January 11, 2011

Bee-Bop the General Exam Bear

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Bee-Bop on my desk after I passed my general exam, Woods Hole, October 2008.

This is Bee-Bop, the big, furry, creepy, blue toy that PhD students in the Geology & Geophysics Department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) pass from student to student. The toy is held in the possession of whomever has most recently passed her (or his, but most geology students right now are female, so I’ll go with her) general or qualifying exam for her PhD. When a new student passes her general exam, Bee-Bop appears on her desk within a few hours– usually when the newly-minted PhD candidate is busy drinking the important post-generals beer or taking the relaxing post-generals nap.

The Bee-Bop toy has been passed down for the past four-and-a-half years that I have been a student at WHOI. I don’t know when the tradition started. If any WHOI graduates read this and know when and how this tradition originated, please let me know. Bee-Bop resided in my office for about two months. I passed my general exam in early October of my third year of graduate school, and I handed over Bee-Bop to another successful PhD candidate in December of that year. I believe that Bee-Bop currently lives in my friend Arthur’s office. Depending on when students take their general exam, they have Bee-Bop for a few days or for a few months.

Most PhD programs have a notorious general or qualifying exam. Some programs even have two such exams! Prior to this exam, you are not, technically, in the PhD program. After this exam, you become an official PhD candidate. The exam varies from institution to institution and from department to department, but usually the exam consists of a general knowledge section, which can be written or oral, and a research section, which is often an oral presentation and accompanying research paper. The general exam is graded by the notorious general exam committee, which again varies from institution to institution. At some places the exam committee is selected by the department whereas at other places the student is allowed to select her exam committee. General exams usually happen at the end of the second year of the PhD.

In the Geology & Geophysics Department in the MIT/WHOI program, the general exam currently follows the guidelines below. Note that these are the guidelines that I followed and which I believe the department still follows but that this is a blog and does NOT represent the official MIT/WHOI rules on the matter.

1. The general exam committee consists of committee members (usually 2-4) selected by the student plus the student’s advisor(s) plus 1-2 committee members selected by the department to serve on all of the general exams in a particular year.

2.  The student must present two 20 minute presentations about two separate research projects. The student must also write two ~10 page research papers, one for each project. The committee members read the papers in advance and then listen to the two presentations. After each research presentation, the committee members can ask questions about the project.

3. After the research portion of the exam is concluded, the committee members are allowed to ask general knowledge questions. Committee members can ask anything they want, though the questions are often within fields (e.g. geophysics, geochemistry, sedimentology, paleoclimate) the student is supposed to be knowledgeable about for her thesis.

Most questions are reasonable, but the committee members will sometimes ask harder and harder questions until they find a question the student cannot answer. Then, they observe how well the student responds to a question she has absolutely no idea how to answer. There are all sorts of rumors about the worst general knowledge questions. Rumored worst questions ever are:

“If your airplane crashed and you were on a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, what kind of science experiments would you conduct?” (To a physical oceanographer)

“What is the moon doing right now?”  (To a student studying lunar basalts)

“If the Earth were two-thirds its present size, how would all of geophysics change?”(To a geophysicist)

4. Because two research projects are required, the general exam happens in the third year, which is a little later than most PhD programs. Students do not take the exam at the same time. Rather, each student takes the exam when she is ready. Thus, general exams are staggered throughout the third year, which gives Bee-Bop time to reside in each student’s office.

5. The general exam varies in length but generally lasts about three hours. Scheduling two hours before lunch is recommended as your committee members become hungry and tend to ask fewer general knowledge questions.

The general exam is really scary and stressful. For about three or four months before my general exam, I was really stressed out. My exam was a little more stressful than most, I suppose, because I was in the process of changing advisors. However, all students (at least ones I’ve observed) stress about their general exam. In my program students who actually make it to their general exam almost always pass. Somehow, the knowledge that you are pretty much guaranteed to pass (at least in the Geology & Geophysics Department) does not make the general exam any less stressful.

Yes, most students pass their general exam here in the Geology & Geophysics Department at MIT/WHOI. This is mostly because advisors don’t let their students take the exam until they are ready. The students in the program are bright (being accepted to the program is the hard part, really), so they are generally quite capable. The students who don’t pass outright usually pass with some conditions. A conditional pass sounds scary, but usually it just means that your committee wants you to take an extra thermodynamics class or write an appendix to one of your general exam research papers. A conditional pass is not a bad thing; such a pass just means that your committee wants to make you a better scientist.

Rarely (in geology, but not in other departments such as engineering), students fail their general exams. There are two versions of this failure. Outright failure (leave the program immediately with nothing) is extremely rare. The second type of “failure” is the committee requiring that the student write and defend a masters thesis. After defending this masters thesis, the committee will then re-evaluate if the student is ready for a PhD. Some students who receive the “masters failure” become frustrated and decide to leave with the masters; others persist and continue with the PhD.

The MIT/WHOI program does not award masters degrees as a matter of course. You cannot apply to be a masters student (unless you are in the Navy, which has a special arrangement), so a silly notion about the MIT/WHOI program is that receiving a terminal masters degree is a “failure.” Clearly, this is a ridiculous notion since a masters degree from MIT/WHOI is considered extremely prestigious by PRETTY MUCH THE WHOLE WORLD. Only in the confining bubble of academia (and not even all of academia) is obtaining a masters degree from MIT/WHOI considered “failure.” Honestly, I don’t think anyone at MIT or WHOI really looks down upon anyone who decides to leave with a masters degree. Nonetheless, since the expectation when you start the program is that you will obtain a PhD, people sometimes whisper in hushed, gossipy tones about so-and-so defending her masters.

Sometimes, students decide to leave with a masters degree even before they take their general exams. There are a number of reasons for this, but most often (from what I’ve seen) a student realizes that she doesn’t want to be a PhD academic. These masters-choosing students leave the program and generally obtain excellent jobs, making their PhD-seeking former classmates extremely jealous of their money and free time.

The general exam is a rite of passage for all students in my program. As with many rites of passage, there are some traditions. Generally, there is cake and a small party and a free-pass from your advisor to sleep in for a week. In my department, we also have Bee-Bop.

I suppose that I should explain a little more about the Bee-Bop toy. I call this toy a bear, but really the toy is some kind of strange space alien mutant baby. I guess it makes me feel better to think about Bee-Bop as a blue bear with a strange head than a mutant alien baby with a blue bear body. Bee-Bop is a ridiculous and very creepy toy. Just looking at the toy is creepy enough. However, to make Bee-Bop even more creepy, this toy does not one but TWO creepy dances. Unfortunately, I did not videotape Bee-Bop’s dances when I had him (her? it?)  in my office. Fortunately, there are many videos of this toy on YouTube. I found several videos by googleing “creepy dancing toy.” Here is a video of an orange Bee-Bop that I like:


Video taken from YouTube.

As you can see, Bee-Bop’s name comes from the sound it makes when it starts its first creepy dance. When I found this video on YouTube, I realized that Bee-Bop’s name is actually Boohbah.  The toy is apparently based on the creepy children’s television show Boohbah, which started in 2003 (UK) and 2004 (US). Thus, I deduct that the Bee-Bop/Boohbah general exam tradition started around 2004.

The Bee-Bop toy is crazy and silly and creepy and always makes me laugh whenever I see it in a classmate’s office. Shortly after my own general exam, I made the Bee-Bop toy dance its creepy dances in my office. The Bee-Bop dances made me break out into hysterical laughter with my officemates. After I survived– and passed– my general exam, laughter was just what I needed.

I hope that the Bee-Bop toy continues to be passed down for many years. If the tradition is ever lost in years to come and some future graduate student in the MIT/WHOI program finds this blog post, please contact me. I volunteer to buy a Bee-Bop toy off ebay (if ebay still exists) and mail (maybe teleport– that would be neat) it to whomever has just passed her general exam.