The quals are over!!!


And whether I pass or fail, I’ll never have to deal with them again! Woohoo!!!!!!!

So um, the exam was ridiculous. I had a hard time, with my mental state, and seriously considered just turning in the exam, saying “Sorry, I can’t do it,” and walking out of there, many times during the exam. My focus wained and I even teared up once or twice. All in all it was a hellish experience. But I stuck through it (go me!) and I kept trying, and by the end I had conjured up something for most of the problems. The chief issue I had was time. Many of the exam questions had 5-7 parts, and I just couldn’t work through it all that quickly. Without a book or notes or an equation sheet, I had to stop and think if I had the right equation, and sometimes I had only managed to memorize related or basic equations that needed extra manipulation, which of course took time, so that even if I worked through it, confident that my math skills would get me where I needed to go with the basic equations I had at my disposal, I simply did not have enough time to do so. One of the problems I essentially didn’t get to at all…leaving it nearly blank. It was the advanced problem for one of the subjects of which there were two questions, so realizing that I would need even more time to stop and think about which equations were correct and to work through how I might even begin this problem, I chose to try to get the basic problem in that discipline further along. I think I successfully completed parts a and maybe b of a-e on the simpler problem from that discipline. Yummy.

Later in the evening I spoke to one of my friends as the other exam-takers were all going out to celebrate (I had my own plans as Husband had been planning on showing me a great time all weekend), and he told me that everyone was complaining about how ridiculous it was. It sounds like they all struggled too and my own performance may well have been par for the course. As such, I know think there’s a decent chance that the faculty will give me a pass on the exam, especially considering it’s my second attempt at it.

Unfortunately, that does not remove the bitter taste from my mouth. I don’t want to be all complaints and disgruntled, but as the solid Generation Y-er that I am, or perhaps the idealist, or the dreamer, or the honest pragmatist who realizes that people can change things…I just don’t understand why the faculty, who this year have seemed to acknowledge the ridiculous format of this exam, couldn’t have managed to just, well, make it more useful and realistic. Graduate degree programs aren’t regulated by the undergraduate accrediting boards like ABET, and there are many other forms of PhD qualifying exams out there in academia. The particular form that my department is currently using seems completely out of touch with modernity and the skills a modern PhD student in my discipline actually needs. The level to which we were expected to perform required hours upon hours of studying, something that took significant time away from my research, and as such, from my junior faculty member PI’s progress this semester as well (I am the only current graduate student in the lab group). My time could have been much better used while still requiring me to do significant work to show that I am worthy of a PhD if I had been asked to do a literature review, or if I had even been asked to be tested on these different subjects at different times so as to be able to focus and spread out the work more evenly, or even just by simply having the exam have been open book or, gasp, with the use of a laptop and all the internet allowed (because by putting a time limit on it, I still have to show significant amounts of knowledge and skill to be able to solve these problems in a limited amount of time, no matter what tools I have at my disposal).

I am left to conclude that this was a rite of passage, something that the faculty didn’t change because they see it as “the way it is.” Their reluctance to modify the exam format to match with the real tools we’ll have at disposal any other time in our lives when we’ll need to work with these concepts, their poorly guided use of so many of the resources that graduate students are to their research programs…well, I can’t help but feel that this is indicative of a lot of the larger problems I see with academia.

It is too slow to change – egos are too big and tiffs between faculty members lead to poor decisions on the part of what’s best for the students. Younger faculty members who have better ideas about how to interface with the current generation of students and how to move the discipline and the education of the grad students into the future are ignored because they haven’t earned their say yet. And these people are already in their 30’s, full adults who’ve been growing and learning in their discipline for years. Blogs and articles everywhere illuminate the disconnect between the older members of academia and the younger; those who accept and promote the status quo versus those who work to change it.

Well I will not accept the status quo. I don’t know if I will or won’t stay in academia, but wherever I am, I will be an agent for change – I will stand up and point out the value of a compassionate workplace, of listening to ideas that have value no matter who they come from. This may mean I will lose jobs or favor at various places because of my refusal to just fit in and accept things, to just try to blend, oftentimes, to be an “honorary man” in a workplace full of masculinity. But there are enough new options out there, enough new opportunities, enough others entering the workforce who feel the way I do, that I see no reason to settle for less than what will make me happy, and I will work to create a career for myself where I am respected, my ideas are valued, and where I enjoy the majority of aspects of my work.

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3 thoughts on “The quals are over!!!

  1. You might find it interesting to read this article, if you didn’t see it the first time around:
    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science
    “This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”

    The thing is, academia has never really been about preparing for ‘real world’ employment. I’ve always thought of it as more of the apprenticeship or guild model, which is why ‘rites of passage’ exist and why these are subject to internal logic. My views on the usefulness of such rites have become a bit more nuanced with time, but neverless, the fact of the matter is that academia is a club/cult that still works in a very insular way. And when you work as an “agent of change” as you put it, well, you tend to end up not so much on the ‘margins’ as you seem to portray (“losing jobs or favor”), but basically unemployed and permanently ‘out’. There are just too many ‘perfect’ candidates for any job, who are in lockstep with the system, for there to be any necessity for the system to support change. I am not an apologist for the system, on the contrary, I’ve butted against these same issues. But I also see in a practical sense that with any career or system, if you don’t like at least 75% of it or so from the outset, right or wrong, then you are going down the wrong road. Choose a path that you can plug into from the beginning instead of the equivalent (maybe literally) of trying to be a Catholic nun who’s going to reform the Vatican.

  2. As I come from the British system I find the American system of qualifying exams mystifying. Especially as each department seems to have their own way of torturing the students. I still do not see how knowing all the minutiae which can be looked up in a split second proves that you are capable of PhD level work.

    Good luck and I hope you passed.

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