The “Scary” PhD Qualifying Exam

For those who are not familiar with the American graduate school PhD curriculum, the PhD Qualifying Exam (also known as “Quals” or “QE”), is the first checkpoint of a typical PhD degree program. The checkpoint is usually implemented at the end of your 1st or 2nd year. The exact timeline varies between programs/universities. Definitely read into a program’s curriculum and how they outline the timeline of a PhD degree when applying or at the very beginning of your grad school career. Though, the specifics of a curriculum should never be a make or break of your decision to attend. The other two critical checkpoints are the Preliminary Exam, where you propose your dissertation to your PhD committee, and the Final Dissertation Defense, where you present and defend all the work/research questions you’ve done/addressed during your entire PhD research career. Many will say that out of all three checkpoints, Quals are the most stressful and intimidating and I most certainly agree with that notion after my experience.

Quals is where you prove to your PhD committee and other faculties of your major department/program that you are a qualified and deserving candidate of a PhD degree. You think getting into grad school is hard… wait until you’re 2 years deep and they ask you what’s up.

My program has a pretty rigorous Quals format based on my somewhat limited sample size of friends that have gone through Quals in your program/university. Anyways, each student is provided with 3 questions/prompts from their respective advisors. Once these are provided, the student has ~3 weeks to write a ~ 10-page essay that addresses all 3 prompts and present on the said essay. The 3 prompts are formatted for the student to survey their relevant research fields in their entirety (1st 2 prompts) and synthesize 3 separate and original research directions from your survey. Obviously, you don’t write about everything you survey but you should be prepared to relate what you wrote/presented on to the “big picture” of your (desired) research endeavors.

I’m super happy to say that I passed my Quals back in June but I seriously don’t know how… I was happy with the essay I wrote but I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I should’ve been for the presentation part of the exam. Honestly, I felt like I was more of an imposter after my committee passed me. Most of those feelings root from knowing that I am the 1st PhD student of the (new) Bioengineering program at OSU and if they failed the 1st student, they would be losing a student. However, the worse case scenario, I would just “master” out so it wouldn’t be all at lost if I failed. Regardless, now is my chance to truly prove myself and really deliver in the next couple of years.

I may have previously framed the Quals experience poorly and scared some ambitious prospective students away… but hear me out, even though it was exponentially nerve-racking, it was beyond rewarding when I finished my literature survey and wrote my essay. This exam helped me to expand on my knowledge base and efficiently focus on what I wanted to do/what research questions I would address (rather I would pass or not). To that end, it was a useful exercise that proved my potential to do the research that can fill a solid dissertation and made me a stronger researcher for synthesizing/addressing interesting questions.

As of now, I am planning to propose my dissertation (Preliminary Exam) at the end of the next calendar year (2019). I’m only two classes away from completing my required coursework for my degree as well. Let’s see how things go!!



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