Debbie Knight

The hardest exam a Ph.D. will ever take

In observation on December 3, 2012 at 11:10 am

candidacy exam

You would think that the hardest exam a Ph.D. graduate student in biological sciences would ever take would be to the dissertation defense.

But it’s not.

It’s the candidacy exam (aka the general exam).

This exam probes the depth of the student’s knowledge, pushes the boundaries of that knowledge, and forces the student to create something new out of that knowledge. Something that she has never thought of before. Right there, on the spot, in front of a group of highly intelligent professors.

Today, the graduate student in my lab is taking this exam.

She’s nervous. Understandably so.

Did she study enough? Will she remember it all? Did she study the right stuff?

Lots of second guessing.

She knows that if you took all the final exams  from every biology class she has ever taken, pool it into one huge mother-of-all-exams, that she might approach how challenging this exam is.

The candidacy exam at my university consists of a written as well as an oral portion.

There are a few variations on this exam. At least the written portion.

There’s the “traditional” format where each day you get a set of written questions from one of your committee members. You have the entire day to answer those essay questions. Your brain is the only resource you are allowed, so you can imagine how much information you need to have at your proverbial finger tips. And after you’ve finished for the day, you have another set of questions from another committee members to anticipate. This portion of the exam continues until you have answered questions from every committee member, typically four or five members.

Another style of the written exam is “grant proposal” format. Here the student writes an National Institutes of Health (NIH)-style grant proposal.  Depending on what the student’s committee decides, you could write a grant proposal:

  • that has absolutely nothing to do with the research you are currently doing. This exercise gives the student practical experience in how to write a grant proposal — something that you will need to do in your research career whether you are in an academic, industrial, or governmental position. The drawback here is that you spends a great deal of time reading tons of journal articles on a topic that probably will not help them with your actual research project.
  • that focuses on your research topic but is unrelated to what you are doing in the lab. This style is a little more practical because you are reading journal articles that related in some way to what you are already learning in the lab. This exposes you to things beyond your research project, perhaps helps you see the bigger picture.
  • that focuses directly on your research but goes beyond what you are doing in the lab — perhaps these are future directions for your research. This is the most practical of the written exam formats. Not only are you writing a grant proposal that you could actually submit to the NIH, you are thinking about where your research project is going.

I think this is an “easier” format. It tends to focus the questions during the oral portion of the exam a little. It certainly serves as a jumping off point for the question-answer session.

Her committee chose the latter format.

She wrote her proposal weeks ago. And she has been studying furiously for the oral portion. Scientific journal articles stand in neat stacks on her desk.

Today she will be tested. Today is the oral portion of her exam.

This part is a little like hazing.

And it will go something like this. (This is a composite of what really happens on both sides of the door)

You, the student, will enter the room. Your fear is palpable.

The committee members will ask difficult questions, pushing until you are nearly in tears.

Two or so hours later, you will then be sent you out of the room while they discuss your performance and whether they think you have what it takes to finish your Ph.D. research.

This can take as little as five minutes to decide.

The committee will then sit around and shooting the sh*t for 10 or 15 minutes while you pace the hallway, sweating. On the verge of tears. Dreading the committee’s decision. Second-guessing your answers.

Your labmates will pass by and ask how you thought you did.

You’ll lie.

You’ll say that you did okay. But that’s not what you’re thinking.

What you’re thinking is that you failed miserably because you had to admit several times you just didn’t know the answer.

Those minutes standing in the hall will feel like hours. Maybe even days.

Will they ever come to a decision?

You will hear laughter.

Oh, oh. That’s not good. Is it?

More waiting.

You think about alternative career paths.

You think about moving back home with your parents.

You think about a lot as the minute hand sweeps across the hallway clock face.

Finally, the conference room door pops open.

A hand will wave an invitation to come in.

Unceremoniously, they’ll tell you that you passed.

It’s over.

Huge relief.

And then …

It’ll be a bit of let down because all those months of dread and worry, all those hours of stress, comes down to a simple “you passed.”

While it seems like an end, it’s really just a beginning of a new chapter. No more classes, just research experiments.

You’ll have your share of “woo-hoos!” as well as “what the heck?s”

You’ll look back on your research days with some fondness.

By the time you finish your research project, you will be the expert.

You will know your data inside and out because you lived it. Defending your dissertation, while it sounds daunting, is relatively easy. At least compared to your candidacy exam.


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