11 January 2012
You’ve probably heard of the dreaded Qualifying Exam, but what is it like? Well, it varies a lot from school to school and between disciplines, but I can tell you what ours was like in Astronomy at Cornell.
The qualifying exam (or “Q-exam”) was split into two parts for us. The first part is a written test at the end of the first year, taken along with the other first year students in the department, and covering whatever the first year committee decides to write questions about. The questions are usually related to the areas of expertise of the folks on the committee, so I and the other first years spent a lot of time poring over copies of previous exams and trying to figure out which questions certain profs wrote (they sometimes re-use questions). We met throughout the summer to work on potential exam questions together and review tricky concepts, and if you can get your fellow first years organized enough, I highly recommend doing this.
Once you pass the written Q, you have to choose an adviser and committee before taking the oral Q exam. The oral Q is the scary one. Written exams? Please. If you’ve made it to grad school, you can handle those. The oral exam is a very different experience. You are locked in a room with your committee and their main goal is to figure out what you know and how well you think on your feet. This exam is frustrating because the moment you show that you understand something, your committee will cut you off and move on to something else. In preparing for this exam, I made a set of flash cards with key astronomy equations and their derivations, based on reading through the behemoth of a book that is An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics by Carroll and Ostle (or, as we called it in undergrad, “Big Chunky”). Those cards came in handy: I was able to easily answer a question about star formation and another about neutron stars that otherwise would have been pretty tricky.
The oral exam is not just about recalling formulas though. Your committee also wants to see that you can think on your feet. My adviser gave me a question relating to a paper that he was currently reviewing and had me do a back of the envelope calculation to see if the paper’s result was plausible (it wasn’t). Steve Squyres asked me what recent journal articles I had read (I flubbed this question, because of course I had been reading Big Chunky and not journals. Alas, I still am bad about keeping up with journals.)
The qualifying exam will likely be the pinnacle of your broad knowledge about your field of study. Of course, you will get much more knowledgeable about the smaller area that you devote your PhD studies to, but I certainly have forgotten most of those flashcards at this point.
Different schools have different philosophies about quals. At some schools, they really are used to weed students out. If you don’t pass, then you don’t stay. Other schools give you a couple of tries. Cornell was more lenient: they use the Q-exam to figure out where you are weak and then recommend additional coursework to build your skills in that area.
As with much of grad school, the most reliable advice for your particular school is passed down by oral tradition from older grad students, so make some friends, buy them a beer, and ask them to share their war stories. Once they snap out of the thousand yard stare, most will be happy to give you a blow-by-blow of their qualifying exam experience.