Gordon Watts reminds me that the start of a new academic year means more than just the arrivial of a new crop of freshmen. For grad students, it’s qualifying exam season.
For those not in the know, “qualifying exams” are a common feature of most Ph.D. programs. These are big, comprehensive tests that all students have to take at the end of the required course work. They usually come at either the end of the first year, or the start of the second year, and you have to pass the test in order to continue in the program.
And, of course, the tests aren’t exactly easy. As Gordon puts it:
The common saying is “You’ll never know more physics than you do for this test.” It is totally correct. Henry, Toby, and I tried to help two students working on a qual problem from several years ago. Toby and Henry are senior professors. I’m getting up there. None of us (except maybe Toby) could look at the problem and solve it right off.
Calling this a high-stress situation would be an understatement. It’s basically the physics equivalent of the Bar Exam, or the MCAT’s. The actual Ph.D. defense is a cakewalk in comparison– if they let you schedule a defense, they’re pretty much going to give you the degree. With qualifying exams, they actually fail a good number of people– at Maryland, they flunked half of each class as a matter of policy.
(Painful qualifier story below the fold…)
My own qualifying exams were a thoroughly miserable experience. It’s the one time in my life that I’ve really been hit by test panic– the sort of situation where you freeze up completely, and just can’t answer anything.
The qualifying exams at Maryland were split over two days– in my program, the first day was spent on thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and “quantum chemistry,” which really meant “molecular physics.” The second day was all quantum, all the time. There were three questions each day.
The first two questions of the first day were pretty easy. The QChem question was a slight variation on something that had been on the final for the class, and the StatMech question was relatively easy. And then came the Thermo question. Which asked about something we hadn’t covered at all in the class.
While that’s technically fair game– we knew we were responsible for material outside the actual lectures– it’s more than a little disconcerting. Worse yet, it wasnt a question in any of the areas that we knew to expect different material. Over the summer,w e had spent hours going over old qualifying exams, and not once in the six or eight years’ worth of old problems had “fugacity” come up.
I was absolutely baffled. I couldn’t see how to do part a) of the question, and couldn;t even figure out how to write the pathetic little partial credit essay for part b) (“If I knew the answer for part a), I would take it and do the following…”). I had nothing, and left the room wobbly.
I went home, and spent the evening studying quantum mechanics in a very fragile state of mind. And came back the next day for the second part of the test.
When I opened the booklet, I had no idea how to do the first question, and right then, I was finished. My mind totally went blank, and I was basically unfit to do more than doodle in the margins from that point on. The second question was equally opaque, and while I knew where to begin with the third, I was so rattled that I flubbed that one, too.
I left the exam room absolutely shattered. And, of course, fifteen minutes later, I knew exactl what I should’ve done for the first two problems…
That was probably the low point of my graduate career. I remember going to see a movie that night, and making the unwise choice of Natural Born Killers. Not only is it not a good movie, but it’s not a good movie to see in the state that I was in– I basically sat there thinking “I could shave my head and go on a multi-state killing spree…”
Of course, it worked out in the end. Because I failed the qwritten qualifier, I had to take an oral exam to make up for it, which wound up being scheduled for two days before Thanksgiving. I crushed the orals, to the point where one of the professors on the examining committee asked “How did you get this question wrong on the written test, anyway?”
I’m really, really glad to know that, whatever else I may do with my life, I’ll never have to take Ph.D. qualifying exams again. Best wishes to all those who are facing their own quals in the next few weeks.