Preparing the Student for the Qualifying Exam

A while ago, a student walked into my office after having failed the written portion of the qualifying exam.

Let me explain what a Ph.D. qualifying exam is.

In most programs, a qualifying exam is a necessary hurdle in moving towards the completion of a PhD. The programs that I have been associated with have a written portion. If the written portion of the hurdle is cleared at a set bar, then the oral portion of the exam begins (at a later date). Remember that it is the committee (usually 3 to 5) that writes and grades these exams.

The committee for the student that I mentioned above had 5 members. The exam is usually over 2 days – in this case nearly 70 hours—yes, that includes eating and sleeping, although I know that most students hardly sleep. This exam tests the PhD research proposal that the student has written, and the CMs test the student on some difficult questions related to the proposal. Everyone knows that this exam is a challenging one. In most programs, a student is considered a PhD candidate ONLY after the student clears this exam. If each CM writes two questions each, then these 10 questions must be answered in 70 hours. It’s a tall order, but these are the guidelines that are put forth by the faculty members in the department. Enter stress!

The first thing that the student must do before the written portion of the exam is to prepare a solid research proposal by carefully outlining the methods and the expected outcomes. You need to read my first book on how to write a proposal. It will put 5% or 10% of the cost of the book in my pocket (I think!). After the student writes this proposal, the committee and the student meet to go over preliminary details, and then the questions are written.

Mistake #1 for the student is looming around the corner. The student doesn’t make contact with the CMs before or after they write the questions.  Mistake #1 for you as the adviser, is also around the corner: You never told the student to consult the CMs.

With these two mistakes, big disasters are about to happen. The student reads the questions but doesn’t have an understanding of the expectations of these questions. If the question is broad in scope, what are the expectations? Does the student know? If the question is a bit vague, then what is the CM really expecting as a response? This now becomes a mystery. Remember that the student has 70 hours, and each question must be passed at a grade or a level set forth by the department. This communication mismatch comes up quite a bit. It is equally frustrating for the student and for the adviser who heads up this committee. Even capable students who are qualified to pass this exam quickly panic when confronted with 10 questions in 70 hours. With the expectation that they cannot talk to anybody regarding these questions over the 70 hours, another serious mistake is about to happen.

Enter Google search. Rather than thinking through the questions carefully based on what they already know, the student begins to search the internet, books, and any other material that they can get a hold of. Then at the very end of the 70 hour mark, there is a huge rush to put all the answers down quickly. At this point, all the student has done is show their skills at searching for material rather than show the thought process behind their answers.

Several issues are at stake here, and in the busy-ness of the day to the day world, a communication breakdown has occurred. As an adviser, your first responsibility is to train and educate the student on the expectation of the questions. It is your responsibility to do the following:

  1. Clearly outline the expectations of the written exam and make sure that the student understands what the CMs expect for answers – the breadth and depth of the exam.
  2. Ask the student to communicate with the CMs regularly, especially before or after they have written the questions (of course before the student takes the written exam).
  3. Go through some specific examples with the student on how they should be answering the questions. This is why you need a white board in your office to sketch these issues down. This is mentoring at its best.

Failing an exam is disappointing to say the least. In the case of this student, I heard the gamut from “How can I expect to answer all these questions in 70 hours?” to ”Are there even answers for these questions?” and more interestingly – “I did not know what was expected of me.” The student was defensive, teary-eyed, upset, and frustrated.

Much of this could have been prevented with some open discussions at the very beginning. I did not feel the need to read the student the riot act and send him out of my office, but I clearly explained that the exam was not a searching exercise but an attempt to figure out what exactly the student knew regarding the subject matter—not what has been written elsewhere but the analytic thinking of the student.

Now the next big ticket item is up next : The oral exam!

The oral exam would have been a disaster for this particularly student, since he was not well-prepared. What does the oral exam entail? Often times the CM (in this case 5 members) will ask the student various questions regarding the research proposal. In most cases, the questions will lead down the path of how well the student can connect the principles learned in the courses to the research proposal in question. This is where you as the adviser can play a major role in preparing the student for this exam.

Note that not all students have the same level of maturity and diligence in planning for an exam of this magnitude. Note that the oral exam is quite intimidating—5 PhD’s (Professors) “grilling” a student on what they know or what they expect the student TO know. Here are some practical guidelines for you as an adviser:

  1. Three to six months before the oral exam, you should spend at least 1 hour every week with your student. In this session, you should ask the student to use the white board in your office and go through these sessions as though they were the actual oral exam. Note that when you first start, students are apprehensive and do not how much to write on the board or what to write, etc. It is your responsibility to methodically train the student.
  2. As each week progresses, the student should steadily gain confidence. You should clearly indicate the top 10 items that the student should master and clearly explain using the white board. These are the essential tools of the qualifying exam. These may be concepts to equations or other paradigms that the student must have completely mastery of. Why is this important? If (most probably when) the student panics or freezes during the actual oral exam, you as an adviser can gently suggest (called throwing a life line) that the student explain one the essential tools that they have mastered (relevant to the question that is being asked) to the CMs. When confidence is built in an oral exam, the student will do well. This type of preparation is key to the student and must not be taken lightly.
  3. It is the advisor’s responsibility to train the student to take research ideas and outline and map out the essential tools.
  4. Clearly set the standard for your student and make sure that she understands the expectations of the CM’s at this level.
  5. With every week, the student should make progress. At the end of the 3 or 6 month period, if the student has not made progress, then they are not ready to take the written OR the oral exam. Never set your student up for failure.
  6. With these principles in mind, make sure that the student reads the appropriate material in preparation for the exam. Most students have a good idea of what to read, but it is up to you to mentor them on how to prepare and what to expect.

Hopefully these tips will help you realize both as a student and an advisor that passing these exams based on a research proposal requires more than an equal partnership between the student and the advisor. I have been asked several times as to how should one specifically prepare. Here are some really GREAT tips.

1. Remember that when all else fails you need the ability to go back to the fundamental concepts – in my discipline – which is Atmospheric Science-  I ask the student to go through/study/memorize(just kidding) the entire book by Wallace and Hobbs (Atmospheric Science, An Introductory Survey) very carefully. This has the building blocks of most Atmospheric Science topics from dynamics to cloud physics, radiative transfer and general circulation. If you get stuck in the oral exam back up, present the fundamentals and work your way from there. if a student can do that well, I will vote for a pass.

2. Know your stuff. If we as CM’s ask you the top 5 research papers in your specific field of interest and you have no idea how to answer the question, you are in trouble. Knowing papers, the key authors and their work in specific detail is part of the preparation process.

3. This exam will very clearly reveal whether you have been reading/studying key journal papers. Remember that this is an exam that is for PhD candidacy. Knowing your material at this level is critical.

4. Take at least 6 solid months to prepare for an exam of this magnitude. Lay out a plan, assemble the key books, notes, the papers and take good notes.

All of this is to really build your own confidence. If you are confident in the exam based on the preparation, it will show and passing this exam should be easy (OK I oversimplified that a bit!)

The student, after all, is a reflection of your mentorship. Empower them to succeed in the qualifying exam.


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