graduate student life

The ultimate grad student guide to survive (and pass) qualifying exams

***Updated on 11/24/2014***


Most qualifying exam stories come with the same take home message: it’s the worse moment in the life of a PhD student. My story is no different than the others: several times I considered just walking out the door, heading to the airport and taking the first flight back home; all I put in my stomach in the last three days of the quals process were 24 cans of coke and a giant bag of dinosaur shaped nuggets; I would work 15-20 hrs a day, and often question myself if it was enough; some days I wouldn’t work at all, because my brain just refused to, and the struggle with the endless guiltiness was even worse; I couldn’t sleep the night before my oral exam; during the exam I was so tired and got so nervous that I couldn’t think straight, and said “I don’t know”, s-e-v-e-r-a-l times; at the end, I passed, and I cried (a lot). Not tears of happiness though, those were intentional tears of relief, to wash away tons of stress and personal pressure.

If you’re about to take your quals and just read the above, you probably hate me for being such a Debbie Downer. I’m sorry about that, but I needed to highlight the general negativeness around qualifying exams so you can understand the point I want to make with this post: the hardest part of quals isn’t the tons of papers you have to read, or endless hours working, or deciding how to structure your arguments…the hardest part is to manage your levels of self confidence. If you cannot trust yourself, you can trust me and the other graduate students that contributed with several suggestions to this post. I’ll try my best so our mistakes don’t become yours, and summarize here good and safe strategies for doing well on qualifying exams, as well as the most common self-trapping strategies.

Think about the characters in the Hollywood classic “The good, the bad, and the ugly” when trying to understand how you can win the quals war looking as pretty as Clint Eastwood would, or how you could fail by choosing a bad stratagem, or letting the ugly side of your own self doubts make your life harder than it should be, and even drive you to failure. The advices here are mainly towards the system of qualifying exams at the Ecology, Evolution and Systematics program at the University of Missouri St Louis, however they can be useful to graduate students taking qualifying exams in different areas and institutions as well. The quals in our the department is far from being easy, but it is a fair and very reasonable process. It’s important to highlight here that the qualifying exam structure varies tremendously across graduate programs. At least in the fields of Ecology and Evolution, the common component of all exams is an oral examination with a committee (as far as I know). However, the written part of the quals exams goes from exams lasting a few hours, days, months, or no written component at all. PhD students in our program have one month to write down the answers for five questions: two four page long essays on major theoretical fields that your dissertation fits in, and three shorter, one page long essays on minor, or satellite topics. The written part goes to a committee composed by faculty members who will read the answers and discuss them with the student during in a meeting, which makes up the oral exam of the quals process. The student’s advisor is left out of the entire process, in order to avoid conflict of interests. One of the most distinctive characteristics of our quals at UMSL is that while working on our questions, we are allowed to brainstorm with other people. Hence, you are free to discuss your questions with other people, as long as you use your own words when writing the answers. A solo and silent qualifying structure is common elsewhere.


The good, or Eastwood-style strategies for success:

1) Get your life ready beforehand. If you don’t want to end up like me, eating dinosaur nuggets for three days in a row, stock some provisions beforehand. As if you’re preparing yourself for war or a long hard winter, make sure you have enough food, caffeine and whatever keeps you going. Crock pot-borne food will be your best friends. Warn family, friends and significant others that you’ll be in a on the edge/cave-man mode for a while. They’ll have to bear with a bipolar version of you that, on the blink of an eye, goes from a cold working machine to a highly emotional type that cries watching diaper commercials.

2) Make a work and rest schedule and stick to it. Set up the order of the questions you will answer, and a time frame for each. Include an order of tasks: read -> write -> revise -> break -> next question. The transition from reading to writing is very important, I personally struggle with start writing even after reading more than enough, which is why respecting the schedule is essential.

3) Plan on finishing before the deadline. My deadline was on a Friday. I finished on Tuesday, took a brain break on Wednesday, and revised half on Thursday and half on Friday. Taking a break before doing a final review allows you to set your brain free from your own text, and do a somewhat unbiased review. Sometimes the oral exam is scheduled only a few days after you send the responses to the examination committee –  hence, you want to rest and take it easy at the very end.

4) Tackle the hardest first. If you leave the hardest and the longest parts to the second half of the process, your tiredness and emotional state will affect your progress.

5) Put some endorphin in your blood stream, at least twice a week. Best way of doing it: exercise. Bike to the library, Brainstormwalk around the block, do some jumping jacks, yoga, walk to the coffee shop that is two blocks away…It doesn’t matter how, just find a way to boost your endorphins levels, it’ll help to clean up your head, control your stress and improve your concentration.

6) Brainstorm with your colleagues. Papers shouldn’t be your only learning resource. To me, one of the coolest things in the academic environment is to be able to knock on the door across the hallway and discuss whatever you want with your colleagues. Take advantage of the intellectual environment around you, and learn how to use it in your favor, if you aren’t doing it already.

7) Read about writing. As any method of communication, there are clearly stablished writing techniques out there. My favorite read on the topic is “Gopen and Swan, 1990. The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist“. Duke University has a free-web based course on scientific writing:

8) Beat the myth of the professor-enemy. Students of the world: your teachers are not your enemies. I’ve been taking a teacher training course at UMSL this fall, and we discuss a lot about how to be the student’s “best friends” through out their educations journey. However, even when their mentors try and are supportive, students often don’t even acknowledge that their professors are their more powerful allies. Dr Patty Parker, our department chair, pointed out the following after reading the first version of this post: “In general, the faculty completely believe in the students and want them to do well. It may feel like someone is “out to get you” but that is never the case, in my experience. In general, the examiners are supportive of the students and want them to succeed, and understand that everyone is different and responds differently to the particular form of nervousness that comes with qualifying exams. I guess that is my main point: the faculty on the examination committee are humans, too, with feelings and strengths and weaknesses. Remember that we, too, would struggle to formulate strong responses to these same questions. Remember that we are sitting there when someone asks a question, asking ourselves whether we could answer it and how we would answer it.  I am usually extremely impressed with the poise of our students and how they can respond to questions that I think I would struggle to answer“.

 The bad, or guaranteed failure (or partial failure) strategies, or two ways of shooting your own foot:

Trying to do multiple things at the same time during your quals is a bad idea. Photo from:

Trying to do multiple things at the same time during your quals is a bad idea. Photo from:

1) Multitasking. During your quals, ALL you will do will be your quals. NOTHING ELSE. You should engage in single priority mode. That’s the main reason the quals in our department have been moved to the winter break – there’s the downside of kind of missing all the holiday parties, but the very very very positive side that there’s little overlap with field seasons and conferences, which mostly happen over the summer. Focusing and not multitasking may sound obvious to you, but people don’t follow this rule more often than you’d think, and all cases I’m aware of people that have failed (or partially failed) qualifying exams did something else during that month, which includes distractions from both professional and personal life. So, be careful with this one.

2) Answering “it depends”. For my own qualifying exam, I received the following question for a minor in Conservation Biology: “If scientists readily adopted the phylogenetic species concept and this concept became accepted by policy-makers, how might that impact the U.S. Endangered Species Act?“. The phylogenetic species concept considers species as the smallest monophyletic units in a phylogeny, hence species are irreducible clusters grouped by unique shared characters and ancestry. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 provides legal means for the conservation of wildlife endangered or in threat of extinction, and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The ESA original definition of species included “any subspecies of fish, wildlife or plants”, and having a major flaw of not specifying the species concept under which endangered and threatened taxa are recognized. My answer strategy on that was: “It depends.”. Bad mistake. My arguments were that adopting the phylogenetic species concept in the ESA could be beneficial for giving a standard operational unit for policy makers, besides considerably reducing the number of species in the list, which can be an advantage when resources are limited; however, by adopting the phylogenetic species concept, the ESA would ignore that species are complex evolutionary entities, and should be treated as so. I concluded saying that the species concept adopted should be context dependent. Bad idea again. The problem here was, by being so on the fence I: 1) didn’t prepare myself well enough to defend either side of what I was proposing; and 2) gave my committee the chance to ask me questions that went in any possible direction. I was also told that as a scientist I should be able to give a single answer when policy makers ask my opinion: “People out there want one answer, and it’s your responsibility to be able to provide that single answer”. I still don’t have experience enough to judge these words, but here is my message: if you are asked to give your opinion on something, even if you really believe the answer is “it depends”, pick a side for your own sake.


 The ugly, or the dangerous lack of self confidence:

Have you heard of the impostor syndrome? If you are in your first years in grad school, I bet two phalanges from my right hand that you have it. Impostor syndrome is a term that was coined to describe several types of feelings related to problems with self-acceptance. It’s that constant feeling of being a fraud that comes with a fear of being caught – “what if everybody finds out that I actually know nothing”. It is constantly accompanied by thoughts like: “I’ll never be as good as Mary Jane, or John Smith”. You’re not alone when it comes to feeling like an impostor, but it’s up to you to make your way out of it. You can find out how here and here. As I said earlier, the hardest part of the qualifying exam process is to manage your self confidence. If you are going through the quals process, you earned your place in hell, and you know it wasn’t easy getting there. Think about it.

I’ll be posting two examples of qualifying exam answers in the near future. There’s a lot of anxiety around thinking about what type of questions are asked, and how in depth one should answer these questions. I got the ok from our Department Chair to post examples of questions and answers, and hope you can take advantage of them. Stay tuned.

If you have any other suggestion that I didn’t cover in this post, please post a comment 🙂 !


Field work’s yin and yang, lessons from China

Following up our “Field preparation” series, Robbie Hart from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis gives us some extra advice on how to prepare for the unforeseen during your field time. Thanks, Robbie, for this great post!

Robbie Hart is a 7th-year Ph.D. candidate at UMSL. He’s spent about half of his time since coming to St. Louis away at his field site in Himalayan China, monitoring the effects of climate change on Rhododendron flowering time along a gradient 2600-4100 m above sea level. He’s now writing up his dissertation and working at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he continues to focus on climate change impacts on high-elevation Himalayan plants. There’s more about his work, and some pictures of his field sites at


Planning is a feedback loop.

Having a set packing list is important when you’re traveling out of the range of Amazon 2-day shipping. Even more vital is a set methodology when you’re trying to collect data while exhilarated, exhausted, exposed to the elements, or all of the above. However, recognize that planning ahead, while essential, is uninformed by the potent realities of how things actually work in practice. Maybe you can’t actually sample 100 trunks without walking across a contested international border. Maybe the idea of a straight-line transect which seemed doable from the perspective of a map doesn’t seem as realistic when you’re staring down a cliff. Ultimately, you’ll never be able to plan perfectly for fieldwork until the project is actually complete, and the final product will always be a compromise between what you did and what you now know you should have done. Don’t fight it, because this is inescapable – just be a little flexible, a little firm, and find the point of compromise that works for your project.
There’s a book by Trevor Legget called ‘Zen and the Ways’, where he talks about two terms one encounters in Japanese martial arts: isshin and zanshin. I’m fairly certain I’m butchering them, but I see isshin (‘one-heart’) as a single-minded focus, an in-the-moment ‘zenning out’ on the task at hand. This is certainly how I get through the taxing or difficult periods of data collection in the field, and I think it’s true of others. There just isn’t another way to sit in a hailstorm for another four hours trying to write with frozen fingers, or to make it up that last mountain pass with a press full of collections on your back. Zanshin(‘remaining heart’) is a wider awareness, meta-level thinking about what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, and what you’re going to do.
Perhaps true samurai, or tenured faculty, can always maintain the right balance of isshin and zanshin. For me, it’s harder – it’s easy to get stuck in just getting the planned work done. Equally, it can also be a trap to constantly be questioning yourself or changing methods, and end up with data that’s not comparable, not efficiently collected, or not collected at all. I think it can be important to plan in times to stop and cultivate zanshin. In the evenings, or those break days that Leticia mentioned (in her previous post to the Naked Darwin), take some time over your well-deserved beer to evaluate and evolve your plans. During the work days, focus on getting things done, and file away those nagging doubts for the appropriate time.


Some rules of thumb which probably hold true no matter how your plan evolves
Back up your data. If you can’t get it in the cloud, make two or three digital copies and keep them in physically separated locations (keydrives, camera cards, etc.). If you can’t do that, make physical copies. You’re never going to get that year back if all of the data you collected during it goes up in smoke.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a new field site, country, species, discipline, culture, method, or trail. Someone (or maybe almost everyone) knows more than you do. Ask for advice! I’m always scared to do this, and it always, always is worth it.

Don’t just take data, take metadata. Take much more than you think you need. Whether it’s in a fieldbook, or going through and putting tags on your photos, don’t underestimate your power to forget things in a day or a year. You *will* be grateful that you wrote down that person’s full name, detailed your custom designed sampling scheme, drew a map of where that nest is, or took a photo of your altimeter between every photo you took a photo of a species on your alpine transect. Data is your friend. Metadata is your friend with benefits.

Remember your limits, and those of others with you, and communicate about them. These aren’t always the safest conditions. Just because you can’t catch your breath and are feeling dizzy, doesn’t mean that the team member ahead of you knows that you’re getting mountain sickness. Alternately, just because you’re feeling tired but can totally make that last push to collect another sample doesn’t mean that everyone on your team can.


View from my rooftop on Yunnan, China

Yulong Mountain, Robbie’s field site

Rhododendron racemosum – 2800 meters above sea level

Rhododendron racemosum – 2800 meters

Rhododendron impeditum – 3800 meters

Rhododendron impeditum – 3800 meters

Courtesy of Robbie Hart.