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indianacat

I'm supposed to be celebrating, right?

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I just passed my qualifying exams two days ago. Ever since, I have been an emotional wreck! The entire process left me with absolutely no confidence in myself as an academic or a human being.

Our qualifying exams consist of two days of written exams, then a week later an oral exam. Following the writtens, I felt absolute joy - I answered the questions to the best of my ability, I even stunned myself with the knowledge that seemed to just come gushing out for four hours straight. I was thinking 'this is what it's all about! It's a gruelling process, but now I know more about this subject than I ever have or ever will again!'.

Next thing I know, I'm sitting in a room with my committee while they tear to shreds everything I was so proud of, and while I struggle to answer even the most simple questions. I felt like a fool, and so embarrassed that they had exposed me as a fraud. This girl can't even answer the question 'What is a gene?!!'. I had studied my subject in such depth but had forgotten how to even string a sentence together.

Having spoken to others it sounds like this is the purpose of an oral qualifying exam - to break you and find out what your limits are. It's a rite of passage I suppose. I've just never felt so low! Is this character building? After it was over I was brought champagne and flowers, yet I felt like I did not deserve it one bit. I'd love to hear from others who have recently gone through quals and if they are reeling in shock like me, or are (as they probably rightfully should be) out celebrating a victory. Sheesh, what is it about grad school that makes one consider even the successes a failure?!

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I feel for you. There are some excellent PhD comics on the exact issue, and it's not an uncommon one. Many of the "great points" in a PhD (Quals/Orals, Prospectus, Defense, Dissertation) are certainly landmarks, but not always things you feel like celebrating.

I know as many (or more) people that wanted to burn their dissertation in effigy than wanted to celebrate right after the fact.

It's also good to remember that there's a huge emotional crash right after these things- you've studied hard, stressed, stayed up nights, and then when you're done the adrenaline wears off and you crash, contributing even more to the depressive bent you might be on after already going through the emotionally draining process of Quals.

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@indianacat --

Has anyone on your exam committee told you to spend time decompressing and/or shared "sea stories" about their experiences during and after their qualifying exams?

Edited by Sigaba

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This sounds pretty similar to what happened to me. I don't really have any advice for you. I was lucky in that my orals were at the end of the semester so I basically checked out for finals (all I had to do was grade) and for the summer, then headed to the field to do my research. I haven't talked to most of my committee about the experience or how stupid they made me feel or their disappointment in my performance. I probably never will. :/

All I can say is that you have to move on. Focus on you for a while and what made you study this field/topic in particular and use that to get interested in what you're doing again. And don't rush it.

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I just passed my quals too. They are draining. I had 5 days of written exams plus two hours of orals--and if a couple of professors hadn't had a meeting to attend, I think the orals would have dragged on more than 2 hours.

Like you, I also came out feeling disheartened. It's normal--everyone I know, even the most astute grad students, said they felt the same. [My sister, a tenured prof, told me afterwards that she classifies students into three categories: "Definitely fail," "he/she'll get there eventually but is still lacking," and "he/she's hot stuff but we don't want him/her to get too cocky."]

I think the thing to do is to move pas it--focus on your project, focus on what weak spots you need to strengthen (that were turned up by the orals), etc. Within a week, I felt much better about myself (see my blog).

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[My sister, a tenured prof, told me afterwards that she classifies students into three categories: "Definitely fail," "he/she'll get there eventually but is still lacking," and "he/she's hot stuff but we don't want him/her to get too cocky."]

This terrifies me! I haven't even gotten to my comprehensive defenses and I already feel my committee is judging me this way. I know they will be difficult...my advisor has already related the process of a PhD to that of 'culinary school'. [i hear it's a brutal environment!]...for those who have been through this process, does one just accept that you will be humiliated, and your competency squished to the size of a penny?

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This terrifies me! I haven't even gotten to my comprehensive defenses and I already feel my committee is judging me this way. I know they will be difficult...my advisor has already related the process of a PhD to that of 'culinary school'. [i hear it's a brutal environment!]...for those who have been through this process, does one just accept that you will be humiliated, and your competency squished to the size of a penny?

Yes, although "humbled" might be a more appropriate word than "humiliated" if one approaches qualifying exams with an appropriate mindset. (Even then, you're going to feel hammered before, during, and long after.)

What ever you do, think twice before you look to the professors in your department for any kind of moral support while you're taking your exams.

Also, see if you can schedule your exams to take place in as short a time span as you can bear. A classmate of mine took his three written exams on consecutive days and had his oral exam about ten days later (the first date he could get his committee together).

I spaced mine out a bit more and the compressed time table really helped my frame of mind. Don't get me wrong. I really really really really really freaked out between exams--and not just a little :(:unsure::wacko::blink::huh: . However, knowing that I had only a couple of days to pull it together for the next exam limited the amount of freaking out that I could do. B) (To be clear, every time I washed my hands between my exams, they needed washing. :P )

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I sometimes think that doing comprehensives as an exam format is the way to go! While I am sure it is beyond stressful, at least you get it done!

I like how you spaced it out too...just enough time to feel prepared, but not enough to stress over it!! I can't even imagine the stress!!

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i'd also like to contribute a bit to this thread as i am experiencing analogous emotional difficulties and strain near the end of my masters program which was a very intense experience for me. i've come to realize that one of the hardest parts of graduate school is not just the studying itself, it's the other stuff. i came in think i'm smart and a good student and academics is what i do well so i should get along just fine because it's more of the same, just at a higher level. but it comes packaged with all sorts of weird stuff like the lack of a supporting social environment, indivualistic study, very high expectations of yourself and other, the acute awareness that if you were a big fish in a little pond before there are tons of other big fish here now, this obssessive compulsive desire to know and learn everything and be the best couple with an increasing awareness of how small your and how big your field and the academy and the world of knowledge are so that you get helpless, professors who want to mould you much like metalwork is done, the increasing conflation of your personal worth with your academic success and the kinds of anxieties and self-doubt and self-identity issues it generates, etc. all of these are very real problems that i think many of us share. i personally have found relief or have begun to find relief in beginning the process of self-help through cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. the envioronment and your relation to it generates all sorts of modes of thinking that generate great unhappiness and all sorts of emotional highs and lows and confusion and exhaustion. There's a book called feeling good written by an enormously successful practicing psychiatrist that teaches the tools for coping with different forms of depressed states that I am find very helpful. It's called feeling good. For me it comes down to the recognition that while graduate school is a difficult environment, especially when coupled with other personal complications like moving, relationships, personal histories, the kind of impact it has on you (not talk academically here, but as a life-situation) depends a lot on how you deal with it, deal with yourself and the world, the same way it is for other things. But it is special in that it is more difficult than many things most, at least in developed nations, will go through, so it's definitely not merely like anything else. But in another sense it is, and for me the good news was that there are better and worse ways of dealing with it and other things (better and worse in terms of my emotional and mental health and happiness).

Maybe this helps?

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Hey guys, we are all sharing the same experiences.

I have my Phd exams in one week, exactly the same ones: 5 hours each, oral , 300 books... You are feeling this way because you are exhausted ...emotionally drained. You have been in a level of stress and "high", brain full of hormones like cortisol: you are feeling like shit.

I my book reviews from last year, not remembering a single thing:

The RITUAL thing is true : the path to excellency, but it seems you never reach any level of satisfaction. I lost it last spring, there was just so much i could take... their job is to push you, squeeze you... until they see a doctor's report and a possible lawsuit behind .

I honestly have no idea how i am going to deal with my oral exam... just planing a long yoga session just before it.

How few hours of your life with people that are not related to you break you down for months? Its just crazy how it get to us.

I dont know about you guys, but the hardest part is to find a partner, friends that can understand our mood swings, unavailabilities...

thanks for this forum

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About Masters...

It is pain... thats why a lot stop after it. In terms of training it is extremely challenging and different from the undergrad studies. This is also when your studies start shaping you, you become a part of a very small group in the society and it doesnt get better the higher you go in your studies. Mental health studies report aprox 70% of average to severe depression. I had to give 10 versions of my masters paper project before they approved it...BUT the more they have to say about what you write, the better it is... you just dont know it yet. You just have to set precise goals, diversify your range of opportunities, use the system... and work out a lot.

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i'm not trying to toot my own horn here, but i think my experience might be helpful.

i just passed my comprehensive exams with the highest level of distinction my department offers, and one that they haven't given to anyone in my subfield over the last 10 years at least. my examiners are known to be especially difficult and demanding, the type that will ask you precisely what you meant in footnote 27 on page 11. but i made it through, and i made it through with flying colours. here's what i learned:

it is totally okay to respond to a question with "i don't remember." i was asked about a single author's specific argument on a certain issue. i remembered the author, the book, and other arguments, so i started bringing those up, but i knew i wasn't answering the question i had been asked. so i paused, thought, and then said, "i know i'm not answering this question properly." and you know what happened? my examiner said, "i can ask you something else." i said YES! she did. it was fine. at another moment, i was explaining the difference between X in one country versus another, and an examiner asked me, "do you remember why X was different there?" i didn't, so i said no, but i said i'd write it down and we could come back to it if i remember.

the moral being: you're allowed to not remember stuff. they don't expect you to be perfect. it's not about total recall of information. what the comps really wants is for you to be able to talk about the overall trajectory of your field, to speak to the way the subjects and debates have changed, and to look forward to new questions that remain to be answered. if you think about the big picture of your fields and just place everything you've read within that trajectory, you'll do great on comps. that's what they want to hear. and you don't need to remember every minute detail of every single book or article to demonstrate command over an entire intellectual field. your examiners know that, and unless you're at the type of program that specifically looks to fail people on comps/quals in order to thin their herd, you'll be fine without being perfect.

now, up until that oral defense, i was exhausted. i was tired and anxious and bursting into tears for no apparent reason under the simultaneous pressures of comps, coursework, and writing my dissertation proposal. so it wasn't easy or anything. but in the moment of the defense, if you can breathe deeply and just rely on what you know and be honest about what you can't recall, you'll survive it. because once you sit in that chair, you either know it or you don't, and panicking will only make it harder to think, so if you don't know it, let it go. they won't fail you for that.

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heyyyyy. I just finished/passed my written/oral comps for one of my subfields (my first subfield) and passed my written on my 2nd subfield (orals scheduled for this friday), and I TOTALLY know the feeling.... My supervisor is very very demanding, and I didn't do so well on the oral (even though I did pass).... he emailed me and said we should meet to discuss, and I'm dreading that meeting....................................... I have zero confidence left, especially that some other students seem to be so confident (bordering on the cocky) or otherwise don't show their anxiety about the comps in front of people (unlike me). So yeah, I totally know the feeling, and it would really piss me off a lot if, based on one oral exam, profs change their view of their students, when those students were much better at their coursework / paper-writing than those students who supposedly aced their oral comps because they tend to do better under stress, or are familiar with the style of the exam because they've done comprehensive exams at the masters level too... also, who are we kidding, one oral exam does not prove that you cannot teach well, etc. If anything, you might have better classroom experience than the other students who may have done better during the orals. If they're going to think of it that way, and assume you can't take control of a classroom, it's their loss.

I keep telling myself that I shouldn't give a damn, but it's harder than it sounds. And my family doesn't seem to understand this steep and sudden erosion in my confidence levels.... so it's good to see that other grad students come out and talk about this, and that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Feel better. At least they're over now. And you get to get away from it all and busy yourself with your dissertation, etc.

Edited by TheSquirrel

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Next thing I know, I'm sitting in a room with my committee while they tear to shreds everything I was so proud of, and while I struggle to answer even the most simple questions.

That happened to me yesterday, during my oral exam for my field of specialization. :( I couldn't even answer the simplest questions. :(

I felt like a fool, and so embarrassed that they had exposed me as a fraud.

My feelings exactly. I'm surprised at how I managed to keep those terrible thoughts down DURING the exam. I could've easily fallen apart during the massive grilling I got.

Having spoken to others it sounds like this is the purpose of an oral qualifying exam - to break you and find out what your limits are. It's a rite of passage I suppose.

Yup... kinda... but not just that -- it's a way for profs to make themselves feel good. I felt that during my comps. I felt that some of the profs were taking immense joy at asking me the most ridiculous/retarded/difficult questions and seeing my reaction to them and then poking holes in anything and everything I said... At some point, one of the profs asked, Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means. Do you agree or disagree? I said... well, there are different interpretations of this. He asked me what those interpretations are.. and I just went completely blank... backtracked, and said, I agree with the statement. And that was that. He said ok and moved on..... He then asked me a couple of very specific questions about the implications of some works by a few scholars, which I hadn't read... I asked him if he could elaborate/rephrase the question. He said "NO." I said, ok, well, then, I have NOT read that article, and so I cannot answer that question if you refuse to give me some details. I was pretty angry at that point.

I've just never felt so low! Is this character building?

I doubt it's about "character building". Just seeing how well you will do under stress (and partly, showing themselves off). I guess part of it is them trying to simulate a job interview...

After it was over I was brought champagne and flowers

Ha! How come I never got that? :P

if they are reeling in shock like me, or are (as they probably rightfully should be) out celebrating a victory.

Definitely reeling in shock. Actually broke down during my writtens, and people at the department knew that I was worried sick and super stressed/afraid of it. Maybe that wasn't a good idea on my part -- to show how stressed I was; maybe it was all about seeing how we would behave under stress throughout the semester of preparations for the exam; but I couldn't help it.... Anyhow, what's done is done, and I can't go back and change things. One thing's for sure, if they had thought I was a failure, they should've failed me and used the opportunity to kick me out. If they passed me (or you) , it means they thought you could work on fixing the weaknesses. The only thing I would be worried about, is them fitting you into the category of "passed comps but not super-promising in terms of marketing our PhD program or teaching courses at our university" , while others who did well under stress might end up being categorized into "very good/should go with this guy/girl instead as the "mascot" for our program" (this might be relevant in cases where the phd program is new, as is the case in mine). Or if you have a very demanding supervisor and he's super disappointed in you and might not want to work with you anymore (which I doubt would be the case).

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hmm...

thesquirrel, i imagine your professor wants to talk to you about your conduct/attitude during the oral defense, and maybe even to (re)instill some sense of confidence in you, but not to harp on about your performance. you passed, right? if it was a problem, you wouldn't have passed. but getting angry at one of your questioners is a bad, bad way to behave under pressure. what happens when you get pressed on a question like that during a job interview? eventually, you'll need to learn how to deflect questions that you don't know the answer to in a way that doesn't seem defensive.

the article that you hadn't read... had you not read it because it wasn't on your comps list, or had it been on your list but you never actually read it? because that, too, will make a big difference. reasonable profs (and i know not all of them are reasonable) will not expect you to know the argument for something you haven't read. if it had been on your list, "i can't remember" is always better than "i never read it," even if that's a lie.

no one will think you're a bad teacher or a bad researcher because you didn't do well on your comps. they will wonder how well you actually know your field, and that's a legitimate question, but if your written work moving forward (i.e. your dissertation) demonstrates knowledge of your field, then that's fine. they will also wonder if you can handle the pressure of job talks, which is also a legitimate question. the line of questioning you think was vindictive or uncalled for (on war and politics) actually seems like a perfectly legitimate comps question to me.

during moments of high stress, we read way too much into other people's words, tone, behaviour, etc. i bet you none of your profs was actually looking to make a fool out of you. but, in any case, it's over and you passed. you should look forward, not backward.

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hmm...

thesquirrel, i imagine your professor wants to talk to you about your conduct/attitude during the oral defense, and maybe even to (re)instill some sense of confidence in you, but not to harp on about your performance. you passed, right? if it was a problem, you wouldn't have passed. but getting angry at one of your questioners is a bad, bad way to behave under pressure. what happens when you get pressed on a question like that during a job interview? eventually, you'll need to learn how to deflect questions that you don't know the answer to in a way that doesn't seem defensive.

Well, i was told today by another prof that my supervisor didn't think my oral was good... he thought i could elaborate on the questions and often I just gave them a yes/no . the problem is that a lot of the questions were presented that way and I wasn't pressed more. I wasn't even sure what I could say, because they were phrased as purely opinion questions. I think the questions were poorly framed. Not to deflect the fault onto them completely. But I did not have any problem at all with my oral for the 2nd subfield,w here the profs were more insistent on me elaborating .... in fact, I enjoyed it a lot!

the article that you hadn't read... had you not read it because it wasn't on your comps list, or had it been on your list but you never actually read it?

We did NOT have a comps list. My supervisor was very adamant that we should NOT be given a comps list, that we should pick and choose our own readings. So really, asking me specific questions about specific articles, especially ones that were not key works in the field, didn't make much sense.

if it had been on your list, "i can't remember" is always better than "i never read it," even if that's a lie.

it wasn't on my list. My supervisor had advised me that if they ask me about a particualr work I hadn't read, I should just say that I haven't read it. Which I did. The problem is that they asked so many of these questions that it might have added up and given an even worse impression than my performance really entailed.... I'm kinda pissed off about that. I didn't really get defensive. I just asked for elaboration and when none was forthcoming, I just said, I don't know cos I haven't read.

Anyhow. thanks for the reply. :) I don't even want to remember what happened on the oral exam. sure, there are lessons to be learned, but it does not do any good to dwell on failures and embarassments.

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i realize there may not be a set list for your field, but presumably, in picking and choosing what you would read and be tested for on comps, you wrote this down somewhere, right? and did your committee ever see that list at any point? either to okay it or just to get a sense of what you know? it seems very strange to me if a program didn't do all of that....

as for the yes/no opinion questions, i got those too. i still elaborate. "yes, because...." or "no, because...." that might seem like an obvious thing to do to some people, and not to others, but when you're at a job talk and you get asked a yes or no question, you should say more than just yes or no. and usually when you're asked yes or no, the answer is "both" or "neither" or "sometimes." i don't think you need to dwell on the comps themselves, but there are lessons to learn about how to field random unexpected questions, which you will do plenty of if you present at conferences and apply for jobs.

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Hey girl :-)

I didn't read your other responses, but I'm sure they gave you great advice. I haven't taken mine yet, but I have been told the same thing - it's a humbling exercise. They don't expect you to know everything, they are actually looking for the limit of your knowledge to see how you handle it when you reach the limit. I think it's more about teaching you a lesson about how to deal with it someday when a colleague or God forbid a student pins you down on something you don't know. It will happen, realistically, nobody is perfect. So it's all about how you handle it.

And don't worry, you're not a fraud! But I know what you're feeling, because I have felt the exact same thing. Someone from these boards gave me these two articles, which really helped (mostly because I realized I'm not the only one!)

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2008_02_15/caredit_a0800025

http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Columns/Impostor.html

A couple of stories I have heard from professors and fellow students:

One unfortunate young man got into his oral exam, and was so petrified he couldn't even talk. Literally - could not get one word out! They had to reschedule the exam, ha!

Another student of my mentor was a fisheries biologist, and had spent YEARS studying this one particular fish. When she was in her orals, they asked her to identify a type species of a fish, and she couldn't. They pushed her on it for a good ten minutes or so, and she couldn't identify the fish. It turns out it was the same species she had been studying for all those years!

A fellow student in Geography was asked to draw a map of North America during his orals (remember, this is GEOGRAPHY). He drew the lower 48. They said "no, North America." He added Canada. They said "NO, North America!!" He finally added Mexico.

You are not the only one by FAR - they are designed to throw you off your game. Did you pass? If you did, stop worrying and beating yourself up. You are on the downhill slide now, and you are doing great!

Good luck girl, keep us updated :-)

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Oh man, ok I just went back and read about everyone's experiences, and that's enough to freak anyone out. I am supposed to take mine in August. I'm a little worried that the summer is going to get away from me doing fieldwork and everything else....Ahh!! I'll just try my best. I'm actually looking forward to reading most of the books on my list.

I am probably the most interdisciplinary person in my department, so I'm not sure if that will give me an advantage or a disadvantage. I am expected to study a much wider array of materials than anyone else....but that also means that I will know more about any given subject than half the people in the room at any given time! I also have a very unique Master's degree, and have fallen back on that knowledge in classroom discussions, since no one else really knows what I'm talking about and I can make it sound really good, ha!

Ok, I'm going to read all summer long and try not to freak out, lol :-P

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This totally happened to me! Right after I passed my oral exams I was so upset and felt a bit lost.

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Qualifiers came before acceptance to the program.  This is the time when the profs get to screw up graduate students, watch them squirm, and then act like it's no big deal.  Expect to be asked questions to the limit of your knowledge and beyond, testing both your abilities to synthesize new ideas on the spot and handle stress.

 

Just don't get too drunk and do too many stupid things after you pass.

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I suffered a bit after I passed my qualifying exams (both sets).  Studying was just an emotionally draining experience.  The summer after I passed the second set, I literally did nothing related to my degree progression).  And I did very well on both exams, but it's such an intense experience!

 

Personally, I've never understood the idea that oral exams are supposed to break you.  I do believe that they are supposed to test your limits, but my oral exams were more like a conversation between colleagues.  My examiners genuinely wanted to know what I thought about my field, and what theoretical basis I had for the direction of my research.  It was a satisfying experience - terrifying at first, but satisfying.  But yes, afterwards I was so drained that I took the entire summer to detox.  I really only got back on track in September of 2012 - I took my oral quals in May 2012.

 

Graduate school is so emotionally draining and difficult.  I think people know it will be cognitively difficult, but few are prepared for the emotional toll it takes on you.  It's like an emotional roller coaster.

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This is actually really comforting to read. I am studying for my comps now, and just the process of sharing my work with my committee members back and forth and receiving their critiques has become a very difficult process emotionally. I will formulate a reading list and arguments and one committee member will praise them and love them and a day later I will find another committee member saying they are lacking in every way. Some days I am a master of anthropology, other days I am a reject, an impostor, and never going to pass comps. 

I am awful at oral exams. I can barely formulate answers to questions at conferences. The presentation I will have down, but the questions following leave me a stuttering pile of confusion. I expect my oral exam will be very similar. Glad to hear it is somewhat normal. ;)

 

Also - congrats to those who passed!!

Edited by SixandCounting

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