Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tips for Graduate Students: Preparing for Qualification Exams

Having recently completed my candidacy exam (or qualification exam, or "quals"), I now feel compelled to share with everyone what I have learned about how to have a smooth, successful exam experience. This is relevant mainly to the exams here at Indiana University, although I hope it will generalize to candidacy exams in other places. This is written with the first or second year student in mind, who has already begun to think about their candidacy exam, but has heard several different opinions on what to expect from it. I implore the reader to purge from his mind everything he has heard, and to start over with a fresh perspective; for his ship will be buffeted to and fro by the crosswinds of contrary opinions, preventing him from reaching the safer shores of conviction and instead leave him to founder and ultimately drown in the sea of uncertainty. (I am a professional blogger; don't try metaphors like this on your own.)

Some background on the IU exams: After completing the second year of the PhD program, students are expected to begin their qualification exams; this is usually during the summer between their second and third years of graduate school, although it can be taken during other semesters in certain circumstances. The exam consists of two portions: A written exam, which in turn consists of three or four papers, with no set standard for length (although the norm is usually from 25-35 pages of text, excluding references); and an oral exam, during which the student defends his or her position in the written papers, and can be asked questions which expand upon material discussed in the papers. Students are usually given three months to complete the written portion, and about three or four weeks after that to prepare for the oral exam.

Given all of this, students may well ask how they should best budget their time. The following tips will help guide the young academic scrote on his hazardous journey:

1) Start Early. As in, start as soon as you get to graduate school. This does not mean you should be formulating your questions years in advance; rather, you should be setting a regular reading schedule for yourself as part of your academic routine. People differ on how many papers is sufficient to read in one week, but it is better to err on the side of depth than of breadth. Some may find the time and willingness to read, on average, one or two papers every day; others may benefit more from focusing on only one or two papers a week. The emphasis is less on cramming as much information as possible into your puny human brain as it is to allow yourself enough time to digest high-quality, relevant articles and review papers which are of interest to you. The ancient Greeks had a term for individuals who read widely but possessed only superficial knowledge; they were called sophomores.

2) Mark Up Your Papers. There is probably some study out there, somewhere, written by some guy with a name like Brad or Troy, which has shown that interacting with your reading material helps you to retain information better. In any case, writing down your thoughts, or merely trying to summarize what the main points of the paper are, is an excellent way to comprehend and remember what you read. It also will help you immensely come qualification exam time, as you will have annotations for key studies that you will be discussing in your papers.

3) Get a Reference Manager Program. The best one I have been able to find so far is Mendeley. It allows you to categorize and organize every single paper you download, as well as open it up in another window as a PDF for annotating. In addition, you can use it to easily insert references into your papers, and change the formatting with only a couple of clicks.

4) Don't Listen to Debbie Downers. These people are usually either depressed, or they despise themselves so much that the only way they can get their rocks off is by infecting you with worry, anxiety, and doubt. Separate the wheat from the chaff - identify those who can give you useful advice about the mechanics about the qualification exam process, and who have success stories that you can emulate. There will generally only be a few of these people who can give you truly useful advice; the rest will bitch about how they never saw the light of day for the entire summer they were doing their candidacy exams, or how they handed everything in at the last minute, and expect you to be impressed.

For God's sake, do not humor them; mock them for their sloppy work ethic, box their ears for presuming that you care about their pathetic life, and pour rage like oil upon their heads for spreading such pernicious nonsense. A full three months is more than enough time to write one hundred pages of summary dressed up in your own personal insight, and should inspire curiosity and eagerness, not fear and dread. If you find yourself unable to make any progress and feel as though you are grinding out pages at a torturous pace, you may want to reconsider why you are doing this in the first place. The writing process should be a natural extension of everything you have observed, felt, and studied during your first two years of graduate school, and possibly even what you learned during your undergraduate years; it should not be seen as a test of your patience. The first way will lead to growth, inspiration, and confidence in your work; the second way lies stagnation, decay, and death.

5) Invest in an ETF. Anyone who tells you to stay out of the stock market is either a charlatan or a fool. These are the best years of your life to begin saving, and you should get on it with a quickness. I will be blunt and say that this will require some measure of self-control and austerity, such as reducing the number of outings to Kilroy's and Night Moves. Furthermore, since you are in academia, do not delude yourself into thinking that you have the ability to research stocks individually. You are suited only for discussion of abstract theories that nobody cares about; you are useless when it comes to practical matters, such as personal finance, or operating a food processor.

Fortunately, brokerage firms have already thought about pathetic creatures like you, and will give you access to trading instruments known as Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), which are essentially baskets of stocks chosen to represent a certain sector of the market, such as the manufacturing industry or Nutella & Nutella accessories; at the far end, they can be tailored to closely track entire index funds, such as the S&P 500. Some firms, such as Scottrade, will allow commission-free trading of ETFs, which is a good deal.

However, for those pigheaded enough to assume that their natural brilliance in their field somehow endows them with the temperament to pick individual winners and losers in the stock market, the best piece of advice I can give is to read the book The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, edited by Jason Zweig. It covers all of the fundamentals of investing, and is an excellent primer for getting up to speed on the terminology and strategies for different types of investors. It also contains this revealing quote:

"If you are not willing to go through the minimal effort of reading the proxy and making basic comparisons of financial health across five years' worth of annual reports, then you are too defensive to be buying individual stocks at all. Get yourself out of the stock-picking business and into an index fund, where you belong."

And that's real talk, bitch.

6) Know Your Audience. The point of qualification exams, as I understand them, is to both educate yourself  and deepen your understanding by focusing on a few topics of interest to you; however, you must also take your committee's views and prejudices into consideration as well. After all, they are expecting to learn something too, and not only through concise reviews and distillations of entire oceans of studies, but rather by seeing how this information is filtered through your own insight, and, consequently, how your opinions and views will add a dimension to the existing literature.

That being said, choose your committee wisely, should you have the option to do so. Furthermore, anticipate how they will react to certain experiments you discuss, and plan how you will address questions that will likely come up. Do not be afraid to cite members of your committee in your papers, given the fact that, since they are on your committee in the first place, they will probably have already published something out there that is relevant to what you are writing about. After all, like Carnegie said, the sweetest sound in the English language is the sound of a person's own name. Also, I am willing to bet that people get a little aroused whenever they see themselves cited by another.

7) Check the Freezer for HotPockets. When was the last time you ate? HotPockets are an excellent way to maintain a consistently high level of energy and provide a compact, delicious source of fuel which will help you to write for long stretches at a time. The bread of the HotPockets can be used by your muscles to help lift entire desks off the ground and slam doors shut; the pizza sauce will lead to longer, more intense, and more satisfying fits of rage; and the protein in the pepperoni will dramatically increase libido and dampen all of your inhibitory mechanisms. I base this on absolutely nothing.

8) Be Confident. Even if you are not naturally confident, fake it. Often people will not care if you trip up on small details, as long as you have a clear idea of where you are headed with your arguments and really believe in your conclusions. Those who exude an aura of confidence, both through the written and oral components of their exam, will elicit a greater measure of respect from their committee and their colleagues than those who timidly venture forth only through a series of half measures and minced steps; and this in turn will lead to a smoother, more productive conversation with your committee when discussing what you wrote.

This is a problem I have observed much more in girls than in guys in an academic setting. During public speaking events, for example, girls, for whatever reason, are more likely to preface what they say with namby-pamby phrases like "Now, I really don't know much about this, but...". This enrages me to no end, and if anything, instead of making listeners back off and cut the speaker some slack, encourages them to pile it on and try to trip up the speaker even more. Play pussy, get fucked.

Summary: Qualification exams are a source of much fear and stress, but it need not be so. By starting early and thinking critically about the papers you read and how they fit into your interests, you can stay ahead of the curve and build up an impressive library of fully annotated and organized papers before you even start writing. Tailoring your writing to your audience, as well as making wise investment decisions and satisfying your nutritional needs through HotPockets, will turn you into an unstoppable force of nature.

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