Written Qualifying Exams

The following resource is running tool for cohorts to leverage when preparing for their written qualifying exam, which takes place during their fourth semester. All responses are anonymized and answers may have been edited for length or clarity.

General Questions

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What was some of the most useful advice you got before taking your quals?
Were they as terrible as you expected?
  • Definitely not. The questions weren’t easy but 100% fair.
  • Not at all. They were fair and – honestly – sometimes they were such simple questions that it was hard to sound intelligent and really flesh out a complex idea, let alone write for an adequate

Getting Materials

The process of working with your committee to obtain materials can be a hurdle in of itself. Each professor will give different styles of material, and it even may vary between EEO and CMHD tracks.

How much time should you give between meeting with your committee members and getting papers to you?
  • Some committee members only took ~2 weeks, others took a couple months (don’t be afraid to remind them)
  • I met with my committee in December as a group. I didn’t meet with them between then and soliciting them for papers, unless they wanted to meet. They had a deadline to get papers to me, so I wasn’t worried about getting materials.
Do all committee members have to give you reading material or can they just give you topics?
  • They all gave papers, not sure if that is a “hard” rule
  • All but one gave two primary articles and one review; one gave less than that (which I wouldn’t recommend)
What do you do if member(s) of your committee do not give you all materials by the due date?
  • If they don’t respond to emails, I’d just go straight to their office
  • Email, go to their office, get on your advisor to bug them. It may also help to provide them with some options, if finding the time to look up material is what is keeping them from doing their job.

Doing the prep work

Now that you have your materials from your committee, how do you tackle getting all of them into your brain? The following questions discuss techniques for studying and handling the materials, to working with your committee, to managing stress.

When you received all your materials, how did you begin your study plan? How far in advance did you begin?
  • I’d start as soon as you get your papers, try to make an outline of when you want what papers done. At least glance over every paper from the start in case you have any questions for your committee members
  • I was awful about starting to study, since I got all my papers months in advance. I skimmed them all over break but didn’t really start in earnest until a month out.
What were your study techniques? What worked; what didn’t?
  • Good stuff: making detailed notes, summarizing, color coding everything, writing “mock” essays Bad stuff: getting caught up in really small details. If you’re reading a cited paper from a paper that was cited in your original paper YOU ARE IN A WORMHOLE, I would take a break and reset. I was using a technique called “Pomodoro”. It is designed to increase your productivity by implementing scheduled breaks. All you need is a timer (https://tomato-timer.com/ . It worked for me, so I would give it a shot!
  • I would read and annotate, and then focus on the figures, since, to me, those helped tell the story the best and solidified ideas best. I wrote up mock questions and would bullet out ideas, but never wrote anything out in full. I had a Power Point with all the figures and I wrote up my own notes for each of them, then studied off that. The front page had the big idea of the paper and then I’d talk about how the figures fit together and what points they made and how the informed the next figure. I put everything in a notebook to keep it all together, and that was helpful since I would end up looking through everything when I looked for something specific, which was a good subliminal reminder.
How much time did you devote to studying?
  • It depended on the week/ how busy I was in lab. I tried to study in my downtime in lab (like if I had a gel running) but mostly studied at home every night
  • I pretty much exclusively studied at home or at coffee shops at nights and on the weekends. I took off the week before the exam just to study and not worry too much about lab stuff (minus coming in just to do essential maintenance).
How often did you meet with your committee before your exam (excluding the first meeting)? How did you approach those meetings?
  • Probably just one additional time. I didn’t find it that helpful to be honest. I didn’t have any questions, I just wanted some hints about what kind of questions they were gonna ask, but couldn’t get much out of them.
  • I mostly emailed, rather than meeting. I asked for types of questions, but they weren’t super helpful or directional in their responses.
Throughout the studying process, how did you practice self care / not spiral into despair? What worked best for you?
  • Hmm, I’m not the best person to answer this. I ate a lot of Taco Bell and drank a lot of boxed wine so I would suggest maybe NOT doing that? I also got really fat.
  • I relied a lot on my support system, which was a major privilege. I tried to eat well, and I set limits on the blocks of time I’d let myself study at a time (like 3 or 4 hours max without a major break). I also took a lot of walks, since the weather was nice.
In the week/days leading up to the exam, how did you cope with the mounting stress? What helped you stay productive and focused?
  • Again, probably not the person you should ask.
  • Set strict bedtimes and make going to sleep really intentional. I had to study in my room, so I made sure to put all my materials away and started burning my favorite candle about an hour before I had to stop studying. I also rotated my study spot, different spots in the morning vs the afternoon and between days so that no place was associated with negative energy.

In the Thick of It: During the Exam

You’ve prepped and pushed as much knowledge into your brain as it could handle. Exam day is here. Now what? What happens for those 16 hours?

What were some (general) types of questions you were asked? How much were they related to the material given to you by your committee?
  • I think, because it’s so new, there are not a lot of set guidelines as to how the questions should be developed. So, it totally depends on the committee member. Some people asked me really specific questions relating back to the papers (like certain figures, methods, etc) but others asked me about general concepts about my research.
  • The questions were really fair and didn’t deviate from the material given, with the exception of my advisor who could justifiably pull in some other major concepts that I would have reasonable knowledge of. There were some “design an experiment,” compare and contrast, definition (almost like a textbook), explain how concepts linked together, etc.
Do we get to choose the order of the questions?
  • I didn’t get an option.
  • I was given the opportunity to choose the order of the committee members, but not the questions. They’re given to you in two sets of two, and you pick one from each set.
How long were your responses on average (both length and time to complete)?
  • From 1-3 pages, I used PowerPoint to create some figures, which I found helpful. I didn’t use the whole time for any of my questions.
  • Average one page from my accessory committee members (the ones less related to my research), and two pages from my major committee members (more related to my research). I wrote for about an hour on average. When I struggled to write or add more, I created figures. I only ever went to time once – and it was on the very first question!
What is a too short/specific or too long/specific length for an answer?
  • I would probably say half of a page (single-spaced) is pushing the limit for “too short”. I don’t think you should worry about the answers being too long, so long as you don’t run out of time.
  • Too long looks like rambling. If you’re just writing to write, and end up putting out 4 pages or more, odds are you’re not answering the question well. From many years of AP classes, the mantra “answer the prompt” is engrained in my head. Going super off topic likely looks just as bad as not being able to answer the question. For too short, I ended up writing half pages and getting stuck, but with some brainstorming, I was able to hit the page mark, and sometimes go well past it. I’d say you just want to be sure you’ve answered the question as thoroughly and completely as you can, while still staying on track and creating a linear train of thought/logic.
What happens if I can't think of enough to write for the full 2 hours?
  • You can just leave the room early and have a snack and stare at a wall.
  • The time is yours. I’d say try to stay for at least an hour, but sometimes you just can’t write any more and it’s best to get out and clear your head. If it’s between question sets, you know that the next questions will be from the same committee member, so you can review the materials. Between sessions there is an hour break and I really encourage leaving the building. If you don’t live close enough to go home, try to go to a coffee shop or a nearby friend’s place. Let your brain detach for most of that time.
How do you approach formulating your answers? (Outlines – rough draft – or just write?)
  • I think I made an outline for most of my questions on some scrap paper, then began writing.
  • For the most part, I just started writing. I’d do a word cloud or bullet list when I struggled to write more or if I felt that my first draft wasn’t going well. Each time I tried making an outline before starting, I would just end up writing, so I never really used outlines. I’d be sure to reread my answers two or three times before submitting, though. And sometimes that’s when a lot of rewriting or editing would take place, either because I had more or new ideas, or because I didn’t like how I worded something.

Eye of the Storm: Between Exam Days

Exams are split into four sections, two each day. The following addresses what to do between that second and third session.

What is your advice for best utilizing the time between the first and second days of testing?
  • I think, because it’s so new, there are not a lot of set guidelines as to how the questions should be developed. So, it totally depends on the committee member. Some people asked me really specific questions relating back to the papers (like certain figures, methods, etc) but others asked me about general concepts about my research.
  • The questions were really fair and didn’t deviate from the material given, with the exception of my advisor who could justifiably pull in some other major concepts that I would have reasonable knowledge of. There were some “design an experiment,” compare and contrast, definition (almost like a textbook), explain how concepts linked together, etc.

It’s All Okay in the End

You did it — CONGRATS! You worked hard for weeks and now it’s over. You’re likely to have a lot of feelings. Here’s some tips that hopefully help those feelings be good ones.

How does grading work?

Q: The exam is pass/fail. Is this based on individual scores for each committee member or average of all scores? That is, does each question need to score >70% for or does the average from all questions need to be >70%?

  • Umm I probably should know this but I actually have no idea.
  • I believe 3 of 4 scores have to hit above 70%. Check with the GPD to be sure, though.
Is grading based more on content, or is grammar and presentation of a well-crafted essay factored in as well?
  • I never saw my scores and only got verbal feedback from one of my committee members. But if I had to guess, I doubt they put much focus on grammar.
  • I saw my scores from all 4 committee members, but only two had written feedback. They commented mostly on clarity of thought and correctness of explanations. Nobody said a word about grammar.

Final Thoughts

If you have been regularly reading literature in your field, and you take the time to dissect your papers, you should be 100% confident going into the test. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget the name of some reagent or if you said they left the experiment going for 2 weeks instead of 3. Your committee just wants to see you demonstrate your critical thinking skills and background knowledge in your area of research. As long as you do that, don’t sweat the small mistakes.

If I could go back and do it differently, the only thing I’d change is staring sooner. It’s unlikely you’ll be judged harshly for making a mistake – even a conceptual one – as long as you have good logic and rationale. Think about how your answers make you come across as a scientist and what qualities you want to convey: intellect, clear organization, synthesis of ideas, etc. Focus on a couple themes and use those to guide your writing, rather than trying to make everything perfect.