How to Survive them graduate school prelims, quals, and comps.

Because we grad students are such cool people with our very own lingo, you probably will rarely hear the hardest test in academia referred to by its full name. The preliminary, qualifying, or comprehensive exam is a “right-of-passage” for graduate students to prove that they can stuff enough information into their brains to appear to be an “expert” on their topic of study. If you’re unlucky (and you probably are), you might also get to prove that you can stuff information into your brain that has nothing to do with your area of desired expertise. I’m (barely) on the other side of my PhD qualification exam now, and here’s an actual picture of the state of my brain:

Fun fact: while attempting to misspell the word brain, I accidentally misspelled the misspelling, resulting in an original filename of “Brina not found”

Fun fact: while attempting to misspell the word brain, I accidentally misspelled the misspelling, resulting in an original filename of “Brina not found”

But at least it’s over. Looking back on the worst summer ever, one spent indoors hunched over musty books and trusty PDFs, there is fortunately some wisdom to be gleaned for those who are currently, or considering, walking this path to prelims. Here’s what I’ve learned from talking with other grad students and reading about the experiences of others.

1) Studying properly for prelims is going to feel like over-studying, especially once the test is over.

One of the prevailing thoughts among the grad students following the test was: “I can’t believe that topic X wasn’t part of the exam! I spent DAYS working through that topic! What I am supposed to do with all of these references I memorized?”

I had it easy compared to some of my grad school friends. I am able to fit my pile of assigned readings on a single shelf in my office now that everything is all said and done. They include four textbooks, a set of handwritten notes in a single 90-page notebook, and somewhere around fifty PDFs that I printed out because highlighting things by hand felt more like learning than digital highlighting. And also, paper reminds me of trees, so it was almost like going outdoors, which I definitely did not do much of this summer while studying.

Take my fitbit stats for example. Back in June, before I had been given all of my reading list, I had eleven days where I had over 10,000 steps/day. From July 1st all the way up to the exam day on August 15th, I had ONE day where I got over 10,000 steps… and it was on July 1st! Although, to be fair, there were a few days where I let my fitbit battery die completely. Just like my hopes and dreams.

Now I’m not saying that all of the time I normally spent exercising directly translated into studying, but all of that time DID at least directly transfer into me thinking about how I should be studying or feeling guilty that I wasn’t studying.

Pretty much every student I talked to mentioned that in the end, they felt as if they had over-studied for the exam. But here’s the thing: You kind of have to. You don’t know which topics will come up on the exam, so you have to be broad in your reading. It’s going to feel like having read up on certain topics is entirely useless—but it’s in the same way that a fire extinguisher is useless when there aren’t any fires. You’ll be happy to know that the fusiform face area was named in 1997 if a question calls for it, but otherwise, just be thankful that there wasn’t a fire.

2) Apathy is normal, but don’t embrace it.

“What was the point of that?” was probably the most prevalent feeling following the exam. It was also, notably, a common feeling during the months leading up to the exam. “Why are we doing this?” is a question that I cannot answer.

And neither can anyone else, it seems.

Adam Ruben (PhD!) writes in his book Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to go to Grad School that “It is a stupid, stupid test.”

Amy Yu, an immunology graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, writes that “It’s like the hazing experience everyone goes through to become a true graduate student.”

According to professor Pete L. Clark from the University of Georgia, some qualification exams started out as a way to weed people out of graduate programs, but today, they don’t really serve that purpose anymore because people dropping out of graduate programs looks bad for the school in the modern statistics that they use. Instead, the tests may serve “diagnostic purposes” but there is rarely consequences for failing them other than needing to retake them.

I realize that none of that is a particularly great motivator. But if you’ve made it this far into grad school, you probably have at least some intrinsic motivation for learning to fall back on. Right? RIGHT?!

We can try to laugh at the apathy that comes from feeling like studying for this test is a waste of time, but it’s something that is painful to dwell on, so let’s move on.

3) Your friends and family can sympathize, but they can’t empathize.

Because you are in grad school, you probably don’t get to see your family and friends as much as you would like to anyway. But in the study period leading up to prelims, this becomes even more true. I missed a family funeral for one of my relatives because it occurred in the week leading up to the exam. And while my family might “understand” why I couldn’t be there, they’ll never be able to fully realize how much this whole thing sucked without going through it.

Sympathy is when you share a feeling with another person, like the sadness that comes being distant from the people that you love. Empathy, on the other hand, is rarer, and comes from being able to put yourself into another person’s shoes. Empathy for the grad student studying for quals is impossible without also being a grad student studying for quals. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to do it alone. My significant other also spent her summer cooped up and reading. So, at least we got through it together.

As for my friends and family, the best that I could do was tell them ahead of time what was happening (lots of incoming stress, guys), keep them semi-regularly updated as it was happening (this week sucked too, thank you for understanding why I couldn’t be there), and try to make it up to them afterwards (by playing some co-op Stardew Valley and some extra long phone calls, how else?).

4) Entirely unproductive days are common and perhaps normal, but please fight against them.

It’s a great thing to try and plan ahead for your reading and practice schedule in the months leading up to the exam. Divide the reading list, talk to yourself in the mirror each morning, and so on. But what’s IMPOSSIBLE as we have discovered is that you can’t predict how long any one particular task is going to take.

Just because a particular PDF is a certain number of pages long, doesn’t mean you’ll have any idea how long it will take to capture the ideas within. There were days where I spent hours failing to understand something beyond occasionally highlighting a paragraph. Now that felt like wasted time. It’s hard to get motivated on any particular day of studying when you can’t think of a reason that Asch (1935) will ever be useful in your future career or studies.

I wish I had better advice about how to properly get started on any particular full day of studying, nut here’s the best that I’ve got: maintain a reasonable degree of hygiene, dress in actual clothing as if you were going to a job, and please don;t forget to occasionally stand up and walk around, even if it’s just to the kitchen to select a granola bar from your pile of lazy no-prep food. For those who want a better lifestyle while studying, make sure to plan occasional days where you see other living humans besides yourself in the mirror. Watching videos of other people playing board games on YouTube can only get you so far, you guys.

In the end, you will probably have a few regrets about how you spent your time leading up to the exam. That’s okay. And remember: barely passing is still passing.

An Ending Paragraph

For those of you who have taken your exams, what do you remember? For those of you who haven’t yet, why aren’t you studying? Let me know in the comments below.