On Kidney Stones and Qualifying Exams

Alan Marnett (photo courtesy of the subject)

By all accounts, passing a kidney stone is one of the most painful events most people experience. It may involve crying, screaming, or fainting -- not unlike the most feared events in graduate school, including the qualifying exam. Fortunately, in contrast to kidney stones, approaching the exam with the proper mindset, preparation, and time-tested strategies will reduce the pain and ensure you pass it with minimal pain.

A well-written proposal will convince your principal investigator and the committee that there's enough work there to let you graduate while also convincing them that the work is achievable.

Select -- then use -- a good committee.

Most professors have a reputation for how they behave as committee members, so get the scoop from seasoned students. Consider, too, how a faculty member's specialization may affect your performance. A biochemist, for example, likely will ask more biological questions than someone from chemistry. Are you comfortable with that?

Once the committee has been selected, solicit feedback on the proposal a few weeks before the exam. Listen carefully; they're likely to signal what they intend to pick apart during the exam. Update the proposal to address their concerns, then learn that material backward and forward.

Resist the temptation to seek a Nobel Prize.

The prize can come later. For now, the goal is to propose a project with an achievable scope. Of course, if you've waited until late in your fourth year to take the exam and 90% of the work is already done, defining the scope is less of an issue.

A well-written proposal will convince your principal investigator and the committee that there's enough work there to let you graduate while also convincing them that the work is achievable. Develop your aims the same way that someday -- assuming you pass your qualifying exam -- you'll develop specific aims for grant proposals: Devise a short, coherent list of related items that progress from "already done" to "ambitious."

One really useful tactic is to write your proposal with your adviser. By collaborating, you get the benefit of your adviser's expertise and the opportunity to manage expectations.

Now that your exam is scheduled, breathe.

Predict the path of the storm.

Panic is a debilitating state of mind, so it's best avoided. Take as much time away to prepare as your boss will allow. Four weeks off to study was standard in my graduate program. Four weeks out of lab doesn't mean 3 weeks of Judge Judy and 1 week of panic. Hit the library hard and early. Create a routine that becomes habitual.

Resist the urge to read textbooks cover to cover. Instead, work through your proposal. Be sure you know the literature -- Has anyone done this before? -- and the theory: How does this experiment work and what should the data look like? Have a back-up plan: If my first experiment fails, what would I do?

Identify common criticisms and weaknesses in each experimental technique and prepare strong, accurate responses. If a technique has never attracted informed criticism, either because it's new or because it's really good, expect committee members from other fields to challenge its fundamentals. Such challenges can be elementary and even ignorant, but they can also reveal holes in what you know. A poorly informed question can open up a can of worms you'd prefer remained sealed, so be prepared.

Practice makes perfect (or at least good enough).

The most effective way to rehearse for your performance is practice exams. The goal is to have students, postdocs, and friendly faculty members beat you up so that by the time the big day rolls around you've taken all the punches and learned how to defend against them.

Assembling a practice committee is easy: A large pizza and some soft drinks are usually all the bait you'll need. Ask fellow students for practice committee-member recommendations. Aim for four to six people including a couple of tough advanced graduate students or postdocs mixed in. The crowd shouldn't be too friendly.

Once in the room, treat the exam like a real one. Practice exams are intense and are often followed by severe panic and self-doubt (I don't know anything!!), so one exam a week should suffice. And when the day or reckoning arrives ...

Control the conversation.

The more you talk, the fewer questions your committee gets to ask. So, answer questions as succinctly as possible, then segue back to the next topic. When asked, "What is HPLC?" one student answers, "An HPLC is an instrument. Well, we have a couple of them in our lab that people use. It can separate proteins and peptides, kind of like an FPLC, but it works with organic solvents. There are other differences, too." Another answers, "HPLC is high-pressure liquid chromatography, and in Aim 2, we're going to be using HPLC to purify our peptide of interest." One of those students will be answering questions about the differences between FPLC and HPLC. The other will be moving on to Aim 2, one step closer to the end of the exam.

Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." But say it properly.

One of the goals of the committee is to push you to the edge of your knowledge so that they can see how you think when you run out of scripted answers. When you hit that point, saying "I don't know" is not necessarily bad. Which response to the question, "How long is a carbon-carbon bond?" would you rather hear from a student? A) A wrong one. B) "I don't know." or C) "I'm not sure, but an inhibitor I work with is 10 angstroms across, and given the number of bonds in the inhibitor, I'd guess the answer is somewhere between 1 and 2 angstroms." The correct answer is 1.54 angstroms. It's the process you use to think about a problem that they want to see.

If a question is unclear -- or maybe just hard -- repeat, rephrase, and seek clarification. Rephrasing buys time, and in clarifying their intended question, committee members often will divulge additional information that will help you get on track.

Pop the cork.

Passing the exam is a major accomplishment on the road to a Ph.D. and should be celebrated. Years before I took my exam, a student in my graduate lab glued an Erlenmeyer flask to a small pedestal, creating a lab trophy. After passing the exam, the student drank a glass of champagne from the Erlenmeyer and wrote his or her name on the trophy as hockey players do the Stanley Cup. It became a point of pride, and the second thing I did upon walking out of the exam room -- after reaching for the champagne -- was to grab a pen.

Alan Marnett, Ph.D., is an academic turned entrepreneur. He writes about personal and professional development for scientists at BenchFly.

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