7 Deadly Sins of the PhD Qualifying Exam

The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam(or “Quals”) is the first of the three milestones(Qualifying Exam-> Thesis Proposal-> Final Dissertation Defense) to pass to receive that Ph.D. at the end of your name. The goal of the qualifying exam is to show that we, as the budding scientist we are, know how to conduct research. At my institution the qualifying exam consist of 2 parts: 1) submitting a written document that you send to your committee of 3 faculty members and 2) presenting a 30-45 minute long presentation about that submission. Most times the only way to understand how this works is to ask a lab mate who has already passed. Luckily I had many labmates that were willing dish the deets to success(I completed mine in 2016). To help demystify what it takes to pass, I’m sharing these 7 deadly sins of quals to overcome, which ultimately helped me pass:

1. Not knowing citations

It was rather important for me to know the related work that I included in my slides. After all, I was the one that put it there! I’m not saying I had to know everything about the authors, but I at least wanted to be familiar the approach and findings since they inspired my work. In order to say my research was “real” I had to know what has already been done and what distinguished my work from the state-of-the-art.

2. Not knowing the how and why of my work

By the time I got to my qualifying exam I had not wrote about my methods and findings as much as I have today. However, I made it my goal to understand the how and what now of my results as much as possible. Since the quals are really about knowing how to do research, I would have been deathly embarrassed if I did not know what I did and why it mattered. What’s the point of me being in the PhD Program if I didn’t want to do something that impacted the world(or at least the bite-sized world I’m studying)?!

3. Too many animations, words, illegible figures

Personally, too many unnecessary animations, words, and figures on a screen that don’t help me understand a concept are big no no for me in presentation. Animations can have a pivotal role in presentations, but too many can just be annoying to sit through. I made sure I kept them to a minimum.

4. Not practicing my presentation

Practicing my slides not only helped me limit my rambling(which I always do), but it also helped me get in a comfortable pace for my slides. In fact, using a script(that I memorized, not read) for my first couple slides was a life saver! Obviously, I was nervous because my whole committee and audience was staring at me while I convince them that I know how to do research-y things. However, practicing allowed me to get in a good rhythm of how to bounce back if I got distracted by a committee member’s thinking face🤔.

5. Not knowing statistical analysis used

During my practice round I with other PhD students I was encouraged to not include any statistical analysis in your slides I didn’t feel comfortable talking about. I had to make sure I was doing the right statistical test and statistical correction(e.g. Bonferroni vs. Benjamini–Hochberg) appropriately. But even more importantly be able to justify why I chose a specific statistical test!

6. Not knowing my committee members

I mean honestly, this is probably the most important one. I made it my duty to get familiar with the research area, research ticks, and questioning style of my committee members. I really feel like knowing this saved me so much time because I knew what to avoid and how to survive and advance if I found myself in a pickle. I made sure I went to other preliminary exams where they were on the committee and the student had a similar research area as myself. This way, I had a better understand of what was expected of me and how they conduct themselves in that setting.

7. Not humbly accepting feedback

Although it was submitted, my paper was not yet accepted at a conference(which is a good signal of a successful qualifying exam). This encouraged me to be very open in receiving feedback, humbly accepting things I did not know, and defending what I did—it’s a delicate dance I still practice. After all, being a researcher is about being able to have those intellectually stimulating conversations that continuously challenge the way we think. Not to mention I could have dug myself in a deep, dark, bad reputation hole if I didn’t stand there and take the feedback well 😅.