Monday, April 09, 2007


Our department's chair of graduate studies met this afternoon with the students who will be taking qualifying exams this summer to (unsurprisingly enough) talk about taking qualifying exams this summer. The matter is made slightly more complicated than usual because the faculty are apparently discussing a new format for the written component of the qualifying exam.

Let me back up. The general idea is that graduate school consists of two components: becoming familiar with the language and basic material of the field, typically via classes, and contributing to the field via new research and publishing papers. Because one needs to have at least a rough grasp of and familiarity with the material in the field, it's standard for the first two years of a PhD program to be primarily dedicated to taking classes, and for the following years to be class-free and dedicated to towards the "dissertation," i.e., research. At the end of the first two years (or, rather, the completion of classes), students have to take "qualifying exams" (the exact name varies from institution to institution) to demonstrate that they have mastered knowledge of the field; after passing quals, they are given a Master's Degree. In a PhD program, the Master's Degree really doesn't matter... it's like getting a shiny gold star, or a consolation prize if at this point in their academic careers someone doesn't go for the PhD. (This is, of course, a markedly different paradigm from programs in which the Master's is the end goal.)

In our department, we have to take nine classes our first two years. This isn't as heavy as it sounds, since we're strange and on the quarter system; at any given point, we aren't taking more than 2 "real" classes. Because we're a small department (compared to, say, a physics or engineering department), all of the students take classes at the same time, so the graduate classes are offered every other year. At the end of the year, the 2nd year graduate students (e.g., me, this year) take the qualifying exams. Typically, qualifying exams ("quals") have both a written and an oral component. Currently, the written component consists of being tested—again—on the material from the nine classes. There are nine 45-minute exams (or eight if the professor from the last class [i.e., the last class ever!!] we took is feeling magnanimous and is willing to use the final as a qualifying exam) spread out, morning and afternoon, over two days. Each individual exam is written by the professor who taught us the corresponding class. To pass, one must average at least 60% over all of the exams. As you can expect, these exams are preceded by lots of freaking out and studying, and the time spent freaking out and studying is generally not accompanied by nice productive research. We're told we shouldn't worry about quals, and that if we have a good research track record by the time we take them, we'll pass, but from what I understand, that message doesn't exactly... sink in, shall we say. It is true that it's almost unheard of for someone to flunk quals here—rumor has it that it has happened once in the last five years, but no one seems to admit to knowing who it was. This is quite unlike other places who try their best to weed people out of the program. Why admit students you're just going to try to get rid of later? You prospective graduate students out there: when you visit schools you're considering, try to get a solid answer of what percentage of students in an entering class pass quals, and what percentage of students in an entering class actually leave with a PhD.

So the format of the qualifying exams might change. The philosophy behind the possible new format is that we've already passed all those silly classes; why be tested again on material we've already demonstrated mastery of? So, instead, we could do an in-depth excursion into a field of research we're interested in, like "brown dwarfs" or "galaxy formation." The proposed format consists of three parts: (1) summarize three papers in the field (two to three pages per summary); (2) do, and write up, some order-of-magnitude calcuation related to the field; (3) write a 5–10 page description/review of the current state of the field. One complication is that the University wants a guarantee that this is our own work, so none of these papers can include a copy-pasted bit from some other paper we've co-authored elsewhere (even if it's published and we are the first author).

If the faculty approve this change—and as uninformed graduate students, we don't know whether or not it will be approved—then we second-years get a choice between the old and new formats, because we've been told since we arrived that we would be given the old format. We each get to decide individually, which is nice, I suppose. I currently don't know which format I prefer. One the one hand, I absolutely loathe timed, written tests, and I think I know what I would do for the research field excursion format. On the other hand, the test-taking format is over at a set time: if I decide half an hour before the exam is supposed to start that I want to study for another week, then I'm shit out of luck because I have to take the exam anyhow. But for the paper-writing format, if I decide half an hour before I plan on turning the stack of papers in that I'd like to put another week of work in, I'm basically free to do so... which also means that I'm more likely to spend more time than desired (i.e., being a silly perfectionist) on the paper-writing format than on the test-taking format. Either way, it's a chunk of time spent not doing research; the question is simply how to minimize that amount of time and effort.

The oral component of our qualifying exams consists of a short presentation on some (not necessarily published) research we've done while at OSU. The trickiest part of this component is timing: it has to happen within 30 days of the completion of the written component, and we have to have a committee for it. A committee means four faculty members who are both in town and willing to basically sit and listen to the presentation; ideally, this is the same committee as one's thesis committee, but doesn't necessarily have to be. The problem with that idea, of course, is that it assumes that we know what the hell we want to do our thesis on, which some of us *ahem* most certainly do not. One of the problems with the old sit-down-and-take-tests format of the written component is that, since they are tests, all of the second years took them at the same time, so the 30 day clocks were all set at the same time. This year, there will be 7 students taking qualifying exams, so if our clocks all started simultaneously, this would mean that in one thirty day window, seven days would have to be found in which four faculty could administer the oral component of the qualifying exam. Not impossible, but since it's probably June or July, lots of people are out of town, and therefore it's common for the same faculty members to end up on lots of committees, which tends to make them grumpy, and no one wants a committee full of grumpy faculty members.

The next stage of this complicated process is the thesis proposal. The clock for the thesis proposal starts after the oral component of the qualifying exam; we have one year to get our thesis committees together and propose some topic for our theses. This typically means that thesis proposals happen in the late winter, early spring; the third year graduate students are currently wrapping up this process. There are some places that require a written thesis proposal, but since that's just unnecessary paperwork, here it's just another 15-minute presentation. This is actually the part that has me the most scared, but since I've got another year to stall on thinking about it, it's not so bad quite yet.

1 comment:

Mira said...

I have specific thoughts since I haven't started grad school yet. I did ask around at the program I'll be going to and they all said that as long as you do decently in your classes (which I'm not sure I can do...) you'll pass quals (which for history @ BU are the beginning of the 4th year). I'm curious what other people have to say about this!