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Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Most of us know this number to symbolize the devil.

Those of us in the Land, Air, and Water Resources department here at UCD know it as the qualifying exam rule. There's a professor in this department who says students should study no more than 6 hours a day for 6 days a week during the 6 weeks leading up to their BIG EXAM.

For me that icky start-studying day is today. TODAY.

I'm trying REALLY, REALLY hard to think of this event not as an "exam" where I'm grilled about everything I do know or should know about my research...but more as a "conversation" with five professors whose research somehow relates to mine.

Since our program doesn't include a traditional dissertation defense, this is the ONLY time in my graduate school career where I will be able to have access to five experts all in the same room at the same time. When they are ONLY focused on ME.

We will have a conversation. It'll start with me explaining who I am, how I got to be studying compost, and the research project I intend to do. Of course, they'll interrupt me constantly so my 20 minute presentation will take about an hour to get through.

Then we'll all take a quick bathroom break.

The next part of the conversation will be them asking me questions about my analytical methods, my hypotheses based on the work I've already done (and based on their own research), and me doing my best to answer them. I'll probably say "I don't know" and "I'm sorry, but I don't think I understand the question" about a hundred times. Their questions will be fair, even if they completely stump me and make me feel so lousy that I want to cry. The point is to ask me about my hypotheses, methods, and expected results in order to prove that I am in fact qualified to complete the research. That I'm worthy of pursuing a PhD from UCD. I don't have to know all the answers right now, but I have to show them that I am capable of finding those answers using sound science. And that I know the limits of my knowledge.

None of that sounds particularly scary when you break it down into pieces:
  1. write the proposal
  2. make the PowerPoint presentation based on the proposal
  3. study
  4. meet with each professor individually to find out what their expectations are (they will always focus their questions based on what classes I've taken, my proposal, and their own research experience)
  5. study some more
  6. read committee members' papers from their own dissertations and recent work
  7. study some more
  8. hold two practice exams for your labmates and friends to ask you questions and make suggestions
  9. give the professors the proposal a week before the exam
  10. give your 20/1 hour presentation
  11. take a potty break
  12. answer some questions
  13. sit in the hallway while they vote on your qualifications
  14. go back inside to hear "the verdict"
  15. go have a beer with your professor and friends afterward (either to celebrate or medicate, depending on the verdict: pass, no pass (take again), or fail)
"Answer some questions" sounds benign enough...but since I don't know what the questions are ahead of time it is sorta (okay: really) scary. The only thing I can do is to study a lot and learn how to say "I don't know" in several different ways.

My biggest problem at this point is that I don't feel like an expert in anything. People ask me what I do and say, "I study compost chemistry." I don't say that I'm a chemist or a soil scientist because I don't feel like I know enough to be either of those things. It is a confidence issue, especially with one particular member of my committee who intimidates me (she's a super go-getter, career-focused, top-of-her-game scientist). She doesn't try to intimidate me, I just impose that on myself. Ug.

Right now I'm in the middle of 1 and 2 (adding citations to 1 and making parts of the presentation as it comes to me).

Eddie will be spending every Wednesday night at Cassie's so I have one uninterrupted evening/night/morning of study time. Before he was born, I was most diligent in the early morning. Now I seem to favor the late afternoon, which is hard because I always have to stop what I'm doing to go pick him up (then its an exhausting succession of biking home, feeding the dogs, making/eating dinner, playing, bath time, reading, bed, then dishes, cleaning up the house). By 8:30pm I'm ready to fall into a heap on the couch or watch some mindless movie in bed. It is soooooooooooo hard to remotivate myself after an evening with Eddie. So I've decided not to try. I will not make a practice of studying at home because I know it will do more harm than good. I just have to be as diligent as possible during working hours.



LSharkey said...

That is way more intense than the defense I had to do. I will be thinking of you. Do you know when IT will be? #6 seems intimidating!

Kelly said...

If you have access to them, you should also talk to the committee members' graduate students and post-docs. They will have good insight as to what kind of questions their professors might ask you.

Go Julie!!! :D