A saga of two prelims

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgFor this month's Scientiae, Candid Engineer has asked for stories about overcoming challenges. ScienceWoman has already contributed an awesome story to the Diversity in Science carnival, but I think it does for Scientiae, too.

What about my own story?

Prior to my current job, my biggest soul-searching career-related moment was when I didn't pass my prelim exam in 2005. Ugh.

In retrospect, I think I was taking the prelim pretty casually. I had written my ~100 page, 3 chapter research proposal document, and none of my dissertation committee advisors had raised a hair about it. I had never seen a dissertation proposal defense (as they were closed in my department, a practice which I think was actually illegal), so I just figured I'd lay out the main ideas, and then we would talk about the overall plan, they'd tell me to change the calendar as it was too ambitious, and we'd all leave to enjoy the rest of the day.

I was wrong.

Instead, we had what my advisor later called "blood in the water." It was not good.

I started off with a quick literature review, and I moved on to describing my research questions -- I confess we stayed on them for what must have been an hour. I got asked really really fundamental questions, like "what do you mean by 'gender'?" and "how do you know what a 'boundary' is?" I had no good answers. I got more and more appalled by both my inadequacy and how much worse things were getting. With about 20 minutes left in my prelim time slot and still on slide 8, I realized to my shock that I wasn't going to pass. I couldn't believe it.

I held it together until my committee left. I didn't know what had happened -- my advisor had called me one of his smartest students ever, how could I have done so badly? I didn't know if I had failed (no one had said that word, but I sure as hell hadn't passed) or if I was in some kind of no-person's land. My committee members left the room, and I started to cry -- with shame, disappointment, humiliation, uncertainty, self-doubt, all of those things. And anger. A lot of anger -- I felt my advisor had failed me by letting me go into this experience with so little feedback, when clearly I was unprepared.

One of my committee members then decided to come back to the room, and to my continued humiliation, caught me in the middle of my puddle of self-pity. She was very reassuring and understanding -- I actually don't remember what she said specifically, which is kind of a relief to me now. I eventually pulled myself together, took my stuff to my car, and then went to my good friend and former boss's office -- she opened the door, and I said "I didn't pass." I had another good cry in her office -- she called my husband, and my dad (faculty member on campus), who was simul-IMing my mom (who was still commuting between Madison and Iowa at that point, I think). I think my husband came to pick me up in her office, and the 3 of us walked back to my car -- on the way we bumped into ANOTHER of my committee members, who saw how upset I was and gave me a hug (rather to my shock). I was and still am vastly relieved that the two people who saw me in tears were women; not sure why it still matters to me.

I went home and crawled into bed for the rest of that day and much of the next. The thing was that it was the weekend of my mom's birthday (a round decade) and she didn't know it yet, but we had planned a massive surprise birthday party for her, including flying my sister in from Philly. I had to pull myself together for that, and in fact the surprise itself went off like a charm -- my mom cried when she saw my sister. (There were lots of tears that week.) But then I had to deal with all kinds of people asking me how I was doing in my program, and I still didn't know if I had officially failed.

The day after the party, my mom and my sister gave me some intensive counseling. They advised that I write a supplemental document where I answered all the questions my committee had asked me, and where I provided more references. They agreed that I didn't need to justify the use of qualitative data analyses, and gave me some language to help me deflect such critiques. My sister was particularly helpful, giving me the language of "Such-and-such is a tool we can use to explain social experiences" or similar. (I use that all the time now.) We wrote actual text, and while I still cried a lot that weekend, in retrospect, it might have been rather cathartic.

I also emailed my advisor and my committee members. I just found this email:

"Dear [committee member], Thank you for your questions yesterday at my prelim. They were difficult and important, and I did not have good answers. I now have an opportunity to improve, which I will grasp with both hands. However, I would really appreciate some time to talk with you about how best to do this. I haven't heard from [my advisor] since he left the meeting yesterday[...].

Would you have some time in the next week or two to meet with me? I obviously will try consider beforehand how to answer the questions you have already made, particularly the last one about whether I am more interested in what happens at the edge or about what ends up in the box."

I also heard back from my advisor, who told me I hadn't failed, just "suspended" due to lack of train. He also said, "I understand your disappointment. We will get there, but the trip will just be a little longer. [...] So now we pick up the broken glass, determine how to glue it together, and move forward with the fixing. [...] Keep your chin up. You are smart, dedicated and capable. You had your feathers ruffled, but no serious damage. Now we just get back up and move ahead."

By the time the next week rolled around, I felt I was beginning to have a plan for what to do next. I scheduled another meeting, scheduled another practice prelim that my advisor could actually attend the whole time for, and buckled down to writing that supplemental document. I made sure I met with each of my committee members in advance of the second prelim -- I think they had been so taken aback at how the first one had gone that they found time to meet with me. And my second prelim happened a month later, going much more smoothly. (Although I didn't sleep at all the night before because I was too anxious.)

So. A story of triumph in the end. It was a defining moment for me in certain ways, and I'm glad I had my family there to pick up the pieces of me and help me figure out how to put them back together. I think it must be really tough for folks who don't have academically-oriented families, or maybe they find people who can serve as extended-academic-families. I am convinced having such "family" is a critical component of graduate school: you MUST have people who can really help you when you are desolate, lost, full of self-loathing, who can help you put yourself back together.

When writing this post, I checked my email boxes for the actual dates (yes, I keep ALL emails), and was shocked to see this whole debacle was in 2005. It seems like just yesterday.

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Great post.

"maybe they find people who can serve as extended-academic-families."

Which is right about the point that this small subsection of the blogosphere comes in. This blog, and many of the other grad student/postdoc/faculty blogs are the extended-academic-families of the authors and some readers. And the value of that, as this post shows, cannot be underestimated.

That sounds a lot like my mother's experiences in getting her PhD in Mathematics in 1962. She failed several rounds of oral exams of various sorts before finally getting the very first PhD in Mathematics ever achieved by a woman at the University of Nebraska.

That just sounds painful! I am glad you had the moral support to pick yourself back up, and went on to a success. It does sound like it would be your advisor's oversight to let you into this experience, but I am glad he helped you regroup.

Thank you both, Alice and Sciencewoman, for sharing. I infrequently hear about the most difficult moments of academic and research life - we talk about peoples' successes and greatness and advances, but seldom about setbacks, all the less if they are big. No one shares them, so that when they happen, one feels inadequate and alone on top of all the other feelings that come. I think this is another part of good mentoring; sharing our lowest moments and how we got back up again.

I had a similar experience a few years before you in my oral/written prelim exams. I failed miserably the first time and then hunkered down and passed with flying colors. The first time through I completely pschyed myself out. The second time, I told myself I could do it and I did every.single.problem in one of the recommended textbooks. As one of my mentors pointed out, no one wants to know your score 10 years down the line. It's just getting through that counts.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 30 Mar 2009 #permalink

Wow. No advisor should let a student go into prelims that under prepared, IMO. However, the purpose of prelims seems to vary wildly from school to school and program to program so maybe you learned what they wanted you to learn. I'm glad it worked out for you in the end.

This post makes me a little sad personally, since I had my prelims about a year after you ,in the first half of 2006, and I'm still working on the degree. But I'm having one of those "Sigh, I'll Never Finish" days. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have thought about how long it's been since my prelims.

I failed my qualifying exam the first time I took it. I was really devastated but I was able to retake it the next semester and passed the second time.

But yeah, it was a really hard time. I'm so glad that's long past (almost ten years ago)!

My grad department had closed oral qualifying exams, and I don't remember whether I talked to my committee about them beforehand or not. What I really remember is the "mock orals" that grad students put each other through. We got one grad student (or post-doc, or research associate) to pretend to be each committee member - and I learned so much from them. More, actually, than I learned from my real committee.

Great post. Two of the three people that failed their candidacy exam in my department left immediately, the third one stayed, took it again and passed. While I totally understand why someone would want to leave, I've always had the utmost respect for the one who tried again and succeeded. That takes guts.

I went through something similar. I was utterly heart-broken when I failed my oral qualifying exam early last year. I was sooo ready to quit. After about a week I decided (somewhat reluctantly) to try it again and schedule my exam 6 weeks after the first try and aced it. I graduated in December, and it all seems like a bad dream. One I had last night. The thought of it still sends shivers up my spine.