Dear graduate student,
I am sorry to hear you have to suffer through a qualifying exam.
Nowadays, incoming PhD students are well aware that they are sacrificing money and free time for the chance to slightly expand the bubble of human knowledge and the chance to be called "doctor", usually even without applying a scalpel to a human body. A fresh graduate student is initially welcomed to the university with free food and alcohol,
as they are a (willing!) source of cheap labor, brain power, and ideas. This warm welcome fades and the first year or two of grad school are a blur of classes, research failures, and the occasional research success. The graduate student may be overworked and underpaid, but it's finally work in a that field they like, that they can creatively contribute to, and that might mean something in the end. Maybe this grad school thing isn't that bad, they think.
As the graduate student begins to get comfortable in this new position of trying their advisor's patience and bossing undergrads around, they are suddenly reminded that academia will always be a meaningless obstacle course.
Welcome, hopeful student, to the hazing ritual of qualifying exams.
For the next several months, you are an undergraduate again, except this time you're too old for frat parties.
You will study subjects you have blissfully not cared about for three or more years and that have nothing to do with your research. You have a vague memory of getting an A in that class - surely it can't be that hard to pass this exam!
To pass the qualifying exam, you must be a perfect problem solving, proof recollection machine. Got used to storing information in textbooks and even on the internet rather than in your brain? Time to memorize equations you could look up in real life! What exactly is on this exam, you ask? Depends on who you ask! Even the people who make the tests aren't quite sure. If you're lucky, you have old exams to practice with, and if you're extremely lucky, you even have solutions. Otherwise, you will form study groups in which you will argue over what the correct answer is only to figure out after an hour that one of you misplaced a negative sign and someone else made an algebra mistake.
Other than your study group, you work alone. You will spend many hours at your desk poring over three textbooks at a time and drinking a lot of coffee, and some more hours feeling extremely guilty for not being able to study anymore, for not being smarter, and for being human.
Good luck trying to motivate yourself to study while life rages on around you. Your advisor will be just as frustrated as you are, since this is probably delaying the publication of your paper. Your significant other will wonder why you've become so distant, or why you seem perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Family will send you care packages of chocolate which you will eat for dinner while staring blankly at the wall. You will discover that your somewhat older body has become worse at processing both studying and alcohol - get ready for some of the best information hangovers of your life. Remember all of those hobbies you wanted to pick up? At this rate, not until you're 30. You're not getting any younger - is whatever research you were doing before this started worth this waste of time? Most likely, you won't be able to remember what that was or why you used to care about it.
When the exam comes, you have two choices - a written exam or an oral exam. The written exam is just as painful as every final you have taken. The oral exam is much worse. Remember when we mentioned that this is a hazing ritual? For a length of time, professors will pester you with questions attempting to pull every ounce of knowledge out of your sleep-deprived, failing neurons. They will judge you while you sweat under their blazing glares so badly you can barely grip your chalk - until they start yelling and your mind turns from "I can't remember this derivation no matter how much they yell" to "please don't start crying this is already embarrassing enough!". Surely if they realized how tired you are and the level of stress this is putting you through, especially since your future depends on this one panicked hour, they'd send you home with some hot chocolate and instructions to not do any work for the next month!
There is, of course a silver lining - if you fail, you either have the opportunity to redeem yourself by doing it all over again, or you are now officially free of grad school! You can now get a job that makes you real money and leaves you with free evenings - and even, I hear, weekends.
Not recommended for:
- People with lives;
- People with hobbies;
- People with kids;
- People with feelings;
- People unwilling to lose a year of their professional and personal lives to pointless studying;
Now go out there and ace those exams! I'm only writing this to take a break from/procrastinate on studying for mine. Here's to hoping we survive!