Yay!! I’ve done it! I’ve finished up my qualifying exams and passed with flying colors. Yippie!
So, how’d it go?
(If you want a refresher about what the qualifying exams are see here!)
Part of the preparation and studying for these exams is doing a ‘mock exam’. This entails sequestering yourself (and 5ish others to act as your committee) in a room for 3 hours, practicing your presentations and receiving questions and comments from your mock committee about your projects, presentations, or other science details you should know. This is incredibly helpful because you can get advice from more advanced students and you can get a feel for the topics you may be asked about. I was fortunate enough to do two of these in the two weeks before my exams. I get a lot of reassurance from seeing or doing something ahead of time so these mock exams helped me immensely.
I start with this description of the mock exams because at the end of my second exam, amidst other words of encouragement, one of my mock committee members said something that struck me as odd, “If your hardest exam is one of your mock exams, we’ve done our job”. It seemed so odd that these students, that were giving me hints and words of encouragement as I attempted to answer their questions would simulate a more difficult exam than the one in front of five faculty members tasked with the job of determining whether I should continue with my degree.
However, as I’m now on the other side, I can tell you – he was entirely right. While my nerves were certainly more on edge during the actual exam [my fitbit even says my heartrate was elevated enough during the exam that I was in the ‘fat burning zone’], my mock exams were harder. They were more mentally draining and challenged both the breadth of my astronomy knowledge and the depth of my knowledge in my projects.
My actual exams felt much more laid back and my committee asked questions as though they were curious, not testing me. I was certainly nervous about answering their questions correctly (and hopefully impressing them 😉 ) but I eventually realized that they wanted to see me think, not necessarily to immediately hear the right answer.
Oddly, I felt that the outcome of my exams must have been half decided at the beginning when they sent me out of the room to decide on the committee chairperson and – I think – discuss the status of my progress. I assume that was an opportunity for my advisors to clarify and make sure the rest of the committee understood the expectations of my projects/exams. After discussing for a little over five minutes, they called me back in.
After the first presentation – I kicked my exams off with a bang with ‘not knowing’ the opposite of cooling. [It’s heating, guys, simple as that] They got as far as asking me, “What do you do to your food when you put it in the microwave?” before I finally realized they were looking for a pretty simple answer. Whelp, I guess my exams could only go up from there.
Fortunately, they did. While I felt a bit rocky through most of the questioning for my first project, I felt I did excellently on questions about my second. My committee members each asked two or three questions in turn, and once I got to the overall answer they were looking for they moved on. Funnily enough, out of the 260 potential questions I had amassed through practicing, they asked 20 of them. Most of the questions I was asked I had never considered and the most broad question was the last; asking me to outline my plan for the rest of my dissertation.
We kept the exam to just over two hours, about an hour each project and none of my committee members had any extra general questions. They sent me out to the hallway shortly after to ‘deliberate’ and decide on the outcome of my exam. I was convinced they’d pass me but with a few additional requirements regarding my first project – I’d forgotten what heating was for goodness sake!
It look less than five minutes before they called me back in and announced, “Congratulations! You’ve passed. You did an excellent job.” They all agreed I did great, and had no extra comments or instructions. One member even commented, “This doesn’t happen too often”. I still don’t quite believe they had no other comments or suggestions – I know I deserved to pass but I also know I could have done better.
My qualifying exams adventure ended with my advisor requesting to meet in the next two days to discuss the next phases of my project. The rest of the committee laughed – even saying “At least give her a day off!”
I’m so glad to be done with it – I’m most happy to be free of the constant feeling I could be ‘doing something more productive’ in efforts to prepare. From my experience, the main goal of these exams is to see if you understand your projects and to see how you think about things you don’t already know the answer to. As for studying, it’s less about knowing everything and more about thinking about all the possibilities. We can often get so focused on the specific details of our work that we don’t stop to think about the big picture. I am now very familiar with everything vaguely related to my work, and I would not have been motivated to get to this kind of broader understanding without the exams looming over my head. However, I think the hardest part of these exams is not the studying, not the presenting, and not even the being quizzed – it’s the mental struggle leading up to the them – but that’s saved for another post!