Grad school filter: I need a reality check on my qualifying exams.
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm a second-year grad student in the sciences at a US research university, currently taking qualifying exams for Ph.D. study.
Quals for my major are structured as a series of exams taken throughout the second year. A certain minimum cumulative score is required to be advanced to candidacy; a slightly lower score may qualify you to take an extra 'do-over' semester of exams, with the caveat that you have to achieve a somewhat higher total score. Questions are drawn from a core curriculum of classes, and are about what you'd expect for a difficult final exam question on one of the topics.
I got off to a slow start on points, as did most of the other students in my cohort (actually, despite scoring below 'par' on the first few exams, I was still scoring high relative to the other students taking the exams), but I've managed to ramp up my efforts each time, and identify weak points and study strategies. As another note, I've been doing a lot of group prep with the rest of the students taking the exams, as well as a fair amount of self-study, so I'd say that the amount of time and effort I'm putting in is comparable to the other students taking the exam. I also feel pretty confident that my own level of understanding/ability is similar to the rest of my cohort, based on the study sessions I've been in and our discussions after each exam. All things considered, I was feeling pretty good going into (and coming out of) the latest exam.
So, of course, I bombed. Well, I didn't bomb, exactly, but I kept getting the same minimal number of points that I've been getting. The rest of the students taking the exam did varying degrees of better. At this point, we're 2/3rds done with exams for the year, and I've only gotten about 1/3 of the necessary points.
What bothers me most is that I really don't know what else to change in my approach. We're not allowed to see our exams after they've been turned in and graded; the only feedback we receive is a grade and encouragment to study. My subjective perception is that I'm no less prepared or less able than the other students taking the exams, and I feel like I understand and can solve the questions they're giving me, but there's clearly a breakdown in there somewhere that I'm not seeing. I'd appreciate tips on what other approaches have helped people taking qualifying exams (though I know there's only so much advice that can be given, since no two schools do these quite the same.)
There's one more wrinkle to this, though, and I hesitate to ask about it because I feel like it sounds kind of crazy, but I can't think of a way to bring this up with my professors without it sounding like sour grapes at best and delusional and accusatory at worst, but I can't stop thinking about it, either. I figure there are enough MeFites in academia that I can at least gauge whether I'm letting my confusion/fear/imagination run away with me or if this is something I need to seriously consider might be a part of the problem.
My adviser is in the same department, but a different division. The work I do is related to both. Now that it looks like I'll fail my current division's quals, I'm being encouraged to join the other division. This isn't a bad thing--it would give me another chance to qualify for the Ph.D., albeit while requiring an extra year (or more?) of classes and quals. But it does also raise some disquieting questions, for me.
I don't believe that my profs are trying to give me low scores to deliberately push me out of the division; honestly, I think if that's what they'd wanted, they could've directly told me to switch majors when I picked my adviser or flunked me out during the first year of classes. I do, however, wonder if I'm at a disadvantage relative to the rest of my classmates, who are more directly tied to the division and have advocates (advisers) sitting in on divisional meetings and presumably being privy to discussion of quals. I do wonder if there might be just a little more leniency in grading given to a student who fell a little short on a question and represented a direct "investment" for a division member, compared to one who wasn't a "real" division student. More positively, I wonder if having the option to switch divisions is making my current division's profs take my problem a bit less seriously--i.e. "well, anon will be fine either way, just let it happen." And, well, I will be fine, but it will cost me more time and a lot more work, and if this is the case, I don't think it's really fair to let me continue with the expectation that my chances are just as good as any other student's.
If that's true, I don't think there's much I can do to change it; but if so, there's really no point in my continuing to study for this set of quals, when I'd be much better off sinking that ~15 hours/week into preparing for the other division's quals next year. I also would be able to save lot of self-doubt and crying, which would be nice. Of course, if it's not true, I need to stop obsessing on it, double down on my study efforts, and try to make magic happen on the remaining exams.
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