Qualifying exam: the journey into candidacy

This past week, I took my qualifying exam.

science qualifying exam desk
Where the magic happened! I learned, wrote, and read so many papers on my 2009 MB Pro (these things are built to last, let me tell you), always accompanied with a cup of coffee, and a planner to remind me of the official countdown.
What is a qualifying exam?

The first year of graduate school, you spend a majority of the time taking required coursework within your discipline (tons of neuroscience-related classes for me, for example), and rotating between labs to see which is the best fit. The second year of graduate school, you typically commit to 1 lab, and start your project. A qualifying exam usually happens at the end of your 2nd year in graduate school. For my program, we make a 30-minute presentation on our project, and write a 13-page proposal on what we plan to do. For about 2-3 hours, a committee of 5 PIs questions what you know/do not know about general neuroscience as it relates to your project. They will also ask you detailed questions related to the bigger picture of your project.

How did I feel in the days leading up to the exam?

In the days/weeks leading up to the qualifying exam, I was terrified. I was worried that I didn’t know enough, that I didn’t have a grasp on my project, and that I was lacking in my training. I was partially ready to fail the exam, and to accept that I just wasn’t cut out for a PhD. And then I got into the room, and started presenting my proposal… & it felt more like a conversation than an examination. I had been told by others that this exam would be incredibly difficult, that it would really test my baseline knowledge, that I would be judged on whether or not I was competent enough to carry out a PhD, and that I would be evaluated on whether or not I was smart enough to do the project.

Honestly, I see this happen a lot in STEM. People will remind you that others are evaluating how smart (or dumb) you are, whether you are competent (or stupid), and whether you have it (or are unworthy). They’ll talk about other students who failed out of the program, who were asked to leave, who stayed but obviously were barely making it (How is it obvious? I have no idea). All of the negativity really got to my head, and I felt like I had no trusted mentor to turn to when I wanted to know if I, in fact, was ready for this exam.

Mentorship matters.

My experience with this exam really showed me that mentorship matters. You absolutely need to have someone in your corner cheering you on, giving you the real nitty gritty details of what to expect, and to realistically and genuinely evaluate your progress. In my case, there was a ton of information that I knew about my project, but my understanding wasn’t as clear as it should have been when I needed to step back and evaluate the bigger picture. But, I would have never known that I did not know this necessary information until I got into that examination, and for that I am grateful for that experience. 

qualifying exam motivational quote
We have this up in our living room, and sometimes it seems like decoration, but other days it feels like the world reminding me to be amazing.
Believe in yourself.

Secondly, this experience really showed me that you need to believe in yourself. Imposter syndrome and anxiety get the best of us, but maybe it’s a little harder on women in science. And maybe it’s a little harder on minorities in science. And maybe it’s even harder on those that already feel marginalized, such as the LGBT community. And then you start to mix it up and get a lesbian first-generation Mexican-American woman (e.g. me), and you end up with learning about the project, as well as dealing with a ton of insecurities down beneath the surface. Inevitably, those doubts and securities can further affect progress, especially if you’re not aware of them constantly.

qualifying exam pandora belief
Oh gosh, my wife–she is the sweetest. Every now and then, she will pick up a different bead from Pandora to put on this bracelet. The latest one (dark grey) has “belief” embossed on the side. What she said to me was, “You may not believe in yourself, but I do.” & I wore it every day that I felt low, & it made all the difference.
Okay, so now that it’s over… what should do to prepare for my own?

If I were you, I’d take the coursework seriously. I know it’s required, and a lot of it doesn’t apply to your specific field, but it’s so important. The amount of energy that you take into really getting deep into your coursework will translate over into how you study for your project. With that in mind, choose your rotations wisely. Take your time to get to know the faculty that you might want to work with, what their lab environment is like, and if things were to go sour, what you could to remedy the situation. Once you do choose a lab, get immersed in that field, and in your project. Challenge your advisor to give you writing opportunities, presenting opportunities, to grill you during lab meeting or personal meetings. Granted, your advisor might not be willing to do any of these things… in which case, I’d recommend you to switch advisors (if you can, and if the situation calls for it). You can’t waste time trying to be mentored by someone who isn’t interested in mentoring.

“Immersed in your field”?

Yes. That means knowing the epidemiological data that exists regarding your research. Knowing all of the animal work that has been done in your field (not just the references that you cite in the paper). Knowing what specific genes/proteins/molecules are involved, their signaling cascades, and how they all interact. On top of that, know how to put together an experimental design. Understand why you need your test to be powerful, and what the limitations are in your proposal. If your hypothesis is wrong, how would you approach your question? If your hypothesis is right, how would you interpret your results differently? If asked to jump on one foot and chant a mantra, what mantra would it be? And how would that affect your results?

Just kidding, of course! Although my qualifying exam was definitely challenging, I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed writing the proposal most, and I enjoyed being questioned by top-notch researchers. Think of it, one day that top-notch researcher might be you! For me, the next step is to take the next few days to write a review on the signaling cascades involved in my project, to wrap up some experiments, and to wrap up editing a manuscript that got accepted for publication. The work never stops, but if you love what you do, it’ll all be worth it.

2 comments Add yours
  1. Hey,
    Just a little question based on your experience as a phD student who already went through her masters degree.
    I hold a bachelor in biomedical engineering and I’m welling to pursue a career in neuroscience/stem cells (specifically in neurodegeneration). My experience in genetics is excellent (I even know how to sequence), but I’ve never done a cell culturing in my life. Do you think that it really matters to know how to do cell culture? and is it possible that my master’s mentor going to teach me how to do it?

    Thanks in advance for your time and effort

    1. Hello! Thanks for commenting! I knew I wanted to do research, so I applied to PhD programs immediately after finishing my Bachelor’s, and do not have a Master’s degree. However, if you’d like to learn how to do cell culture, and if your lab currently does that procedure, I think it’d be great for you to take advantage of that and learn!

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