Where has time gone? It’s already October, which means I missed out on September.
Well, I didn’t really miss it. I was busy with a graduate school ritual known as the preliminary examination. Prelims are, without a doubt, the most stressful event for a graduate student. You might think it’s writing the dissertation or even giving your final defense. The truth is, by that time, you know your subject inside and out. Writing takes time, and the stress is making the deadlines, but overall, unless you slept through your graduate student experience, writing up the dissertation isn’t that difficult. The defense, generally structured as a 45-60 minute seminar followed by a couple hours of grilling by the committee, isn’t as stressful because, as I mentioned before, you know your subject inside and out, sometimes better than your own major professor and committee members.
Prelims are another story. The purpose of prelims isn’t really to test what you know, but to test what you don’t know. If you don’t know the basics in your field, then you’re not ready to be a doctorate. The structure of prelims varies from school to school, and even between departments within a school. For example, the BCB (Bioinformatics and Computational Biology) students at the University of Idaho have to write a research proposal, present it as a 45-minute seminar, and then defend it in front of their committee members. This is their prelim. The biology department is a bit more traditional. The proposal process is separate and prior to the exam and is all behind closed doors with the committee. The prelims consist of a written exam in 3 subject areas and an oral exam two weeks later. It’s up to each student/committee whether the written exams are closed or open book, whether they are timed or take-home essays, and so forth. My exams were four hours each, split over three days. Barrie gave me 7-8 questions centered around animal behavior, quantitative genetics, and evolutionary biology, and I was to answer four. I felt that this format took some of the pressure off of me, though you never really know what your committee members expect out of you.
If you’ve taken prelims seriously and studied hard prior to the exams, then the testing itself turns out to be not so stressful. The major source of stress is the anticipation, and the uncertainty of knowing just what is going to be asked of you. As a result of this tension, I over-prepared for much of it, but in the end, that worked out in my favor. One of my committee members is known for being a hard-ass. Or so I thought. It turns out, he really wants students to understand the basics. When you don’t meet that expectation, it seems as though he’s being hard. It turns out his questions were very fair. In fact, a few seemed very simple compared to my expectations. Even in the oral exam, he wasn’t the toughest in the room.
Over-all, my committee was pleased with my written answers, and I think that reflected in the orals. Typically, the oral exam is where your committee really throws curveball questions, looking to see how you respond when asked to answer questions they don’t expect you to be able to answer. And, so I knew this and was prepared to admit lack of knowledge when it was there, while making sure I could answer the relevant questions to my field of study. The oral exam didn’t even last two hours. When I was asked to step out while they deliberated, I was pretty sure I would pass. I wasn’t expecting to come back in hearing some suggestions for research ideas.
So, on September 19, almost two weeks ago, I officially became a Ph.D. candidate. And with some relief from the stress of prelims, I now embark on the stress of writing an NSF DDIG grant proposal, of which I have a week left to finish, assuming the government re-opens and the deadline hasn’t changed.