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 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 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.