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This Is Only a (Giant, Scary, Career-Determining) Test

Photo by Dan Koestler

The head of my oral exam committee, a renowned protein crystallographer, must have noticed that I was nervous. Who wouldn't be? Standing in front of five professors for an hour and a half, chalk in hand, blackboard blank, bowels clenched, preparing to field science questions, has to be one of the most harrowing experiences of a grad student's life. On par, even, with realizing that this month's stipend will only cover rent or beer.

So my committee head decided to help me relax. "I hear you're also taking a playwriting class," he offered. I nodded. "Just to take our minds off science for a minute, how about this: I'll name a famous play, and you tell me who wrote it."

The best way to describe tenure to someone of my generation is to say it's like what happens when Mario picks up the flashing star, only it never wears off, even if you fall in a pit.

"Sure!" I said. This sounded like a fun break.

He proceeded to name 10 of the world's best-known plays, plays whose authors every ninth-grader can identify, pausing after each one, hoping that this series of softballs would help me calm down. It probably would have -- but I was so anxious that I couldn't think of any playwrights' names. They kept mixing with the scientific principles I'd drilled into my head for the previous month in preparation for the exam.

"How about Our Town?" the crystallographer asked with a friendly smile.

"Uh," I said, then looked at my shoes for a full minute, thinking about how I was failing the part of the exam only designed to ease me into the rest of the exam. It felt like failing recess. "Michaelis Menten?"

* * *

The testing of scientists comes in many guises. We devise experiments, conduct them, and then pray the results will lead to funding. I mean, knowledge. But throughout the scientific training process -- and even after -- we ourselves are the test subjects.

Here are some of the tests budding scientists face while they're, uh, budding -- and tips to help pass them:

The all-important first test

The first test of any scientist's life occurs when he or she reaches the end of the bottle of Flintstones multivitamins and finds the little packet of desiccant labeled "DO NOT EAT." The child who discards the packet has no innate curiosity and will probably go on to design financial instruments. The child filled with wonder, who questions the mysterious inner workings of the universe, will swallow that packet, taking the first step on the road to a career in science. Assuming he or she survives.

Tips for Passing the Test:

- Pass the packet.

College science exams

Sadly, only a handful of students take college seriously. Even more sadly, they all seem to be science majors competing with you for grades. For this reason, college science exams are just like college exams in any subject except you can't just make up something about Chaucer and structuralized fundamentalism and hope for partial credit.

Tips for Passing the Test:

- Make sure you get a good night's sleep both before and during the exam.

- Bring a granola bar. Crinkle the wrapper loudly when you open it. This shows the other students how serious you are.

- Never, ever cheat by copying from a student who isn't a nerd.

- If you have time left, check your work. Alternatively, turn in your exam early, thus freaking out your classmates.

OMG, the GRE

The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, or Holy Crap Are You Sure You Want to Go to Grad School, is basically a juiced-up SAT that grad schools assure you they don't value but require anyway. Thanks to computers, the GRE is now an "adaptive" exam, meaning that one's score on a given section is determined solely by the first three questions in that section, and the remaining 27 questions are just for fun.

Like the SAT, the GRE is scored using the most intuitive system possible: Two sections have scores ranging from 200 to 800, and the third is scored in half-unit increments between 0.5 and 6. These numbers make a lot more sense than, say, a simple percentage, because announcing that you've scored a 460-570-3.5 already makes you sound smart enough to go to grad school.

Tips for Passing the Test:

- If you're having trouble with a question, don't panic! Skip it and return to it later.

- Oh, wait. You're not allowed to do that? Seriously? The computer won't let you?

- Panic!

Graduate oral exams

Professors are sadists, and nowhere is this university-defined policy clearer than on qualifying oral exams. They'll start simply, with requests like, "Draw a line," making you think that the rest of the exam will go like this:

1. Draw a line.

2. Speak your first name.

3. Pass me that pencil.

4. You're done! You get a pumpkin sticker!

Instead, it's probably a precursor to something like this:

1. Draw a line.

2. Pretend the line is one hydrogen bond in a human being.

3. At this level of detail, draw the rest of the human being. You have 6 minutes.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

Tips for Passing the Test:

- Compliment your committee members on their astute questions.

- Bring your committee members coffee.

- Massage your committee members' aching shoulders. Ooh, that feels good, doesn't it?

- Oh, yeah, that's nice.

- And so on.

Tenure review

Congratulations! You've survived decades of evaluation, testing, and metrics, but before we can guarantee your spot in academia for life, there's just one teensy little thing: tenure review.

The best way to describe tenure to someone of my generation is to say it's like what happens when Mario picks up the flashing star, only it never wears off, even if you fall in a pit.

The decision to skyrocket you from "assistant professor" to "professor for life" is based on several criteria:

1. Reference letters. You'll need a total of 10 reference letters, including two from colleagues who like you but resent your tenure bid, one from the department head who has a disincentive to let you step on his or her turf, one from your graduate adviser whom you haven't seen in 10 years, one from a "superstar" in your field that will be ghostwritten by a secretary, two from foreign collaborators from countries where praise is considered weak, and three from students you've slept with.

2. Your publication record. The tenure review committee will thoroughly examine every article and book you've published and pretend they understand what you've written. Then they'll ask each other questions such as, "Which is better, three articles in second-tier publications plus a book or two articles in high-impact publications and some conference proceedings?" They'll debate the answer as if they're second-century Talmudic rabbis, concluding that you may or may not deserve tenure, but it's getting close to lunchtime, so they'll have to finish this later.

3. Student evaluations. You've spent hours preparing insightful and pedagogically relevant lectures. As your reward, you'll have your fate decided by 19-year-old nimrods who have ignored your lectures while playing Angry Birds on their laptops. "I didn't really learn anything in this class," the students will write, "but I figured out how to get the triangle bird up to the golden egg in level 14-4."

4. A current curriculum vitae. Ideally, your CV should include a list of conferences where you've forced grad students to speak, seminars at which you've forced grad students to present posters, classes for which you've forced grad students to grade papers, and graduate students whom you've "mentored."

5. Committee work. Your department wants to see that you're dedicated, proud, and delusional enough about the concept of time that you think you can afford to sit through committee meetings.

6. A cursory search of Facebook. Now is the time to untag that photo of yourself doing a keg stand on your laboratory bench with the dean's wife.

7. Jealous gossip.

Tips for Passing the Test:

- Neglect your family.

- Work 200-hour weeks. No. Three hundred.

- Maintain a tight, laserlike focus on FREAKING EVERYTHING.

- Get back to work. Now.

* * *

So you've passed your exams, earned tenure, and only missed out on unimportant things like, you know, your 20s and 30s. No more tests!

That would be nice. But everywhere you turn, scientists are tested. Your grant applications test the feasibility of your research; peer review tests the soundness of your scientific arguments; undergraduates test your patience. Even once you achieve stardom, your reward is constant cross-examination by media outlets (that ask hard-hitting questions such as whether it's a conflict of interest that you study mammals yet are one).

Really, examination isn't a bad thing. (Unless it's the kind that begins with a smiling physician and a tube of clear gel.) It's not the tests per se we hate, it's failing them.

But failing tests is human. Bombing an orgo exam, clamming up during your comps/quals/orals, getting passed over for tenure -- these are all things that can, and do, happen to even the most prepared scientist. So if you fail an important test at any point in your career, take a deep breath and move on to the next challenge. Don't dwell on what you did wrong.

Oh, son of a bitch. It was Thornton Wilder.