Strategies to ace your qualifying exam

“Top notch job!”, “Well done, excellent!”, read the report of my PhD qualifying exam. Buried among these was one more comment, “Very good comeback!” I took two attempts to pass my PhD qualifiers.

My PhD qualifying exam, like those at many other universities, consisted of two parts: 1) a written research proposal and 2) a 15- to 20-minute oral presentation of the research proposal followed by a question and answer (Q&A) session by the graduate committee. I cleared the written section of the exam, but the real hurdle was the PowerPoint presentation. Not so much creating the slides, but fielding questions from my committee members, which I dreaded.

The first time I took the oral exam, a peculiar combination of overconfidence and fear set my approach. I felt cocksure about my own research area, so I neglected it. On the other hand, I re-read the materials from my core courses from the first year of my PhD because I felt the need to know them. I didn’t realize I was reading material totally unrelated to my research proposal.

I had heard it from one too many people about the qualifying exam: “You need to know everything about everything!” It may have a speck of truth in it, although if you ask me, it is the worst possible advice you can give.

After feeling miserable about failing my exam, I was relieved to know that I had one more shot at it. The second time I didn’t just pass the exam, but I aced it with a whopping 90%. Here are a few strategies that I applied.

Understand the exam: I don’t deny that it took me one whole attempt to learn the purpose of the exam. But it doesn’t have to be that hard. Make no mistake, I knew the format. Once I realized the purpose of the exam, things became clear. The committee members test the graduate student’s aptitude to undertake the proposed research. Read your research proposal from an outsider’s point of view. It helped me predict some questions that were asked. Go on a hunt for friends in your graduate program or outside or who have already passed the quals. Ask them about their approach to the exam and what helped them. If something didn’t help them, then ask them what they would have done differently. If possible narrate your research proposal to recognize any clarifications they might need. Each university has its own unique format, though overall it is generally the same. Be sure to check what your format is to best prepare!

Know your research in and out: A couple of years into the PhD program, you may know your research like the back of your hand. But the PhD qualifying exam is all about articulating your research, lucidly, to a scientific audience. The committee members want to be assured that you indeed understand the significance of your research and the basis of the proposed hypothesis. Most of the answers can be found in the proposal if adequate time and effort was dedicated to write it. The references listed in your research proposal are a great source of information too. Reading these papers thoroughly will set a foundation for your existing knowledge base. And if it’s a seminal paper in your field, know the authors behind it. It makes you look like a thorough professional to know the scientific leaders in your field.

Back to the basics: Brush up on basics in the broad subject areas related to your specific research field. I created a list of buzzwords from my proposal and looked up every single one either on Wikipedia or in a textbook. For example, if your research proposal is to understand the mechanism of a particular protein involved in insulin release, then it doesn’t hurt to know the synthesis, processing, and packaging of insulin in addition to knowing the part of the brain that regulates its release. You may even score brownie points for knowing a bit of history about insulin’s discovery if the committee members happen to ask you about it. Make sure you leave no stone unturned within the scope of your research.

Advisor’s advice: If you find yourself stuck at any point, your advisor’s expertise in this field can come to your rescue. Discuss the research proposal with your advisor at least two to three times. I was enlightened with novel insights every time I sat down with my advisor. Vocalize your thought process to get your advisor’s opinion on it. Given your advisor’s experience in the field they will be a good judge of the type of questions that may be hurled at you.

Read to retain: You may spend a month or two preparing for the exam. Read in a way so it lasts in your memory. While we have our own methods, three is my magic number. I retain information that I have read thrice. I would go back to the list of buzzwords and remember its context and relation to my research.

Practice, and practice early: Finalize your slides 7-10 days before your presentation date and practice with an audience. Find audience members who will genuinely be interested to listen to your talk and question you later. Also, it helps to practice in the same conference room as your qualifying exam. Utilize the week after the mock exam to polish your slides. With all the seminars going virtual until next year due to the pandemic, practice your presentation on the video conferencing platform that you will use. I highly recommend watching a tutorial on using the platform optimally for slide sharing, using the virtual “whiteboard,” and answering questions.

Believe in your research and be excited to share the proposal idea with your committee members, not by knowing “everything,” but by being specific and strategic. You will soon be able to see a faint light at the end of the tunnel in your PhD program.

About the Author:

Akshata Naik is a postdoctoral fellow at Wayne State University with a PhD in Physiology. She is a scientific writer who enjoys hiking, reading, writing, dancing, painting, and drinking coffee. She is also a mother to two beautiful kids! She currently studies the role of mitochondrial stress in diabetic retinopathy. As a graduate student, she studied the late secretory pathway in insulin secreting cells.