Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Survival of the Fittest - My PhD Exam Experience

There was several things that were said to me about the PhD Qualification Exam before, during, and after I took it. These mostly pertain to geology PhD's but may relate to other disciplines. I have heard other stories from other disciplines and other departments though and know that geology is relatively consistent with this.

1. Nobody ever feels like they are doing well.
2. It is meant to push you until you break.
3. They want to see how much you know, not what you don't know.
4. Hahahaha, good luck.
5. "We'll see if you know about this."

My entire experience started last semester. During the semester I was taking 2 classes as well as TAing a lab and trying to get my research off the ground. My PhD committee is made up of 5 people, 4 of which were in my department and one was my math professor from a previous class I had taken. I arranged to have a meeting at the end of the semester where everyone could attend and critique what I had been working on/plan to work on. Well they commented, critiqued, and ripped apart parts of it (I hate those meetings). And it ended with one of my committee members having to leave early. This is the same member who had problems with me wanting to use cladistics in behavioral evolution (I think his problem was more the general use of cladistics and its validity and not my particular use of it). During this meeting before this member left we were discussing when to host my PhD exam and what each exam should be on. They all agreed that early March was a good idea and I should get a date set as soon as possible so that people could work around me and not the other way around. Ok, sounds good. The topics for the exams were up to each committee member as well as myself and the committee as a whole to verify. I will go into the general topics that were finally worked out a bit later, but generalized topics were figured out during the meeting.

Well the next day I find out that the committee member that left early wants out. Crap. It turns out he has too much on his plate and he wants to shed as much of it as possible. I don't really buy that, but whatever, the point is moot. He said he would stay on if he was needed but I'm not going to make anyone stay on my committee if they don't want to. So now I'm off to find a new committee member as soon as possible because I need to get things going on his exam. Well I'm not sure who exactly to ask and eventually it comes around to a former student of my advisor who is a professor at a nearby college. Sounds great. I email him over winter break and wait to hear. And wait. And wait. Well it turns out he was away for the break and just got back to me as the semester started. But he can do it. This is good.

So now I can start to set up times. The most important one was the Oral Exam. This was the only one where I needed all of my committee members present at the same time in the same place.. So I focused all of my attention on this first. Spring break was the last full week of March (21st-25th), so we couldn't do it that week. And I wanted it done before my birthday (19th) so it had to be earlier. Well at least one of the committee members wanted to have the option to go into the field the week before Spring Break, or at least the second half of the week, so that was out. I wanted it within the first 2 weeks anyway. To be able to fit in all of my written exams (1 from each committee member, so 5 in total) it would need to be towards the end of the first 2 weeks, especially since one member was going to be gone the entire month of February. So now we are looking at the end of the second week of March (Thursday or Friday). One member needs to drive in from out of state (the new committee member) and would prefer it to be on Friday. So far so good, this works for most people. Until the committee member that will be away for February waits to see when she is giving a presentation for a conference around that time. Towards the end of January they finally get back to her and her presentation at the conference, which is in Houston (I think), is the day before we were planning my exam. Crap again. So we push it to Monday. Everyone is happy now. We have a time set as well. 3:15, since one person or another is busy in the morning until that time.

It is now the end of January. I have not studied a thing for these exams. I really don't even know for certain what will be on the exams. Things don't seem to be going well. My stress level is consistently rising everyday. Now I don't mean to spend time bitching about the setup of the time slots but this is to emphasize the degree of stress this whole process places on the student. So I confer with the committee what exactly will be on the exam. Luckily things seemed to have been narrowed down a bit from the previous meeting so I will list them in random order. Instead of listing the names on my committee (for my own personal protection) I will just give them random letters.
  • Advisor - Ichnology
  • Committee Member F - Sedimentary Processes (yea because that couldn't be any more vague)
  • Committee Member A - Paleoecology
  • Committee Member I - Macroevolution
  • Committee Member L - Data Analysis
The next step was to schedule my other exams. All the exams were to be no longer than 3 hours and each ended up being 3 hours. Unfortunately, my daughter needed to have surgery on her eyes at the beginning of February and might have needed surgery later in the month (she ended up not needing it) so I wanted to spread out my exams so I could take care of her. This ended up in me having one exam a week for 4 weeks with the first 3 on Fridays and the last 2 the last week on Monday and Thursday. Since I have finally set up the topics I started to have meetings to figure out what would be on the exams. F was going to be gone for February so I met with her first. She basically stated to be sure to look over a sedimentology text book. That is pretty much all of the information she gave me. I received other information from other students that she likes to ask questions regarding recent discoveries in sedimentology and how would you convey scientific ideas to the nonscientific community, like evolution. Alright, read sedimentology textbook and look up recent articles online. Check. This exam was scheduled for the first Friday in March since that would be one of the only times F would actually be in the state.

The first exam I took I was fairly confident on since it was my advisors exam and was on Ichnology, which I just finished. He didn't really give me any tips to take the exam since I just finished the class but I gathered from previous conversations that he wanted me to know major names in ichnology. That is where Tony Martin's History of Ichnology site really came in handy. I made flash cards of all the people mentioned and what was their primary contribution to ichnology. Other than that I just made sure I was familiar with terms like "ichnofacies", "ichnocoenosis", and "ichnofabric".

Then came the date of my first exam. I don't want to give the exact questions, even though my advisor didn't prevent me from doing it, just for my own security's sake. The topics though I will go over and give a generalized impression of the questions. 1. Give 3 ichnologists who revolutionized the field. Awesome, this is what I studied and I felt I nailed it. I used Seilacher as the quinticentral ichnologist, then Edward Hitchcock as one of the first ichnologists, and Alfred Nathorst as the ichnologist who transformed thinking about traces as algal growths into really being depositional features created by organisms. The next questions was about using ichnology in the search for precious metals, a kind of the out of left field question but I think I did pretty well. The third question was about how can burrowing organisms alter the composition, texture, and consistency of the sediment in which they are burrowing. And the final question was on ichnotaxonomy and what I thought about it. Overall, pretty much what I was expecting.

The second exam I was hoping to take was the macroevolution exam since I just had a class on that as well but it needed to be scheduled last due to conflicts. The next one I ended up taking was on Paleoecology and I was told to read up on concepts by Bambach and Vermeij, there may have been others but I have forgotten the email exactly. So I downloaded a bunch of papers, looked over my old Paleobiology notes, and got a few books from the library and was "ready" for the next exam. Well that one sucked. Basically it had a couple of questions that focused on my PhD research on graphoglyptid burrows, and since I haven't had much time to go into them I wasn't all that positive on my answers but I think I worked them out. Then there was a question on Bambach's and Bromley's guilds. I had never heard this term before so I had no clue what to do for that. I kind of guessed but I completely missed the mark. This was subsequently brought back up at the oral exam. Then a question on Vermeij' theory of escalation, which I skimmed through previously but was able to piece the information together well enough I think for a descent answer. The main topic brought back up in the oral exam was the guild concept since I missed it.

The third exam was on Sedimentary Processes and I was told I wasn't allowed to discuss it at all, so all I will say for this is that some of the questions were on what people told me may be on the exam and nothing I studied by reading that text book helped at all. There was one topic that kept coming back up from this exam because I misread the question as petrology when it actually stated petrography, quite a significant difference. Afterwards another student asked me if I took F's exam. I said yes and she asked me, "Well what is it?" "What is what?" "The thing she had you look at." "Oh, that must be for the oral exam." It turned out that one of the items purchased for a school auction was going to be on my oral exam. Oh boy, can't wait.

The fourth exam was the next one and the most different. Basically it was the Data Analysis exam given to me by my math professor, L, who was unaccustomed to the way PhD exams work in the geology department so when we went over what the specific topics would be we laid out all four questions, 1 on statistical methods, 1 on chaos theory, 1 on fractals, and 1 on data fitting. And although it seemed like it might be easy because it was also open book, I opted to have a closed book and closed Internet on all my other ones, the day for the exam came and these are the actual questions:
1. Fractal dimensions.
2. Bifurcations and chaotic attractors in nonlinear dynamical systems.
3. Method of least squares for data fitting.
4. Statistical hypothesis testing.
What?!?!? So I ended up writing as much as I could in the 3 hours and turned it in. I asked what to study before the exam and she stated that I had open book and open Internet and 3 hours, I shouldn't have any problems but to look over the Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos textbook and some statistical methods. I ended up doing fine with only one question on fractals coming back.

The fifth and final exam was on Macroevolution with not much to study on since I just took the class, I ended up just looking over the principle concepts and theory's. And this was the only exam I wasn't allowed to type up, so I had to hand write it. By the end of the exam my hand was definitely cramping. At least this is the only exam that had only 3 questions instead of 4 as well. I don't have the questions since the answers were written on the question sheets and I don't remember them exactly but I do recall that they had a large part to do with my research on graphoglyptids again as well as some straight forward questions that I was expecting on basic macroevolutionary theory.

That last exam was on a Thursday and the Oral Exam was on the following Monday. Between these two I also had to lead/participate in the Paleobiology class's field trip that I was TAing for Saturday and Sunday. Up until Friday no one told me I had to look over anything so I felt pretty good and I was told that the Oral Exam is more about finding out what you already know so there is no point in studying. But about an hour before I had to go and get ready for the field trip, F told me I messed up one of the questions and it was going to come back up on the oral. Fantastic. So I basically have 2 free hours before my exam, due to the field trip taking up all the other time, to look this stuff up. Anyway, this was on top of F asking to change the time or date of the Oral Exam because a prospective professor was going to be giving a lecture at the time of my Oral Exam and she wanted to move it either earlier or to Friday instead. This had me livid because the reason it was on Monday was due to her demands but basically I just stated that it was impossible and she could come late if she wanted to. She ended up just skipping the lecture.

So the day of the oral exam arrives. I am freaking out the entire day but I somehow make it through. They start off asking questions around the table and my advisor gives them all 15 minutes to ask me questions. L was first with just a clarification on how to analyze for fractal dimensions. I did fairly well but forgot how to use the box dimension method. Then came A with the Paleoecology questions and he starts trying to lead me to the answer without actually giving it to me but my mind basically went blank. I couldn't think of the word that he wanted but I believe it was trophic. Mostly the questions regarded around guilds, which I looked up since the exam but still wasn't entirely sure positive about them. The next set of questions by I again focused on my thesis topic (behavioral evolution of graphoglyptids) and how that could be influenced by the properties of the oceans during extinction events, primarily anoxia. Which is really interesting and things I haven't really thought of before but I should be able to incorporate relatively easily. He also placed a list of 3 names on the board (Massalongo, Ehrenberg, and my advisor) and asked me what significant thing did they do for ichnology. For the life of me I had no idea who the first 2 were (it turns out they named Zoophycus and Ophiomorpha respectively) but I gave a little information about my advisor and we moved on (he didn't expect me to know the two other names). He also asked me about transitional evolutionary forms, which I gave a short answer referencing the Futurama episode but I didn't realize they wanted more. Then came F's turn who then went over the question I misunderstood and basically I still bombed it. But she also pulled out this bizarre rock sample (pictured left above) and said "Now, pretend I am a new student who doesn't know much and tell me about this rock." Well I went off telling how it is likely brachiopods since bivalves typically come undone when they die and these are clearly shown still together. I amend that now and state they are likely bivalves due to the shape of the shell, but whatever. Then you can also see what way is up based on the sediment filling the shells. She then asks "And what are those structures called?" and I responded with "Geopetal structures, but I didn't want to throw terminology at her since she was a new student." Then it came down to my advisor who basically gave me a rock (pictured left below) with a graphoglyptid (Spirorhaphe) on it and asked what it was and how did it form? Well I wasn't terribly sure how they formed before and this didn't help me to understand because basically I had it backwards. I said they were worm fecal tubes left over from feeding, when it turns out they were hollow tubes filled in by turbidites. Damn. He also asked me to put 4 names on the board (Ida, Sue, Tiktaalik, and Lucy), tell them what they were, and put them in chronological order. Well I didn't know who Ida was (turns out I mentioned it earlier, I just didn't know it was the nickname of Darwinius) and I had never heard of Tiktaalik. Things did not seem to be going well.

So after all is said and done they ask me to leave, talked about me for ~15 minutes, then I was asked to come back in. In essence, I passed but with stipulations. They said they couldn't see my use of the scientific method and my deductive reasoning skills. So I needed to write a paper about the graphoglyptid explaining what it was and how it formed using the scientific method. I also need to rewrite by PhD proposal in a more hypothesis testing method. They also went over all the things I got wrong and what I should look up afterwards.

Even though I "passed" I felt like I didn't. I thought, as well as many other people who told me I would do awesome, that this would be done and I would be passed without a problem. I wasn't expecting stipulations. I felt like a failure even though I wasn't. The next day was horrible. I felt I did nothing right for the whole thing. I then got a couple of emails as follow ups from my advisor. The one just stated the stipulations, the other went over optional things that my committee felt like needed to be gone over (transitional fossils, guilds, Tiktaalik and Ida, fractal box method, and petrography). This made me feel even worse. I then ended up talking with my advisor and he made feel a little better but things still sucked. He mentioned how after the exam he was talking with one of my committee members and they agreeded that perhaps this is too stressful on the student because I, as well as those before me, missed questions we should have known all due to nerves and the stress of the situation. This doesn't help me at all, but it did make me feel a little better.

I'm still pissed about it, but whatever. I ended up doing the paper on the graphoglyptid in April since it was due before school let out. And during the beginning of the summer I went through all of the optional things and sent out emails about those. I only have the PhD proposal rewrite to do, which is due at the end of June. I also saw that stupid ball as the school auction so I ended up purchasing it. It now sits proudly on my desk, mocking me.


  1. Oh, graphic detail! Bits of it sound much like my own qualifying exam experience - I also passed with edits (including one committee member who insisted that I put in a traditional hypothesis rather than a goals statement). My department doesn't do the comprehensive exam thing (although I did that for an undergrad honors thesis), so I know how draining it can be. (My grad department actually makes you write two proposals - PhD and MS-level - to prove that you can think independently.) By the end of my qualifying exam I was a nervous wreck and pretty much blanked on the last few questions.

    I think the important thing to remember is that, if you had really been a failure, you would have been discouraged from ever getting to the point of taking quals - and your proposal isn't the be-all and end-all of your research. (Mine has certainly changed since I took quals!)

    Something I find amusing in hindsight: When I was in the questions part of my first proposal, I was asked to draw a few diagrams on the markerboard - and instead of erasing them with an eraser, I used my hand. And promptly got black marker residue everywhere.

  2. Congratulations on getting through it, by the way!

  3. Thanks! I thought maybe too much graphic detail (hopefully I won't get in trouble) but I figured I would write it all out for myself as much as others. I have noticed my project has changed pretty much everytime I rewrite the proposal, which has happened about 3 times now.

    And nice eraser story, that made me laugh.

  4. Your story is fairly typical, all part of runnin' the gauntlet. If it were easy then everyone would do it! Congrats and good luck w/ the next steps.

  5. I wasn't sure how typical it was. I have talked with people in PhD programs in other fields and it seems they can be completely different but most of the people I know in the geosciences it has been fairly consistent.

    I also wanted to get this out there so people can be aware of what they would have to go through. I haven't seen much online about what to expect from the exam, just what I heard from those before me. I left out a lot of the little details due to personal reasons (I didn't want to get in trouble for one reason or another) but figured I got enough of the gist across for those interested.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience. I love the fact you bought the rock at the auction! :) And you should be very proud of yourself and not let a rough exam deminish all you have accomplished.

  7. Thanks Andy, I hate that rock but I felt like the only one who should have it. :-)


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