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 😅.

moving WITH the mountains

Ahhhh. As I take a deep breath and look around, I can finally come to realize that everything is going to be alright. Now that the semester is over and paper writing is mostly on pause, right now is the time to sit and reflect on the fact that I made it through the second year. WOOT WOOT! This year was an interesting one. There were times when classes wanted a bit more attention and then there were times when it was research too, but ultimately WE made it through! *does praise dance*

I think I’ll dub this year “the year of networking”. I got to collaborate even more with some amazing researchers on projects at amazing universities and research labs such as Philip Guo and Joey Perricone. I attended the CRA-W Conference in San Diego and networked with so many like minded females in computing. Many of them were actually women of color who were further along on their PhD journey so I’m really thankful for that! I also finally got the chance to meet the amazing Jamika Burge at the conference and talk about future projects we had in mind. Representation is super important to me as a mentee and as a mentor. I had the opportunity to attend smaller local conferences for minority students in undergrad presenting their research at NC-LSAMP in Pembroke and one in Chapel Hill to encourage the next wave of female PhD students in the RDU Triangle. I even went to one workshop in Finland where I got meet one-on-one with amazing researchers such as Andy Begel. Needless to say, I’ve definitely found extreme value in networking.

At these conferences I got to meet some amazing researchers from around the globe and this year has really made me thankful to be around these people. The weird part here is acknowledging that I’ve been able to meet these people, but also, recognizing this semester that I, the drooler, am slowly becoming the droolee.  What I’m trying to say is that people in my field are recognizing my work and they think it’s cool! Yes, they have been established a bit longer in the field than I, but that doesn’t dispute the fact that now more than ever I can consider myself to be one of their “colleagues”. ( I know right?! That’s downright crazy!)

**OK. Here’s where I brag a bit:…but if you aren’t happy about your accomplishments than who will be?!**

This year I was able to serve on organizing committees and program committees for relevant conferences in my field. I was also able to receive two competitive fellowships: Microsoft Research Fellowship and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. It’s just so crazy because this time last year I was thinking the opportunity to be a worthy candidate  was looking pretty slim for these fellowship programs, but this year things just worked out. This year I was able to write more papers and submit more work than I  ever thought I would by my second year. I also got 2 full papers accepted at FSE this year and now I’m interning at Microsoft Research with Nachi Nagappan, Tom Zimmermann, and Christian Bird! I mention all these things to acknowledge the amazing difference a year and persistence makes. SO KEEP GRINDING!

From Seattle to the Olympic Mountain Range
From Seattle to the Olympic Mountain Range from Lourenco Photography

**brag rant complete**

Anyway, I think it’s super important to arrive at this feeling; this feeling of “being OF the community”. I had a similar feeling when my first workshop paper got accepted but nawww this year ended with a “next level” feeling. It’s kind of an attention shift and your perspective on how you approach research changes a bit (well at least for me it did). When the first person comes to you and recognizes you for your work it’s kind of like an OMG moment. As in you are in complete awe yourself; you didn’t even realize that you were coming off as someone who knows what they’re talking about. But the truth is YOU ARE someone who knows what you’re talking about! YOU ARE knowledgeable of what’s going on in your field! YOU ARE a valued voice at the decision table of your research area!  And that moment right there is just super refreshing. In a way it kind of gives you fire to continue the next couple of years in your program. I’m definitely not saying that I want to be in the program for 11 more years, but you get the idea.

It’s kind of like “Wow, I’ve encountered all these challenges and I know there’s more to come, but hey I can roll with the punches, yeah I can stand and hold my weight amongst the big dogs in the field, I can move with the mountains.”