knew me then can attest…I was a crazy person. And not a funny crazy person, but a sobbing, snapping, call in Nurse Ratchet kind of crazy person (my blanket apologies to all). I have never—and I mean NEVER—been so nervous in my entire life as I was the morning of my exam. Walking into that room was akin to sticking my head in a hornet’s nest and I probably would’ve preferred the hornets. The first 15 minutes of questioning I felt like my mind was made of toothpaste. I could not remember the word ‘cytosine,’ which is analogous to forgetting the letter ‘B’ when reciting the alphabet and I found myself answering different questions than were asked. Eventually, though you fall into a rhythm and your years of training kick in. Hopefully you have at least a few members of your committee who will be the smile-and-nod kind of encouragers to balance out those that are out for blood and before you know it you are finished and left to recalibrate your brain back to baseline.

As always, leaning on fellow students during this time for editing, practice talks, and moral support is key.  Talking about the qual sometimes tends to wake my inner mama bear, however I assure you that I survived, I learned, and that the vast majority of students sail through unscathed. So cheers to the second years who are in the midst of or just past their quals! Enjoy the third year bubble!

Have any qual stories? Let’s hear them!


4 responses to “Insanity, table for one

  1. Shhh .. don’t wake the inner mama bear!
    It’s nice to know that your brain can bounce back to the well-oiled, smooth-running machine after almost red-lining during the question portion of a PhD qualifying exam. Thanks for sharing!

  2. …and you emerged not only unscathed but realizing that you can handle an oral examination, answer seemingly random questions on the fly and that after 2 years of memorizing new ideas, you actually knew something…in short that you are beginning to ‘think differently’ than you did 2 years before….isn’t that worth the pre-test anxiety?

  3. Well written, well done.
    I did OBG residency with Jim Van Hook and Kathy Walker, who later got married. In Texas. Related? email me if you are, I’d like to look them up.

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