On failing the quals … again!

I failed the quals again, on my second try, and now I must leave the program. I learned this on Friday, May 2nd, (it started with an ominous e-mail late Thursday night, leaving me unable to sleep or relax or frankly function well at all until I met with the committee chair on Friday) and was sort of reeling from the information for a while. I originally began this post the weekend after that, but I was busy dealing with the actual life decisions and the immediate need for fun and relaxation, and I forgot to come back to it until now.

I’m still pretty shocked and fairly pissed at the faculty of my department. The other person who had failed the first time and been encouraged to stay and take it again also failed this time around too; I ran into him on my way home from meeting with the committee chair and he was on his way to meet with him. Perhaps I had misinterpreted, but I had thought when they asked me to stay and try again that I just needed to show a good faith effort to do better this time around. After all, I had to stick around for an entire year in order to take the exam again, including a semester after receiving my Master’s degree. And for that year they funded me on a departmental NSF grant. They had invested in me and they had been the only ones to educate me (I stayed at the same school as I did my undergrad). They had accepted me into the graduate program even after my struggles with depression throughout my undergrad years, and they had encouraged me to stay and try again when I failed the first time. I really thought that I’d be fine as long as I studied hard. And I did study hard – but I still failed.

So, you may be wondering, what happened?

Things I don’t know:

  • Whether they deemed my performance better or worse than last time (i.e. what they were looking for). I took a different approach to studying this time around. I started studying before anyone else who took the exam this year, and it was my second time taking it so I had a better idea of what the experience would be like (but apparently no better of an idea of what they were looking for me to do). After I failed the first time, I was left with very little feedback. I asked to see my exam, but it wasn’t allowed. While he offered me some details about which subjects I had performed better and worse on, I had no idea if I had actually gotten things wrong, if they were unhappy with the place(s?) where I had to write “This is what I would do if I had the equation to start,” or if it was just that I hadn’t finished enough of it. This time, I felt more prepared and knew more material going into the exam, but there were still gaps in my knowledge. I felt (and still feel) like it was somewhat of a crapshoot, and all I could do was hope they’d either keep it to the most essential topics or that I’d be lucky enough to have recently reviewed the more obscure topics.
  • Whether I got things wrong on the exam or merely didn’t finish enough of it. This time, I’ve been somewhat unable to think about and exam my exam performance too much. It’s just too painful. So I didn’t ask any questions when I met with the committee chair.
  • What kind of departmental politics are going on and how they may have impacted the faculty’s decision to fail myself and my peer. Earlier this year, the faculty considered getting rid of the qualifying exam. Apparently some of the faculty think that we should still have it, but that it should be extremely strict, with no room for “Well he did better than last time” or “She’s a great researcher.” Those faculty think that in the past they had sometimes been too lenient. They cite departments at other schools (Princeton and MIT) where 1/3rd or more of the class is cut after the quals. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the faculty advocate completely getting rid of the quals. Some of these arguments and views may have been formed after last year, when 11 people took the exam and 3 of us failed. One person was taking it for the second time and passed, but I heard their performance was only marginally better. Of the three of us that failed, 2 of us were encouraged to stay and try again and the third was just told to leave. Later, there were complaints of politics playing a role in who got to stay and who didn’t, and I think this may have led to the viewpoints that it should be stricter. Meanwhile other professors saw that those of us that had failed were excellent researchers and had of course passed (and done fairly well in, I’m sure) the courses on which the exam was based. My understanding is that it is still possible they will get rid of the exam next year, or at least change its format.

Things I know:

  • I struggle with this exam format. I’ve written about this before. It was a closed book exam, 4 hours long. There were 6 questions, giving us about 45 minutes per question. Most of the questions were very detailed, and I just couldn’t work through them fast enough. I left some serious chunks undone because I ran out of time. Also, my subject uses math heavily, and while I’m good at and enjoy math, I’ve never been good at memorizing equations (or memorizing anything). For most of my undergraduate education (at the same institution with many of the same professors who wrote the qualifying exam), exams were open book. That worked for me because I’m very good at using the available tools and information to solve problems, but I don’t see the point in memorizing anything that isn’t used so often that I memorize it without trying. This time around, I had written out about 100 flashcards of equations I thought I needed to memorize to be prepared. While many of the questions on the exam were fairly central to their subject matter, about three of the six were what I’d consider to be detailed specific cases which ended up requiring the use of equations that hadn’t even made it into my flashcard pack. One of the questions began with and required an equation for a special case that I had not memorized, and I was left completely crippled on that question.
  • I succumbed to the pressure during the exam. I had been studying for months, and I knew this was my last chance at the exam, and there was a lot of pressure. As I was working through the exam and finding it challenging, I began to get increasingly flustered to the point where I did shed some tears and I considered handing it in unfinished and walking away. I was distracted by how upset I was and unable to focus on trying to solve the problems in front of me.
  • I’m a great researcher. I’m organized and self-driven. Because I began researching in my advisor’s lab as an undergrad, I’d made significant progress on my projects and we had thought I might be able do the degree in a shorter time than average. As a member of a small lab group, I’d managed as many as 4 projects at once, while most of my peers were only in charge of one. I’d voluntarily taken on managing and mentoring the undergrads in my lab. And I’m first author on a paper with my advisor that was published in the main journal for the subject area last fall. Many of my peers were struggling to come up with a project and to write their thesis proposal, and I already have a draft from a year ago when I used a class project to write it. And my first poster drew compliments not only on the science but on the easy organization of information and appealing visuals.
  • Some of the faculty are sad to see me go. I know this because they’ve either told me directly or they’ve told my advisor.
  • I contributed significantly to the department. I’m the founding president of the department’s graduate student association; in fact I was the ONLY grad student to even respond when the committee chair was looking for students to get a GSA started, and I went and recruited others to work with me. I’ve interacted directly with the graduate committee chair and the department chair, and I’ve often contributed my ideas and insights when they were looking for feedback or evaluation. Also, whenever prospective students visited I gave them tours and made them feel welcome.
  • There are lots of places I can go from here. The graduate committee chair who gave me the news reminded me that I could still apply to other programs and that it wouldn’t go on my record or anything so it will just look like I just left with my MS degree. If I ever want to, I can return to grad school in the future, and I will be better able to choose a department that fits me.
  • I am looking forward to trying out other directions. I wrote about this before the exam in my post on my career path, but I am excited about exploring other research areas (perhaps some women in science research?), popular science writing, teaching and tutoring, or maybe research or project management in industry. I’m also considering working full-time for Husband’s company in the fall, doing a combination of marketing, project management, financial management, and online community building.

Overall, this was a pretty bad experience, but certainly one that I’ve learned from. Some days I am happy and excited about exploring other opportunities. Other days I get a bit down from the shock and emotions of it all. Always, I have my husband, family, and friends supporting me, and for that I am both happy and thankful.

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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.

Quals are almost upon me

They begin at 9 am tomorrow morning.  I am fairly calm, but mostly because Hubby is great and I’ve been clinging to him all afternoon and evening for company, assistance, and distraction.  I just couldn’t look at the material anymore…I’m really, really tired of it.  I feel a lot more prepared than last year, but I am still not sure how I will perform – there are just so many things to know.  I think my study strategy was better than last year – since they failed me when I understood concepts but forgot some equations and could only explain how I would solve it if I had the correct starting equation, this time I put more of an emphasis on memorizing equations.  But this has annoyed me to no end, because I honestly hate it and think it’s a waste of my time.  Nonetheless, time is not infinite and there is only so much information I can hold in my head at once, such that things I reviewed 2 months ago for the exam may already be fading from memory.  Earlier today, however, I decided that at this point I know what I know and that would have to be good enough, and settled for reviewing the (numerous, oh so numerous) equations that I think I should have memorized.  As I see it, the possibility still remains that they could throw a topic at me that I simply didn’t have time to cover, or covered a month ago and since forgot, or that requires an equation that has gotten jumbled in my head amongst all the variables, partial derivatives, tensors, del operations, solution methods, manipulations, and whatnot.  And that possibility isn’t as tiny as it could be.  If this were an open book, or open notes, or even if we were just allowed a one page cheat sheet, I would feel very confident that I am prepared.  But it’s not.  So I will go in tomorrow, I will do what I can, and whatever will be, will be.

In upcoming news, expect a discussion of my intent to re-evaluate my career trajectory and whether or not I really want to stay in graduate school, or if I’d like to pursue other options.  I got my MS this spring, and with that in hand, I recognize that now is the ideal time to evaluate my choice and whether it remains the right choice for me (i.e. if I were to get out, I’d better get out quick before I get sucked in and begin to believe that I am failure if I choose to leave the cult of academia).  Economic factors weigh heavily on my mind, as do chances of achieving what I had originally imagined for myself, and the viability of creating a career path that allows for the voluntary lessening of both work hours and pay during my children’s younger years.  Things I’ve learned since entering graduate school about the nature and culture of academia and about being a women in academia and a women in science have only served to exacerbate my fears that this is not the ideal career I thought it might be.  Other options that are chief on my mind: tutoring, popular science writing and science journalism, public policy, jobs in the atheist movement, and working full-time for my husband’s company (which looks like it well may be a viable option starting within the next few months).

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!