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Hi everybody! This is my first time posting to this forum so I hope I'm doing this correctly. I am about to begin studying for my PhD Qualifying Exams in Art History, and I am trying to get a sense of the average number of books Art History students read for exams in other graduate programs. The professors in my department have ZERO consistency amongst each other when assigning book lists. Lists range anywhere from 50 to 300 books, with 4 month reading period. When the graduate students tried to address this discrepancy in a meeting with our Director of Graduate Studies, we were told "This is how it's always been done," and "Exams are supposed to drive you crazy." The general lack of respect for mental health in my department is an issue for another day. Unfortunately, my advisor is on the higher end of the spectrum, and my current major list is about 250 books long. I am majoring in Italian baroque art, and she has asked me to read literature spanning between 1400-1800, in addition to literature on France and Spain. She doesn't expect me to read every book in detail, and instead wants me to understand how each book has contributed to the field. This is what she was asked to do as a student at Columbia in the 90s, and insists that this is the best way to proceed. Naturally, I am a bit overwhelmed about all of this, and I could really use some perspective on how other art history departments structure exams. Any advice on how to study this much material in 4 months would also be greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Like most PhD students, I am having a difficult time with my qualifying exams and would like some recommendations on how to proceed from others who may have experienced something similar. I should start out by explaining that I started my program as a Master’s student at the suggestion of my advisor. I didn’t come from a great undergraduate program that actually had research options and my only prior experience with research was during my year off working with a previous graduate of my advisor. During my third semester, I petitioned for a switch that my advisor was enthusiastic about and transferred to the PhD program. I was also informed recently that I received the NSF graduate research fellowship award, meaning that I won’t have to be supported with teaching/research assistantships any longer. All students are expected to complete a prospectus which entails writing a research proposal about planned research and then presenting that proposal in front of the graduate committee. I did this during my second semester as a Master’s student and again in my fourth semester after my switch in programs took effect. Also during the fourth or fifth semester, PhD students take the qualifying exams. This requires five written exams over the course of one week, each from a committee member which assigns you a topic - usually related to their field of research, not yours. If you pass this, you are able to move on to the oral exam where they ask you additional questions with all members present and this may be related to previous topics or from any topic in biology. The topics I was assigned: general ecology, comparative physiology, flight biomechanics, mammalian auditory systems and auditory processing, and mammalian and insect visual systems. I was given eight weeks to work through a mountain of textbooks and papers that were recommended, in addition to resources I found myself. Needless to say, I haven’t slept properly due to all the stress and have been remarkably unproductive in every other aspect (which is extremely unlike me). I passed the written exams with little problem. They weren’t spectacular, but no exam I’ve ever taken (SAT, GRE, midterms, finals, etc…) has ever been great just due to the anxiety from all the pressure. For my oral exam, however, I was asked the first question and I just broke. Ultimately, I ran out of the room in tears right before an extreme panic attack, unable to even tell my committee members what was happening to me. The stress, the anxiety, were things that I tried to keep unnoticed because I don’t want to be perceived as weak, or that student who can’t handle the pressure. Since that incident, I’ve talked with my members and admitted to struggling with these things. To say that I’ve always struggled with tests and public speaking is an understatement. But it’s something I’ve been actively working (including counseling and medications) on since beginning undergrad and have focused especially on this past semester knowing I would have to do this. Despite all the work and preparation, I couldn’t do it and I don’t know if I actually ever will. My committee members tell me that it shouldn’t be any different than any other time I have to speak. I disagree. When preparing for a conference or a lecture or even a job interview, you are generally narrowly focused on one topic that you’ve had the opportunity to rehearse and practice (not to mention no one at a conference tells you that you can’t come back if your talk isn’t good). This is very different from walking into a room with five people who could ask you literally anything. The goal of these exams is to confirm that PhD students are broadly trained in biology, despite specializing in a particular field and to ensure that they are truly qualified to do research. I get it, but I also think I’ve managed to demonstrate these things in other ways. I’ve done a lot of coursework because Master’s students are required to have a certain number in addition to research, which is not a requirement for PhD students. I’ve taught science courses at my university and another university prior to entering the program, I’ve passed the written portion, and I’ve managed to get an NSF grant. All my members say to me that they know I’m prepared, that I know the answers, but they still insist on me going through this ordeal to continue. I am exhausted, humiliated, and frustrated to say the least. So, has anyone else had these experiences? Were you offered any sort of alternative way to prove you’re competent? Or am I really going to have to just accept that this shortcoming is going to alter my life plans despite being very capable in every other requirement? Am I really just not good enough? Is this really the best way for the Deptartment of Academics to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff or is my career as a biologist being held hostage behind faculty traditions passed on as normal?