PhD Folk: How did you celebrate passing your qualifying exam?
July 15, 2019 5:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a novel about PhD graduate students, which entails trying to write convincingly about an experience I've never had. I'm fishing for anecdotes from people who've lived through the oral qualifying exam.

My character is at Berkeley in Sociology. It's the 90s, but I doubt too much has changed in terms of the logistics and the general emotions involved. Where would this exam likely take place, in a classroom or seminar room on campus? And would they tell her right then and there if she's passed? Assuming my character passes, what would she do then? I've heard about people bringing friends flowers and champagne to celebrate. What else? I welcome any stories you can share.
posted by swheatie to Education (51 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, classroom on campus; yes, they would tell you almost immediately; yes, champagne, the best your friends can afford.
posted by praemunire at 5:53 PM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yes, probably a seminar room the department controls. Yes, immediately. Dunno what she would do; I thanked them, went home, and didn't do anything special.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:58 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I thanked them and went home with a tremendous amount of relief. My now-husband sat waiting on the steps for me the whole time.
posted by arnicae at 6:05 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

My exam was in a conference room monopolized by our department. I was told that day that I passed (I had to step out of the room for ~10 minutes while they deliberated).

I passed just by the skin of my teeth, and it was a frustrating and emotionally exhausting experience, but I 'celebrated' by getting dinner with one other grad student friend, which was about all I could handle socially at that moment. I mostly just wanted to sleep.
posted by pemberkins at 6:07 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seminar room in the department. Part of the ritual is that the student is asked to leave the room for ~20 minutes before the defense starts. During that time we faculty talk about a million things unrelated to the defense as well as bring up any issues and divide up the question asking. The student doesn't know this. But this is a nerve racking time for them when they have to leave the room.
Then the defense happens.
Then the student has to leave the room and they are scared. The faculty discuss if the student passes or not and any concerns going forward.
The student is called back in and told that they passed but usually get a 2nd helping of criticisms, often focused on their next steps (dissertation proposal).
Faculty must sign paperwork attesting that the student passed.
Student and faculty leave the room.

Celebration is way smaller than a dissertation defense, usually because the student is tired and it was stressful and they probably got fairly heavily critiqued in a way they don't at a diss defense and there is so much work to do next. I remember sleeping after mine.
Also these are often in the middle of the day if not the morning. Scheduling 3-5 faculty is hard.

Another tradition in many fields is that students provide light snacks for the faculty during the defense. This has been the norm at every defense (exams, dissertation, etc.) I've been at. The Chronicle had an article about it this week arguing that it is a bad practice.
posted by k8t at 6:10 PM on July 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

Here's what I (someone who finished my PhD in a humanities field at a similar-caliber-but-not-Berkeley American private university in December) remember about my qualifying exam (which in my department we called "comps/comprehensive exam").

My comps happened in the "fancy" (note: not actually fancy) meeting/conference room of the department, not in a regular classroom/seminar room. This is the room where all milestone-type things and important meetings are held for our department (comps, chapter exams, defenses; but also smaller faculty meetings, etc.), and is thus a room that exudes a distinct aura of gravitas and dread, despite being pretty standard-issue institutional conference room.

I was sent out of the room for about 2-5 minutes after all the questions/discussion/feedback was over while my committee discussed, it felt like a FUCKING eternity, and then I was invited back in and told I passed. This is probably different in all departments, but at least in mine, quals/comps are DEFINITELY something it is possible to fail, whereas the final thesis defense really isn't something you could realistically fail unless you went out of your way to do so. If your committee is paying even a little attention to your work, they simply won't permit you to defend unless you're going to succeed, but comps are a very common flunk-out point, so passing was (for me) a legitimate relief.

In terms of celebration, I guess I went out for lunch with my then boyfriend, but nowhere fancy, and probably drinks with a few friends from the program that night, but honestly I was so exhausted from the stress and anxiety I'd been holding on to for weeks/months/years, that what I really remember from that day was just the absolute RELIEF I felt. I legitimately and literally felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I took real, deep breaths for the first time in weeks. I smiled INCESSANTLY. I felt like I was floating. I really really wanted a nap.

It was bizarre.

If your character is anxiety-prone, maybe that's helpful anecdata? That's certainly what stuck with me, rather than any celebration that may have happened. That stuff is a bit of a blur, but the bodily and total relief that washed over me I won't ever forget.

(Please note: that relief lasted precisely until 4am the next morning, when I woke up in a cold sweat realizing I had no idea how I was going to pull off actually writing a dissertation.....)
posted by Dorinda at 6:17 PM on July 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

Mine was in a tiny office, with one committee member Skyping in. Left the room for the deliberations, and then came back in and got congratulated and told I had passed. The "OK, now here's what you need to fix/make better for the dissertation" stuff happened at a meeting shortly after with my advisor rather than right then.

One slight oddity that was true at least where I got my PhD and where I am now is that your exam committee can be slightly bigger than your actual dissertation committee (e.g., 4 vs. 3), particularly if you're still nailing down your proposal and it's not quite clear which subset of folks you should be working with.

I didn't really do anything special besides by myself a new laptop, as my old one was on its last legs, and figured "working on my dissertation" was a good excuse for a new one. No champagne or snacks in my department; that was reserved for passing the dissertation defense.

There was a woman in my department who gave people an increasingly larger series of plastic dinosaurs for having their early qualifying papers accepted, passing qualifying exams, and then the defense.
posted by damayanti at 6:21 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Mine took place in a tiny little room, too small for the 5-6 of us in there. It was cramped.

The basic process was this (I don't know if this is typical):

Before everything began, I was introduced to the external examiner, somebody with expertise in the field from another university. (I had requested this person specifically because I admired her work. She was friendly but then told me right after being introduced to me, "I'm going to be really hard on you in there--but it's only because I think you can take it.")

I then entered the room, and was introduced to everyone (most of whom I already know, but it was a formality). In addition to my supervisor and the external examiner, there was an examiner from another department in the university and another examiner from my own department who had some knowledge of my field. As well, my second reader attended, mostly as support. Then there was another person who served basically as a timekeeper and who ensured that nobody went offside in their questioning.

I was then sent out of the room while the examiners conferred (basically agreeing on who would get to go first). After about five minutes I was invited back in and it began.

There were two rounds of questioning, with each examiner asking three questions in turn. Then there was a second round of the same. I've had heard that often these can be pretty conversational, but mine was not. All of the questions were fair, but challenging, with each examiner coming at my dissertation from the perspectives of their own scholarship. It took about two hours, I think.

After that, I was asked to exit the room. I left and met my (then girlfriend, now) wife there. At this point, I was extremely anxious. The questions had been very challenging and I wasn't sure I had answered them to everyone's satisfaction. After another five or ten minutes (felt like thirty) my supervisor came out and said, "Congratulations, Dr. Synecdoche!"

I went back in and shook hands and got some feedback from the examiners. Then we absconded together to the campus pub. My institution has a tradition where a newly minted PhD can order whatever they want from a special goblet they have, for free; I asked for their finest Irish whiskey and got a triple of something foul in return. A group of my friends were waiting there for me; we talked (with the examining committee) and drank for a while, and then I went out for dinner with the examining committee. When that was done, I went and met my friends at a bar and had way too much to drink with a lot of good friends. It was a good day, all told.
posted by synecdoche at 6:29 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seminar room.
My advisor called me the night before and told me he wanted to make sure I understood I’d already passed, but I still needed to do the oral exam. Afterwards, I just went home to my kids. No celebration.
I was still taking classes that semester, but once that was over, I watched talk shows for two months straight. This was the early 90s.
posted by FencingGal at 6:39 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

My defense was in a classroom, the classroom where most of my PhD classes were taught. When my students defend their exams now we do it in a classroom or a faculty members office in the building.

The first 10 minutes are usually spent wrangling with speakerphone (now Skype) for the outside committee member. Then the student leaves the room for about 15 minutes and the committee chats. The student has no idea what's being discussed, and if the committee is not careful they will forget why they're there and get into a discussion about (1) something topically related to the exam (2) some administrative nonsense like shared difficulty registering for a conference.

The student comes in and the committee basically take turns asking questions about the exams. in my field, students complete a written exam that has been prepared by the committee specifically for that student, and then the committee members read the written exam and ask questions based on what the students wrote in the oral defense. During the defense, committee members essentially go in a circle and ask questions about the exam portion that they designed. Other committee members will often jump in with follow-up questions, but generally one faculty member who's responsible for the response that's being interrogated takes the reins. In some fields the comprehensive exams are more standardized, or they may not contain a written portion, and I don't know how they divvy up questions there.

Students almost always bring treats (usually something like a coffee and croissants) for the committee members, but I think it puts such an unnecessary burden on students at a time when things are already very stressful. This was not a thing at my degree-granting university, but it is standard where I'm a faculty member now.

The oral part of my exams lasted about two hours and the main thing I remember is that I forgot to bring a pen. Thankfully my advisor wrote down everything she thought I needed to know. I got really useful questions about my likely study design for my dissertation, so it was kind of like a trial run for my dissertation proposal defense. This is generally the case with students here as well, the exam is about 2 hours long and focuses on questions about applying what the student has learned to their general plans for the dissertation proposal.

After questions, the students leave the room again for a while and the committee decides whether they've passed. I have never seen a student fail their oral comprehensives, but I have seen students asked to rewrite some or all of their written exam after the oral defense. Even though it's uncommon to fail, it's a very stressful situation.

My advisor took me out to lunch afterwards and then I went home and took a Xanax and went to bed.
posted by sockermom at 6:41 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I actually failed my oral exam, which is something people often tell you is not supposed to happen--that either your advisor will stop you taking it, or they're trying to get rid of you. But my advisor seemingly believed in failing people. Anyway, I can discuss that more over me-mail if you need.

Oral exam take one was in what might charitably be called a seminar room. Really it was a room with a table in and a chalkboard that was generally considered too small to be an office (but was eventually made into an office). It was primarily used for grading exams. Take two was in a classroom. I think they generally tried to schedule oral exams in the main seminar room or a classroom. The first time, a few friends hung around (it was at like 4pm or something). Apparently the sign you're going to fail is that your committee literally takes hours deliberating. I think we went to a bar afterwards, but I honestly don't remember. I was pretty mad. The second time around, I don't remember who was around. Possibly no one for fear of jinxing it. Absurdly, my name change was the next day and I remember telling my advisor this after the exam and him being slightly baffled. I actually didn't think I did any better the second time around, but one of my committee members told me some time later that it was much better. There was some form that arrived by interoffice mail and that your advisor was in charge of returning.

After my dissertation defense (you too can fail your oral exam and finish the PhD!), we stood around chatting, I ran the form over to the graduate school, I hung out in my advisor's office for a bit and we added me to the Math Genealogy Project and then we (my advisor, plus students in my immediate subject) went to a bar. (There was a reason we were killing time in his office, but I no longer remember what.) Then I got on my bike and went to my knitting group.

As a note: Berkeley does not do dissertation defenses. You'd take your dissertation and signatures to some office in Sproul and they'd give you a lollipop. (As of the last few years you can now submit online. But you can still go collect a lollipop. My best friend was somewhat concerned she'd miss out on the lollipop.) You'd have to check that this was the case in the 90s.
posted by hoyland at 6:48 PM on July 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

Mine (molecular biology) was in a smallish conference room where I presented to my committee and they asked questions. Then they sent me out for about 10 minutes - possibly longer than necessary, and maybe they were shooting the bull a bit, since they were friendly colleagues with one another. They brought me back in to tell me I passed, then my advisor debriefed me in private about what I was weak on. (Note: in the actual dissertation defense, they let me know this type of thing during.) I didn’t celebrate much, as I was completely drained, and knew how much more work was ahead of me. It seemed anticlimactic. And for weeks after, it felt so weird not to be cramming every spare minute!
posted by Knowyournuts at 6:49 PM on July 15, 2019

I attended two post-quals celebrations at Jupiter's on Shattuck in the early 00s. Different field, but I think the department buildings are on the same side of campus (the south side).
posted by slidell at 6:50 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can't remember if they were the same day as the person's test, though.
posted by slidell at 6:51 PM on July 15, 2019

I don't recall much about it, but I remember the committee members' kind eyes during the discussion, and the way their eyes relaxed and became happy once my defense was done.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:52 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

This was me the week of my oral exam (take one). I don't think I sound ridiculously anxious (judge for yourself), but AskMe was not helping. (Seven years later, Edmund is just fine.)
posted by hoyland at 6:52 PM on July 15, 2019

Check if the Berkeley sociology department in the 90's had a thesis defense. When I got my PhD from Berkeley in 2008 in Physics, we didn't have a thesis defense. I had an oral advancement to candidacy qualifying exam a few years earlier, which was the last "test" I had to get through. Actually getting my degree just meant I had to hand my thesis in to the registrar's office, signed off by my advisor and committee. The registrar was as persnickity about formatting as the stories tell, and when they took my thesis, they gave me a lollipop that said 'PhinisheD."

It was... anticlimatic.

(I was also of the opinion that you didn't really have your PhD until you ate the lollipop, so I did.)
posted by physicsmatt at 6:54 PM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

To be clear: comps quals and defense are often three different things. Sometimes they come in different orders. It’s different by field and by school.

They say write what you know so if it’s important to you to not flub it, you should know. Look into current practice for that department enough to know what stage you mean and how it works. And if possible, know what the terminology and hurdles were in the era you’re writing in.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:08 PM on July 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

The exams are after PhD coursework but before the student has written a dissertation proposal.
Different departments use different terms... Quals (qualifying exams), comps (comprehensive exams)...
posted by k8t at 7:14 PM on July 15, 2019

I recall the qualifying oral exam being exactly what everyone has described above, down to the weird small room with a big table in the middle and the horrible time waiting out in the hallway after.

Celebrations organizing meant an email being sent around saying that someone had just passed their exam and that everyone was invited to drinks at (cheap student bar) at 5pm or whenever. There was always some informal pre-organizing, but no one wanted to jinx things by sending an email announcement ahead of time.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:50 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just want to highlight some of what other people have said about Berkeley specifically:
- Qualifying exam is a few years into your degree and advances you to candidacy. Dissertation and resulting PhinisheD lollipop come a few years later. There is no thesis defense, as far as I know.
- Jupiter to celebrate afterwards is a likely destination.
- Beer seems much more plausible than champagne, though perhaps I'm being math-centric here.
posted by YoloMortemPeccatoris at 8:16 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was in chemistry, and a little bit later, so the details of the test aren’t pertinent, but afterwards: champagne in the lab (the offices area) with my group and some CChem friends, rehashing the things I had to do and telling the (true) story of how one of my examiners had interrupted my 5-minute intro time to riff. Because the materials I was working on at the time were in a class of structures called ‘skutterudites’ after a mineral (same name) from the town of Skutterud, Norway. Most Senior Dude thought it was a cool name for a cult and riffed for several minutes about what they would wear and how they would eat, etc., until my much more junior chair gave him a big sigh and asked a semi-random technical question.
Anyway, much to rehash. So that was a few hours - 3 to 5 or 6. Some people were parked there with, others wandered in and out. Bottle was signed and dated in metallic sharpie, stayed on the top shelf at my cube until I moved out (I still probably have the cork from my actually finished bubbles, the PhinisheD sucker is long gone).

Afterwards I think a much smaller set of people went down to Skates on the Bay - a spectacularly mediocre parent-trap sort of seafood place - which was out at the Berkeley Marina, for cocktails and crab dip or something.

Jupiter is a super plausible setting, though, and fits the timeline. We certainly went there a lot. Some of the other classics from my era - TripleRock, Becketts- I think came later.
posted by janell at 8:38 PM on July 15, 2019

I'd echo that nothing is pre-planned as to not jinx anything. Exams are more iffy than a dissertation.
posted by k8t at 8:45 PM on July 15, 2019

Definitely no champagne. That’s for a defense.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:06 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a slightly different field (music performance) and we didn't have oral qualifying exams. Instead we had three written essay-type tests, 24 hours total, over the period of a month.

Two were pretty set: One on music history and one on music theory, that were a week apart and each 4 hours long. Everyone took them in one large room, proctored, but each individual student might have different questions. Particularly, woodwind, brass, vocal, piano, etc students might have quite different questions.

For the third part, we had sixteen hours of written essay-type questions that were prepared specifically for you by your committee. You would go pick up a question, it would say something like "2 hours" and list the question. The question would be something like "List the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach, including key and catalog number, and discuss the significance, compositional characteristics, and style of Bach's keyboard works in relation to the historical period, instruments, and performance practices."

You had a 3-week period to complete all of these, either before or after the two set days.

So it was a rather long grueling five weeks after maybe 4 years of undergrad and 2-4 years of graduate classwork leading up to this, and then maybe 6 months immediately prior trying to do some kind of comprehensive review. But, particularly the week before the each of the three parts, most of us would specifically review for that part (thus the "five weeks"--we had four weeks to complete the test but most everyone spent a good week before the first part of the test doing systematic review for that part).

In general, I--and most everyone I talked with--felt the test was pretty difficult but fair. Like, anyone who had passed their graduate classes in these subjects and was reasonably conversant in the history and literature of their instrument--as you damn well better be at that level--wouldn't really have any trouble passing with decent marks.

The main thing I remember doing after any of these various parts of this extended test, was, for
example, going out to a restaurant to eat afterwards with another grad student or two and
basically re-hashing the exam, what questions were on it, and so on.

So--to you question!--I think re-hashing what was asked and answered, what went well and what didn't, what surprised or what one was, perhaps, not quite prepared for, and what one new perfectly well but somehow botched up, or didn't know at all but somehow bs-ed through--all those discussions would be part of any celebration or post-mortem.

In the case of our after-test meal and post-mortem, we all thought our own questions were straightforward and not that hard but thought some of the other people's questions would have had us pretty stumped (friends were typicall each in different performance areas, thus quite different questions, even on the 'standard, set' portions of the exam).

So, altogether there is like a four-week testing process with many sub-parts and then there were many piles of written papers for professors to grade. So there was some certain date when the comprehensive grades were supposed to be available in the department office and when the day came, a bunch of us were hanging around to see the results and comparing results.

So this is where I wish we could anonymize this reply as the following will probably appear as some kind of a humblebrag, or more likely a just-plain-brag. So let's just say the following happened to a good friend of mine. Also, this happened quite a while ago, so details of what happened to my good friend might be fuzzy. Consider it a story.

So, my friend went to the office to check the comprehensive exam grades. A number of other students were in the office doing the same. Results papers passed out, various exclamations of relief. "I passed!" "I got a B+." "I got an A." "I got an A-," "I'm just glad this is over," etc.

Most people got about the grade everyone, including themselves, would have expected.

Friend gets the grade summary from the secretary, and there is the grade: A+


No one has *ever* heard of anyone getting an A+ (!) on the comprehensive exam.

The secretary, who has been there for many years or maybe decades has never heard of anyone getting an A+ on comprehensives. A little buzz starts going around the room.

So, my friend checks the details and it is kind of amusing, because how it works is this:

There are three subjects (outlined above). Each subject is graded by three professors. Then they average the three grades, but in a slightly unusual way: In case of a 2-1 tie, they always round up.

So, for example, grades of A A- A- would be averaged to A, not A-.

So, here is how it worked: Individual instrument A A A (average A). History A A A (average A). Theory A A A+ (average A+).

So for overall grade now we average the grades for the three subjects: A A A+. And, under that same system, those three grades average to A+.

Therefore, overall grade for comprehensives: A+.

So, friend thought this mildly amusing, that one A+ grade out of 9 could bring the whole average up to A+, and said so. The various students were discussing various aspects of it, whether it was fair, whether it is really deserved, whether it had ever happened before, and so on.

So, as the students are discussing this in the office, one of the professors happens to walk by.

Not just a professor, but one of the professors who had graded the theory portion of the exam.

And not just any of the professors, but in fact the very one who had given the A+ grade.

So, she overhears the buzz and conversation about the A+ grade.

And, she chimes in: "No, actually that A+ was no mistake at all." She gives the impression that the A+ grade was unusual enough that perhaps she had had to defend it in discussion among her colleagues who were also grading the exam, and it had held up.

"Totally, 100% well deserved. That student's analysis really was just that much more insightful than everyone else's."

And walks out.

Total mike drop moment. A few jaws drop, including my friend's.

The only A+ on comprehensives in history.

That anyone at that school can remember, anyway.

So, stories about comps are usually about disaster narrowly averted--or, sometimes, realized--and generally how the exams feed a sense of inferiority and awareness of shortcomings. Hardly anyone does as well as they really wish, and there are a lot of hopes and dreams--and years of study and work--tied up in the process and the results.

So here is at least one example of where they went a lot better than anticipated.

(Though I can vouch that not all friend's similar examination-type events went quite so well.)

As far as long-term perspective: The ones that go well and not-so-well both end up being pretty irrelevant a few years down the line--as long as they are passed, one way or the other.

Friend probably hasn't even told the story of the legendary A+ on doctoral comps more than two or three times (how in the world can you tell a story like that about yourself?).

And hasn't even worked in the field for more than a decade now.

So it goes . . .
posted by flug at 9:10 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

> So--to your question!--I think re-hashing what was asked and answered, what went well and what didn't, what surprised or what one was, perhaps, not quite prepared for, and what one knew perfectly well but somehow botched up, or didn't know at all but somehow bs-ed through--all those discussions would be part of any celebration or post-mortem.

Along those lines, there is an interesting post-mortem of oral exam performance by (now famous/distinguished) mathematician Terry Tao here:

- Post mortem
- Later blog post
- Later article (Chapter 30)
- Many other Princeton math students' post-mortems of their generals

Point is, technical discussion of what did/did not go well & why would be part of any post-party. Obviously, not quite as formal as those written post-mortems, but the same flavor.
posted by flug at 9:33 PM on July 15, 2019

Eh, I don't know about that being a universal experience. Most of us were just happy the damn thing was over and felt no need to revisit the ordeal. Maybe the champagne helped with the seeking of oblivion.
posted by praemunire at 9:56 PM on July 15, 2019

Also, the sort of stories and lore about disaster narrowly averted, unexpected success or failure, and just plain disaster are the type of lore and stories that get told at these kind of events.

Here is one that one my my PhD biology friends told:
A fellow student in his PhD program is struggling a bit and everyone is starting to think, maybe he's not quite fitting in to the program. Not quite disastrous yet, still plugging along attending and teaching classes, still generally keeping up and getting maybe mediocre but passing marks--but some question marks, perhaps.

Maybe he's not all that happy in the program.

Now it's time for comprehensive exams and everyone including struggling student is burning the midnight oil try to review anything and everything that might be on them.

The day comes, and into the oral exam he goes.

For the very first question, the professors pitch him a great big slow, easy softball right over the plate: "Diagram the Krebs Cycle on the board and explain it to us."

To a biology PhD student, the Krebs Cycle is literally Biology 101 type material. By the time you're in your PhD program, you've probably covered it at least 5 times in your undergraduate classes, several more in your grad classes, taught and explained it 20 or 40 times to undergrads in your TA sections and graded 600 students exams with the exact question "Diagram the Krebs Cycle". You've done experiments based around it, written papers based around it, and on and on.

It's basic. Freshman material.

And so in the oral exam, our student turns to the board, diagrams the Krebs Cycle, explains the whole thing at length . . . and just totally, totally botches it.

First question on orals, easy freshman-level material--and everything wrong.


So he gets done answering the question. He looks at the board. He looks at the examiners.

He knows the answer was completely botched. They know the answer was completely botched.

He looks at the board again. And he looks at the door--and walks out of it.

And walks out of the building, and the school, and the program.

And, that's the last anyone at that program ever saw or heard of him.
That's the type of story you're likely to hear passed around at your little exam celebration--a little of the folklore of the program and the exams, and how various infamous (and, usually, anonymous) students of the past have blown up, or not. Who broke, and who held up under pressure.
posted by flug at 10:02 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I got my PhD from Berkeley in 2006. I baked some cookies the day before my quals. I agree that the practice of students bringing treats for the professors is problematic. For me, it was good to have something to do besides Totally Freaking Out the day before. I think I still have my PhinisheD lollipop in a box somewhere.
posted by Arctic Circle at 11:02 PM on July 15, 2019

I work with grad students and if it's a gruelling exam probably drinks or a meal right away with close friends, then sleep and a day off... then back to work!! Likely students from the same program come and compare notes about Dr. Soandso who *always* asks the same question about her pet theory.

If the department is friendly and supervisory relationship is good, drinks paid for by supervisor and everyone goes together to celebrate their triumph...
But still the now-candidate heads home soon to get some much deserved rest.
posted by chapps at 12:08 AM on July 16, 2019

Also, comps vary widely by field.
I've known them to require the writing and defending of a funding proposal, or write two papers that are akin to an ma thesis (one in your specialty area, one not) and then defend each in a 3 hr oral, or to defend the proposal for the project that will become your dissertation. Some programs have written exams only, others have oral exam only..

Each type would end up with a different sort of celebration.
posted by chapps at 12:18 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Chapps is right that many things about the exams are program-specific. You might want to talk to someone who did a PhD in Sociology at Berkeley at the time to find out what your character would have been asked to do. Also, some schools use the terms "qualifying exams" and "comprehensive exams" interchangeably, but in some programs the terms refer to two different things.

Like lots of the people here, I celebrated completing my written and oral comps by going home and sleeping. After one of the written exams a friend made me dinner, but I'm sure I was lousy company.
posted by Nerdy Spice at 1:37 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I went into a conference room with an original research proposal, that was related to my field, but not what was going to actively research. I had an hour talk planned on that and then another hour talk about my progress so far in my research. There were a lot of questions about everything and then I was sent out of the room for the committees deliberations. I was certain that I had failed, but when the door opened my professor shook my hand and said congratulations you had passed.

I went back to the lab and did a workup and a column then went home an hour earlier than normal. I then went out and proceeded to get absolutely completely epically drunk. Drunk in the way you can get drunk by starting with a six pack of 10% beer then moving onto neat whiskey for a bottle and finishing up with some absinthe for good measure. Easily the most drunk I've ever been in my life. I probably lost a year of life, that drunk. Took Friday off due to drunkeness but back to lab on Monday after an equally massive hangover for the weekend and normality was resumed. Then started the long trudging path towards the PhD, the feeling of complete failure interspersed by fleeting moments of success. The suicidal ideation and not bothering to look for cars when crossing the street. The imposter syndrome when you don't know everything that slowly fades when you do actually know everything.
posted by koolkat at 2:18 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

As other people have said, this is very departmental culture specific: in my department there were qualifiers (a test of the coursework/basic concepts of the field), prelims (a proposal for your thesis), and the final thesis defense (after which you would be called doctor). The exams got easier as you went along.

For me, the qualifying exam was an oral exam (no written! But lots of departments do written!) in which four professors quizzed me on what was theoretically four topics of my choice, but turned into anything remotely related to those four topics (in other departments it is a research proposal and they quiz you about things related to research). If it seemed like I knew what I was talking about, they moved on to a different or more difficult topic. The idea was to plumb the depths of my knowledge: there is always another level at which you can understand things, and they wanted to see how deeply I'd gone. Needless to say, it was an extremely stressful experience; everybody tells you it's OK as long as you never try to BS your committee: just say 'I don't know'. I said 'I don't know' a lot. My defense was in a small conference room with four professors (maybe five?). They're supposed to sign the paper for passage right away. I brought pastries, but there were no flowers and champagne afterwards, just relief.

In another department where quals were a research proposal, students were told to know at least one layer of knowledge beyond anything they put on a slide.

Culture varies department by department, though: in some departments, people fail their qualifiers and have to leave, and in others nobody fails their qualifiers (it's not like an official thing, but ...). Usually you get one more shot at it. It's stressful even if you 'know' that nobody fails because who wants to be the first?

For another view on qualifying exams, see PhD comics.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:43 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just passed my PhD candidacy exam in January. I had prepared a proposal, which was circulated to my examining committee (Chair is Director of the programme, two of my supervisors, and then two faculty from the program who were not on my committee to act as internal-externals).

I was a bit worried because the preparation for the exam specifically said I had to read a 1500 page book on the Philosophy of Science and that one of the exam topics was Philosophy of Science (program is Natural Sciences/Environmental Sciences). I didn't feel as though I had as good a handle as I should on those topics. The other examiners had all submitted their main topics of examination to me in advance.

We were in a cramped little seminar room, and the door had been locked each time I checked so I couldn't see what the AV setup was, and I was so paranoid about AV issues I brought two different laptops and thank goodness because it was a really old projector.

The examination chair was late because he locked his keys in his office.

So I then had to give a 25-30 minute summary of my project with a powerpoint deck, and then it went to rounds of questions. I blew at least one of them, I didn't know what the examiner was asking, and my attempts to get clarification just made things worse!

But overall the questions were tough but fair. After two rounds (about 2.5 hours), I was sent out in the hall while they deliberated. Then they brought me back in and told me I had passed.

The chair (who wasn't allowed to ask questions during the exam) then asked if he could talk about my research because he was interested in some aspect of it.

No questions about Philosophy of Science.

By then it was really late and I had to get home to get my kids, so I didn't really celebrate or anything, just took all the laptops etc. to my office, dumped everything there, went home and just collapsed.
posted by ceithern at 4:44 AM on July 16, 2019

Didn't have an oral qualifying exam. Had a written exam for that. Had a culminating dissertation defense (qualitative fieldwork case study) that was me and my three committee members, no one else. It was a slam-dunk, really; my chair was a distinguished professor who had a reputation for getting her graduate students through, my research and analysis had taken forever and much solitary crying, my first reader was a distinguished professor who approved of me entirely, and my second reader should have known better because just as we were about to celebrate, he said, "I'm not convinced" and my chair nearly had a heart attack. They talked him down, I was awarded distinction, and I left absolutely shattered, went home crying, and felt horrible for about a year. Many of the people I know in my kind of research took about a year to stop feeling haunted and inadequate.
posted by Peach at 5:25 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was in a relationship with a woman during the last years of her PhD process (physics at Rice). She didn't have an oral exam per se, but she did have a defense. I took the day off to attend and support her.

I've since been given to understand that this is normal, but holy hell it was an amazingly pro forma process. Basically, I guess, if they let you defend, you're done; you just have to not whiff the landing. They addressed her as "Dr F___" immediately after, and I took her to dinner, after which she slept the sleep of the just for like 12 hours.

Later we DID go have a big dinner at a fancy place, though.
posted by uberchet at 6:49 AM on July 16, 2019

I passed my qualifying exam for molecular biology at Berkeley in 2010. We had a big classroom with a podium and chalkboard at the front. The three members of my committee sat in the front row, and my advisor did not attend.

I wrote an extensive thesis proposal before the exam, and studied from a list of 20 or so important journal articles. The questions I was asked were about the journal articles, but mostly focused on important background information related to my thesis proposal. One professor who was really doing her job asked me to draw a figure from an important paper related to my topic on the board from memory. Another professor asked me to summarize specific mutations related to my topic.

My boyfriend at the time waited outside in the hallway the whole time, with some kind of treat for me. I got sent to the hallway while the professors deliberated, and talked to him about how it had gone. After 5 minutes or so, they called me back in to tell me I passed, but also gave me feedback. One of the older professors criticized gaps in my knowledge (saying "you millennials think you can just look things up. You have to know it!").

Afterward, my boyfriend and I went out for a nice lunch, and then I went home and he went back to his office on campus. I didn't go to Jupiter's, but lots of my classmates did.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 9:40 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone! Great input and stories, all very helpful! I am actually asking about the oral qualifying exam that advances the student to candidacy -- the exam they take before they begin the dissertation, though I know different institutions call things by different names. As for my character, life is going to intervene so that she never finishes her dissertation, let alone defends it, and thus no lollipop!
posted by swheatie at 9:56 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

You need to talk with someone who was actually at Berkley, I remember a chemistry professor from there telling a prospective student "It's a country club, there's no more hoops for you to jump through once you get accepted".
posted by 445supermag at 10:58 AM on July 16, 2019

Honestly, anyone who would give you crap like "That is not how Berkeley's sociology department operates!" would probably also search the records and bitterly complain that there are no records your characters ever attended Berkeley.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:10 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're at all concerned about accuracy, I recommend asking a few people who actually graduated from that specific program around the same time as your character. As you can see by the responses already left here, there is tremendous variation. In my experience, this variation occurs not only between institutions but also within institutions i.e., what happens in one department may be very different not only from other departments at the same university but also from the same department at other universities.

For what it's worth, my oral defense of my qualifying exam (in a different discipline at a different university) only included three faculty members: the one who wrote the first question (common to everyone defending quals that semester), my advisor who wrote my second question (specific to my dissertation topic), and a third faculty member. It was an oral defense of my written responses to the questions and they really liked my responses so the whole process was quick (20 minutes, maybe?) and collegial with much of the discussion focused on my dissertation topic and advice for writing my dissertation. Some of my classmates had more difficult defenses with some required to make substantial rewrites and at least one who failed. But in my program the general idea was that if you were admitted to the program then you should have what it takes to succeed and the faculty were pretty supportive (with some exceptions, of course). I don't know what I did afterward but I doubt that it was anything special; I might have gone to dinner a few days or weeks later with other classmates who took quals at the same time and were successful in their defense...?
posted by ElKevbo at 2:24 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Mine was in English, at a state R1. We had to write exams first (two 24-hour exams, usually consisting of 1-2 questions each, in 2 different areas) and then defend them. Small, weird classroom in the basement. It was not a great experience; my advisor and supposed mentor ended the whole process by making comments on my personality and...public/academic persona, I guess, that ultimately soured the rest of my time in grad school and dissuaded me from going on the job market when I graduated. I barely passed. There were no snacks--didn't even know that was a thing. I walked home on a very hot day feeling hurt and betrayed. I may have had a drink afterward.

I'm a professor now, and I would never treat my students the way she treated me.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:46 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am actually asking about the oral qualifying exam that advances the student to candidacy -- the exam they take before they begin the dissertation

Mine was two days in a tiny conference room with a computer that was not hooked up to the internet, nine hours of writing each day. For anything that results in essays, it isn't really possible to know if you've passed right away-- the readers have to have time to read and evaluate. I can't remember how long it took, actually, but probably a couple weeks. Each day I copied my essays from the day onto a flash drive, and at the end of the day turned it in with a department admin who emailed the files to my committee.

In our humanities department, it was viewed as "weird" to announce your own passing of the exams, so the ritual was that you would hear from your chair that 1) you had passed, and 2) it was time to start writing your dissertation prospectus. Then you told a friend, who had to email the whole department so that everyone could congratulate you.

Celebratory rituals depended on the social group, but going out for beers and pizza was pretty normal. That said, the quals are basically just the entrance to a much worse process, so it isn't quite unalloyed joy. More like one last chance to take a breath before starting the real marathon.

We had one person fail the quals during the entire time I was in grad school, which was a LONG time, and it rocked the department. It was considered the responsibility of your committee to not allow you to sit the exam until they were certain you were ready-- failing quals almost reflected more poorly upon them than the student. (Also the person who failed took them again later, and did fine, and is now a professor.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:26 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had a week of written candidacy exams and then two weeks later was supposed to have an oral defense of my candidacy and my dissertation proposal. I misfiled a piece of paperwork with the grad school, so the university did not let me do my oral defense until a month later. I felt great about how my oral defense went, and after it was confirmed that I passed, I went out with some friends to the Little Bar ($2 drafts and well drinks!) and then we went for tacos.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:27 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

(after I had the problems with my originally scheduled oral defense, I burst into tears in my advisor's office and then I went out with some friends to the Little Bar for $2 drafts and well drinks, and then we went for some tacos. That was just the thing to do.)
posted by ChuraChura at 7:31 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

We went out and drank heavily. In particular, one of my friends bought a bottle of Polish grain liquor that was basically paint thinner, and we passed it around the table. In my (English) department, it was common to not want to talk too much about the exam itself, unless someone asked you a particularly bizarre question. Some professors had a reputation for always asking something weird, so like "what was you Billy question?" was a common thing to discuss.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:42 AM on July 17, 2019

I had an oral preliminary exam and then, six months to a year later, my thesis proposal. I was really relaxed and confident going into my orals, because I've never had a problem knowing things, so I breezed through them - - honestly, I found them fun. I'd been warned well ahead of time that the point of them is to assess breadth of your knowledge and identify the flaws in it, which everyone has, and also to assess how you as a person handle it when you're being asked things you don't know. So I spent most of my orals gleefully bounding through Evolution and Behavior and then my Outside representative, who asked me about acoustic communication, and stumbled a little through Ecology but got a pass out on the end for that. It was a little like tutoring or teaching, in that the profs haven't necessarily thought their questions out ahead of time and you sometimes have to ask them what exactly they want out of you. I got asked questions about things I mostly loved talking about for four hours.

During his orals, one of my friends (working on bird ecology) had the representative of Behavior on his committee solemnly pass him a sheet of photographs of monkeys and ask him to identify them. I think he'd gotten as far as the species group before the committee member managed to get a word in edgewise and explain that he'd really just wanted to hear they were Old World monkeys. This kind of nervous student overperformance is very, very common.

When I passed that - - and yes, you always know immediately if you pass--my PI bought champagne and everyone celebrated. Often, PIs in my field will buy two bottles for every milestone a student makes, or two bottles for each dissertation completed, and will keep one bottle from each pair on display somewhere in the lab as a sort of souvenir/marker of the finished goal. The other goes to the student. Of course, you drink all the champagne together first.

Now, my thesis proposal was a very different story. I was very insecure and afraid that the work I had actually done myself wouldn't pass muster and so I was extremely nervous about it going in - - didn't really eat or sleep, tried to put it together but didn't remotely prepare as well as I should have if I hadn't been working through white knuckled terror. Compounding things, my PI had apparently bragged that I was really good at handling criticism in the quiet period before the presentation, because I had been so good at it during my oral. So there were a lot of interruptions and (valid!) criticisms of my initial proposal. I remember it as a terror-inducing ordeal, and I remember being so crestfallen when it was over (I passed!) that my dismayed PI offered me a hug. I am still very anxious and gun shy about committee meetings, although I have since achieved several much better ones. There's something about presenting your own work that is so much scarier than presenting your grasp of someone else's.
posted by sciatrix at 7:56 AM on July 17, 2019

I'm sure it varies a lot by field. In my experience, as someone in the physical sciences who's taken quals, served on the quals committee twice, and been a faculty mentor to around six students taking the exam, there is never a celebration. My own quals are tied for the most unpleasant experience in my entire life. (I realize this means my life has been pretty great.) The students I've known, including those who passed with flying colors and never had to worry, left the exam shaky and nearly emotionally devastated.

It's usually in a seminar room. In some places, you wait in the hallway while your case is discussed for half an hour after the exam. In others, you go back to your office and get told two days later what the result was. In every case that I've seen, it's typically celebrated by drinking alone in your room or going on long walks and questioning the choices you've made in life. Inviting others to a celebrate the event would seem very strange, at least in my departments.
posted by eotvos at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2019

 As for my character, life is going to intervene so that she never finishes her dissertation, let alone defends it, and thus no lollipop!


But good for them on completing the ABD!

Please post when youre done, I collect fictional grad student characters (books, film, tv and songs) and would love to read it.
posted by chapps at 4:07 PM on July 17, 2019

I have a feeling a lot of details will be university- and even department-specific, but unless someone went through a PhD program at the time in question, many of these minor details will not take away from the authenticity. I went to a UC, but not Berkeley. I’ll try to be general and give some relatable details from my own experience.

My study buddy failed his a week before I was to take mine. I was empathetic, but mostly terrified of my own prospects.

My exam panel consisted of a chair, one prof who was familiar with my area of study and three with quite different specialties, corresponding to the major curricular divisions in courses I’d taken. I requested my examiners from a list of volunteers (you didn’t always get your first choice, but my mentor helped me pick one’s he thought would be fair), and I met with them a couple months ahead of time so they could inform me of their individual expectations of what I should know. For the subject I most dreaded, a kindly man gave me a handful of papers to read and said that should be my focus for his subject area. For the subject where I should be an expert, pretty much anything was fair game, which was fine with me.

For six weeks I studied for at least 5 hours a day up until the week before, then did a couple hours until the day before. If your character is highly organized, they will have made an outline of what to study and a schedule on how to get through it.

My labmates set up a mock exam for me the week before. In hindsight, they were much harder on me than the profs.

For the exam itself, I was told firmly not to bring them any food. The first part was fielding general questions about my field of study, mostly answerable through classes I’d taken. On one or two questions I forgot a name or minor detail and they gently put me back on track, but in general I had to show my thought process and general knowledge of the field. I left for 10 minutes for a bathroom break and to leave them time to discuss my answers. During the bathroom break I took some time to guzzle water and hastily apply some paper towels to my drenched armpits.

The next section involved presenting my dissertation proposal, which they’d had time to review beforehand. The panel asked me a lot of questions about experimental design the reasoning, benefits and drawbacks regarding certain techniques in my approach. One professor asked a question and disagreed with my answer, and we argued for about 5 minutes before he gave up. At the time I had no idea if that was good or bad, but being a woman in science I knew that could have still gone either way. The chair thanked me and asked me to leave so they could confer. For me, it was a very quick conversation, as I’d apparently done very well, and they let me know after less than 5 minutes.

My classmates and labmates all wanted to take me out for a beer, so I had one with them, but I was honestly so exhausted I’m pretty sure I went home early just to sleep for a solid 12 hours.
posted by estelahe at 8:56 PM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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