Yesterday I had my preliminary exam. It’s a peculiarity of the American PhD system, also known as “quals” or a “qualifying exam”. Essentially, the idea is that they admit you to a PhD program, make you take courses for two years and find a PhD advisor, and then put you in a small room and ask you questions until you break. (These comics sum it up pretty well.) How long it takes you to break determines whether the last two years of your life were a waste or not. If you pass, you’re a PhD candidate (as opposed to a PhD student) and can get on with things. If you don’t, you either have to retake the exam entirely at a later date, re-do part of the written proposal you hand in as part of it, or – in the worst case – leave the PhD program entirely.
I exaggerate the stopping-point nature of the whole affair somewhat; although in principle (this is based on my department’s practices, others may vary) the idea is that you write a proposal independent of your advisor, submit it to a committee, and defend it, all off your own bat, there is little chance of a student being allowed to take the prelim at all unless everyone involved is fairly certain they are going to pass. Otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It’s not unusual to get a qualified pass, where you have to re-write part of your proposal, and not unheard of to take it a second time; failing outright is very uncommon, at least in our department. Most people who are going to leave the program do so before the prelim stage.
That doesn’t make it less worrying coming up to it – it is, after all, a pass/fail test of your worthiness to continue as a PhD student, and other graduate students cheerfully spread pretty hideous stories of what goes on during prelims. I got told about students who’d burst into tears; students who’d been left with nothing to say but “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know”; students who’d just been reduced to nervous wrecks. These, mind you, are people who passed and went on to do well in the rest of their PhDs. No-one talks about the people who didn’t pass. Which is what makes it so nerve-wracking. It’s a very public test, in some ways – it happens in the departmental conference room, and when they’re done grilling you, they kick you out into the corridor to wait while they decide whether to pass you or not and what recommendations they’re going to make about your course of study, whether or not you pass. This usually means hanging out right outside the main department office for at least fifteen or twenty minutes, and everyone knows why you’re waiting there. I was out there for the better part of half an hour, after most people had gone home for the day. It was a very long half-hour. It would have been a lot longer if I didn’t have Bejeweled installed on my cellphone.
I passed, which was mostly a massive relief. It was a curious feeling, going into something with a proposal which I was quite certain was pretty solid and that I knew a lot about, and coming out feeling like I didn’t actually know anything and hadn’t read anything and possibly had spent the last four months sleeping under a large rock instead of doing scientific research. That’s the point of the thing, in the end – to establish whether you can actually back up, in person, what you’re proposing or whether you’re just saying things you think sound good. It’s not actually just to make you sweat. Although it’s kind of hard to tell the difference, up close. The main thing is: it’s over, and now all I have to do is write a thesis in three years or so. That can’t be worse, right?
My prelim had been moved up two days from Wednesday due to last-minute scheduling clashes, which was mostly good because our lab has an all-day meeting at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Thursday, which is going to require us leaving at the crack of dawn – it’s nearly as far away from us as anything in Massachusetts can physically be. The only thing I was promising if my prelim had been the afternoon before that was that I’d be present and probably sober. This way I can be mentally as well as physically present – and this is an important meeting, discussing the field trip we’re taking out to our field site this August with the other scientists and labs we collaborate with. Just the logistics of sampling from our field site are something of an enterprise, considering it’s a volcano two kilometres under the ocean and several hundred kilometres out to sea; my background isn’t in oceanography at all, and I have a lot to learn about how those logistics work.
Furthermore, a lot of the work I talked about in my prelim exam was based on sampling out at our field site – so on Thursday we’re going to be talking, in part, about how to start the work that’s going to make up a lot of my thesis. Three more years suddenly seems like not that long a time.