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Megan Poorman is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.



Last month I successfully passed my PhD Qualifying Exam (QUAL) and officially became a “candidate!” Preparing for this task was extremely daunting and resulted in one of the most terrifyingly unstructured times I have experienced in my degree thus far. With only a few standing meeting/class responsibilities and no experimental work on the horizon, I could barely fathom the amount of material I needed to review, much less figure out how to parse it.


To give some background, in my biomedical engineering department the QUAL is the thesis proposal and preliminary exam combined. You write an NIH grant-style document over your proposed thesis work and prepare a 40-minute presentation for your committee. You present your proposal as well as answer questions for a couple hours probing your in-depth knowledge about the field and your proposed research.


When a friend of mine got married, her mother-in-law gifted her a gigantic binder full of wedding preparation materials including checklists, planning resources, and color swatches. While I am not exactly planning a wedding right now, preparing for a QUAL and a wedding are remarkably similar activities – you set a date, spend months preparing, watch the days count down with nervous excitement, dress up in nice clothes, have a couple hours of high stress, and then celebrate afterwards with your friends. However, there are no Pinterest boards or magical binders to guide you through the QUAL process.


Since my brain is still pretty fried, and this seems as good of a way to productively procrastinate as any, here goes my attempt at creating a QUAL resource binder to guide you in preparing for your exam.


The Groundwork:

Start planning early. It all started with a weekly meeting with my advisor. I printed and taped together a paper calendar of the next 5 months and unrolled it accordion-style in his office. While this presentation was likely a bit dramatic, seeing the days laid out was extremely helpful in visualizing what my current responsibilities were, where my QUAL could fit, and sparked the discussion of what my specific aims should be.


Be on the same page. Communicate with your advisor and committee so that there are no surprises on presentation day. You want your committee engaged because they are excited and invested in your work, not because you pulled the rug out from under them. Don’t be afraid to meet with your committee individually beforehand to hear their expectations.


Use your resources. Talk to students in your department that have passed their exams already. Look up your departmental requirements online and follow them. Discuss other students’ experiences, ask for advice, and collect a few example documents to double-check style and formatting. It’s also helpful to speak to students who work for your committee members to get a feel for their research style and expectations. Don’t forget to seek advice on the web, such as these by Gradhacker (1,2,3,4).


Be flexible. Despite your best laid plans, things come up. Don’t panic, just keep moving forward and forgive yourself if you need to take a break.


Your Checklist:

Note that this is what worked for my particular exam requirements. As a third-year I had a working knowledge of my area of research, but needed to fortify that with an in-depth look at the basics and foundational papers in my field. Your timing and tasks may need to be scaled accordingly to your style of QUAL and level of knowledge base. If your committee isn’t already familiar with your work, it could be good to meet with them once beforehand to give them an overview.




Creating a study plan:

This is an area that will vary a lot depending on what is required for your QUAL. Since mine is a combination of the prelim and proposal, my committee could in theory ask me anything related to the background in my field or classes I have taken. Here are my strategies for figuring out what and how to study.

Know the question style. For my exam, the committee  didn’t say “I see you took a class in XX, can you tell me about XX theorem and derive it on the board for me?” Instead they would ask, “I see you’re using XX technique to model your experiment, wouldn’t XX technique be a better fit? What assumptions are you making so you can use XX technique in this scenario?” This may differ for your specific exam, but they likely aren’t going to ask questions out of the blue. Just be prepared to reason through anything you propose using the basic knowledge in your field.


Gather your materials. Make a list of everything you need to cover including book chapters, subject areas, and relevant papers. For me, this came out such that 50% of the material covered basic MRI physics, 10% was from class, 20% was re-familiarizing myself with my previous work, and 20% was re-reading foundational papers, papers I had cited, and the relevant papers those papers had cited.


Divide it up by day. Initially I added up all the things I had to cover, divided it by the number of days until my QUAL (2 months), and then wrote on a calendar what material I should review each day. I then proceeded to not follow this plan at all. Remember, be flexible! I ended up catching the flu and spent a month just writing and re-writing my proposal before I began studying material consistently. Starting earlier is always better, however, having an idea of the overall timeline will help you restructure in case, like me, things didn’t go quite according to plan.


Keep a notebook. There are plenty of options for this. I’m a big proponent of electronic “green” note-taking. However, it’s been proven that hand-writing notes helps improve retention and prevents distractions. During my studying I took notes in a paper spiral notebook, being sure to mark questions I had in the margins. At the end I typed my notes into a review for final studying and made sure to research the questions I had brought up.


What to put in the presentation:

Even within a single department, this will vary a lot. Your main source of guidance here should be what your thesis advisor expects. Ultimately he/she has a large say in how your committee feels about you as a student, so it’s best to be on the same page. Talk to students in your lab about how their slides were structured and review your slides with your mentor at least one week before the exam. Even if they have extensive edits, don’t panic! You’ve left yourself plenty of time to adjust. Also, don’t skimp on the general background. Your committee is experts in their respective areas but they may not know the exact details of your subfield. Even if they do, quickly reviewing the basics will help fill in any gaps and, most importantly, show your committee that you understand what you are talking about.


The right mindset:

Other than the deliverables and your preparation, the most important aspect in passing your exam is to have a good attitude. Your committee is going to challenge you and you may not always know the answer. They don’t expect you to know everything, that’s why you’re still in school. Approach your answers with thought and care but don’t be afraid to say you don’t know - letting arrogance get in the way will just dig you into a hole. Ask them to clarify the question, do your best to answer, and if you can’t, tell them how you would go about figuring it out.


Preparing for your qualifying exam can be intimidating, but with proper planning and good communication you can make it through with flying colors. What did you do to prepare for your thesis proposal? Do you have any advice to add to the QUAL “wedding” binder?


[Image of book by Flickr user Moyan Brenn and used under Creative Commons license]

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