Qualifying exams


I PASSED MY QUALIFYING EXAMS!!! So I figured I might as well reflect upon my experience, and hopefully this will help other biosciences grad students as well.

For those not familiar with 1st year quals, it’s an additional stepping stone before we take our more commonly known 2nd year quals, which all program should have. For my program, our 1st year quals consist of intense reading of 5 scientific papers, each from a different biology field, and getting tested on the major methodology, rationale, background, and details of the paper. We were given ~2.5 weeks to read up and study up before entering a 2-day testing process where we get 2 hours per paper.

What I had done that was helpful:

  • Get together with a small group. In a group of 4, we met up in tea shops, cafeteria, and apartments for about 2.5-4 hours a session (depending on the paper) and went through each figure together, including questions about experiments/methods and potential test questions. Being able to verbalize things in a way that’s easy to understand for other people is an easy assessment of whether I understand the materials well enough, and, often time, I learn more about certain figures during my explanation to the other in the group. Having a small group works for us, personally, since it’s small enough where we won’t talk over each other and break off into non-sequitur conversations, which often happens when we meet with a larger group. In addition, involving other people in the study session made it hard to come to the review sessions unprepared, so we were all forced to stay on top of the materials.
  • Plan out a schedule. Since we had to cover 5 papers in-depth in a period of two weeks, we decided to meet every other day, with a break between papers 3 and 4. With that schedule, we finished all of the papers by Wednesday of the second week, which gave us 4.5 days to review the papers on our own.
  • Get a study partner. Mine was someone from my study group. He lives in the building next to me, and I would pick him him everyday at 6:30 and drive to Caffe Bene in New Brunswick. It is the only coffee/tea shop that opens until 11 PM, which worked perfectly for us since we read from 7 PM to 11 PM. Having this consistent schedule was helpful to the both of us, and having someone there also kept us accountable.
  • Use food as a reward. All of the above situations took place somewhere with easy access to good food. Caffe Bene has bombass waffles for our late night study sessions, and it’s also close to delicious ramen and chicken places. We once drove 20 minutes to the next town to get pho after an especially challenging paper. Basically, every study/discussion session was rewarded with food, so that was a huge motivation for me to study.

What I wish I had done differently:

  • Be consistent with my note taking. For papers 1 – 3, I was switching between writing my notes on the iPad copy and writing notes on my physical copy with the intention of transferring everything over to a physical copy. By paper 4, I had settled on a highlighting scheme that allowed for easy identification of the various components: purple for purpose of the experiment, grey for how the experiment was performed, yellow for key words/methods/concepts, blue for results, and teal for conclusions derived from the figures. I was also color-coding my written notes in the same manner for each figure, which made it very easy for me to locate a figure and answer all of the above questions. After confirming with the program director that written digital notes were permitted, I printed out the papers in their iPad version. For papers 4 and 5, I just printed them out. For papers 1 – 3, I had to transfer my physical notes to their iPad copies since doing this allowed for more colors than what my highlighter supply could provide. Also, it was very helpful to print the paper + digital notes at 85% so I could get notes smaller than I could physically write (but it’s still legible!) and have room for additional notes later on. The point is, had I stuck with taking notes on the iPad earlier on, that would have saved me a lot of time since there would been no additional note transfer.
  • Look up all the methods. It isn’t enough to know that CRISPR and RNAi are methods to knock down/out certain genes, I should have looked out the general mechanisms of how these methods work because this was asked on the exam. They were easy points, and I had guessed on them since I assumed that I knew, but I definitely didn’t know the specifics for the exam like I should have.

Now that I’ve passed the quals, the easy part of the PhD is over. Next up with my 2nd oral qualifying exams during my 2nd year. We’ll see how that goes when the time comes.



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