The Return of the Quals…dun…dun…dun…


Things are going well, but I’ve been really busy. The past few weeks I’ve babysat around 20 hours a week, managed a graduate class which requires a background in linear algebra, which I am weak in, put significant time into data analysis for one of the projects I am working on in my research, and I’ve also put some time into studying for my quals, take 2, which are on April 25th.

I have mentioned before how I failed my quals once already, so this time if I fail, I’ll be kicked out of the program. The program should have little incentive to kick me out: I’m first author on a paper with only myself and my advisor; I’m on a fellowship through a program the department participates in which is funded by the NSF; and I am now the senior lab member in the group of my advisor, who is up for tenure starting this spring-ish (ish because the tenure process is so very fuzzy and confusing to me). So I don’t think I’ll be graded particularly harshly, but I must do better than last time at least, to show improvement. They said I was “very close to passing” last time, so doing just a little better than last time should be worthy of a passing grade.

Anyhow, I’ve been studying for that, and it is overwhelming in its scope. I feel that I need to know everything I learned as an undergrad, when I was so depressed it was affecting my work and my learning, plus one class from my first semester of grad school, which was a little over a year ago now (and during which time I was busy getting married and taking a week off for my honeymoon). And I need to know all of that so well that I can do any problem they might toss at me within 45 minutes and with no books or resources to assist me…so that I can do 6 problems in 4 hours in a closed book exam with only my brain and my calculator. Is it just me, or does this seem like an archaic way of deciding who is worthy of a doctoral degree and who is not? I mean, in a modern world, with so much information at your finger tips that you can look up the Navier-Stokes equation in Wikipedia, isn’t being given minimal time per problem and not even any books, as inferior as those are to computer programs and internet resources, just completely out of touch with real, applicable situations?

To have at an instant thought all of the many equations I have learned in these classes is overwhelming to me. I enjoy and am maybe even good at research, but that is largely because I love solving problems and am very good at using the resources available to me. I am not, however, a memory bank of equations, nor do I have such a deep understanding of my subject that I can just draw up all of the equations out of the most basic of principles and relationships. Last time I tried to focus on the concepts, figuring that understanding well the meaning of each equation would help me to remember them, but sometimes I was left without the details of a needed equation. So this year, I’m not only going through practice problems, but I’m also being sure to memorize all of the equations, as mundane as I feel that to be.

As always, I am still spending time relaxing, chilling with my husband or meeting some friends downtown. I didn’t quite get so much sleep though, but I got a bunch this weekend, so I’m feeling more rested now. But I better go to bed, because I have to get up at 6:30!

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Quals…dun…dun…dun…

  1. I really agree that it sounds archaic. Mine were very different — I almost don’t want to describe them because I don’t want to be a braggart or something. I had to write a research proposal (for the research I intended to do) and orally defend it to my committee. Technically, they could ask me about anything I might have learned up to that point, but in my department the questions are usually about concepts related to the proposed research, plus technical points about it. I think when students are not doing well, the committee will start to ask more basic questions to see what the person does know. Anyway, the whole thing was very scary but very useful and relevant. I am an advocate for this appraoch.

  2. Good luck on your quals! Mine was a 90-minute oral exam. Like you, I failed the first time, but I went on to pass it the second time around. I have heard that at least in our department, it was easier to pass the second time. The first time, if you were borderline, they’d fail you because “you could always try again.” But the second time, unless you did really miserably or there were other reasons to kick you out, you usually passed.

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