Acing your Qualifying Exam

Acing your Qualifying Exam

The following information is being provided to graduate students and their advisers as a general guide for qualifying exam preparation. Please use this guide in combination with consultation with your major professor, all of the members of your committee and the committee chair. The gathered information was part of a Professors for the Future student project and uses exam preparation material from Dr. Louis Grivetti, Department of Nutrition. Please e-mail Dr. Grivetti for additional information.

Graduate students in a myriad of departments at UC Davis: engineering, physical sciences, agricultural and biological sciences, as well as the arts, humanities and social sciences are united by the common thread of the dreaded qualifying exam. For many graduate students this is one of the most uncertain, stressful, and time consuming aspects of their graduate education. This exam, may be written or oral or both, or follow any format according to the specific requirement of the graduate program.

Although the content and structure of qualifying examinations varies widely by discipline, this information focuses on universal "strategies for success" that will be valuable to graduate students in all departments. This information will help to demystify the qualifying exam, and empower graduate students with the skills and strategies to feel confident and prepared when the time comes for their exam. In addition, this information is a resource for graduate student advisors to better achieve their mentoring goals.

The following are the “Five Golden Rules” of qualifying exam preparation.

  1. Understand the qualifying exam.
  2. Know your examiners.
  3. Prepare early.
  4. Reduce your stress.
  5. Have an exam day plan.

Students who follow these “golden rules”, in combination with close consultation with their adviser and committee members, will be superbly prepared for success on their qualifying exam.

So, where and when do you start? Ideally you should start with golden rule #1 about six months before your qualifying exam. However, graduate students often begin preparation three or fewer months in advance and also have good success.

Golden Rule #1: Understand the qualifying exam.

It may sound simplistic, but understanding what the qualifying exam is, how it works, and its format is absolutely imperative to its successful completion. By graduate school, most graduate students are truly “professional students.” That is, they are experts at essay, multiple choice, and short answer tests, quizzes, and assignments. However, few graduate students are well practiced at oral examination. That is one of the reasons why the qualifying exam is so scary.

To abide by golden rule #1 you will need to obtain the following information:

  1. How much time does the exam usually take?
  2. What is the format of the exam?
  3. How is your performance assessed?

The best way to obtain this information is from a variety of sources. First and foremost ask your advisors for their input. Next ask these questions to all of your committee members, especially your chair. Cross check their answers to see if all of your committee members are on the same page when it comes to the time, format, and assessment. If not, then you may want to let your committee chair know so he or she can set the tone for your committee.

Next, you should ask these questions to other graduate students in your department who have recently passed their qualifying exam.

After you have mastered the time, format, and assessment of the qualifying exam you will have a complete understanding of what it is you are about to undertake. Next you are ready for golden rule #2.

Golden Rule #2: Know your examiners.

The members of your qualifying exam committee are the gatekeepers of you advancing to candidacy. If you invited professors to serve on your committee, then be sure that you know them well, and have at least taken one course from them.

As these people will be spending a few hours with you discussing your discipline, and your research during your exam, you should spend some time researching each of your committee member's scientific backgrounds. This will make you familiar with their expertise, research, teaching, and even a bit of their personality. You should research the following:

  1. What is your committee member's academic training? Where did they get their degrees, and in what departments?
  2. What are your examiners publications? What topics do they write about? In what journals do they publish papers?

After you have thoroughly researched all of your committee members, and have verified that they are all suitable and applicable for your committee (if you haven't already) you should meet with them.

Try to meet with them in person several times before the exam, as this will let you get to know them better, their style of questions, and their personality. When you meet with them you should ask each of them the following questions:

  1. What is their philosophy towards the examination?
  2. Does your lab/department have a book of commonly asked oral exam questions?
  3. What types of questions do they usually ask?

As a result of your background research and your meetings with committee members, you should be able to obtain a good sense of where each of your committee members is coming from, what they expect from you, and what types of questions they might ask you.

This information is invaluable. It will help to put you at ease with their personalities, and can help you anticipate possible questions they may ask you.

Golden Rule #3: Prepare early and systematically.

So how do you prepare for a qualifying exam? Clearly, what to study varies according to your department and research field, but below are strategies that apply to any department.

Be systematic in your study approach. What does it mean to be “systematic”? It simply means to organize the topics that you will study from general to specific as this is often how your exam questions will progress, and it is the best way to re-learn material.

Begin your systematic studying six months in advance. However, do not stress out if all you have to study is three or even two months. As long as you are systematic in your preparation, you will be in good shape.

  1. First, review the basics of your field. You can achieve this by reviewing all of your past lower division courses. You can use your old notes, text books, exams and lab write ups. Focus on the main themes and concepts. You may think that you have forgotten everything, but it will begin to come back to you and be familiar.
  2. Next, review the specifics of your field. This means reviewing all of the material covered in any of upper division or graduate level courses. Again, focus on the major themes and concepts. However, if there are details that relate to your research or your field of study, then focus on those as well.
  3. Now, prepare and practice your dissertation research proposal. Often your dissertation proposal is formulated under guidance from your adviser. This would include a thorough literature review, research objectives and hypotheses, methodology, and expected results. The exam candidate is at an advantage here because at your qualifying exam, you will (or should be) the expert on your research topic. Therefore, any questions that your committee has about your research proposal you will be able to answer.
    A great strategy for practicing your dissertation research proposal is to explain your research to others. Begin with those in your department, because they will have general knowledge of your research, and will be able to give you scientifically based critiques. Then, the greatest test of your ability to clearly explain your research is to present it to people outside of your field of study. This could include your friends in and outside of academia, and family members. The more that you talk about your research and answer questions about it, the more prepared and confident you will become for your qualifying exam.
  4. Next, prepare your "how I came to be here" speech. Again, all departments are different and you should consult with your adviser and committee chair to see if this applies to you, but most qualifying exams begin with some sort of "how I came to be here" speech.
    Basically the speech is a warm up for you, and if you prepare for it, you can hit a grand slam! Your committee may ask, “How did you come to be before us today” or “Why did you decide to get your Ph.D.”, or “Why did you choose your topic of study?” The beauty of all of these questions is that there is no wrong answer. The answer is all up to you, and it gives you a chance to tell the committee about yourself, perhaps things they never knew before (where you grew up, childhood experiences, and inspiring events in your life). You also should think of the “how I came to be here” speech as a platform for you to plant seeds for further questions from your committee members. Any information which you give them in this speech may prompt additional questions from them, so be sure to mention things that you would be happy to discuss further.
  5. Prepare for anticipated questions. After you have reviewed the general and specific topics in your field, interviewed and met several times with your committee members, and have prepared your research proposal, you will have covered all of the potential topics that are game for your qualifying exam. As such, you should begin to generate anticipated questions.
    It is a little bit like predicting the future, but using what you have learned about the format and types of questions asked during exams, you should be able to come up with a few hundred potential questions.
  6. Set up a practice qualifying exam. Setting up a practice qualifying exam is an easy way to give you a taste of what to expect on exam day. Enlist the help of your colleagues, fellow graduate students, or even friends or family. Present to them your "how I came to be here" speech and your research proposal. Have one of them keep time for you, so you can adjust the length of your speech and proposal accordingly come exam day. Have them each ask you several of the “anticipated questions” that you have already formulated and even ones that they come up with themselves. Also ask them for critiques on your speech, volume and body language… anything that you could work on before your oral exam. Also, try to conduct your mock exam in the same room in which you will have your qualifying exam.
  7. Review recent scientific journals. As the date of your qualifying exam approaches, be sure to read the latest editions of the most important research journals in your field and subfield. Being informed about the latest research and discoveries in your field may be useful when answering your examiners questions. Your committee members often read these same journals and they may draw some of their questions from recent articles.

Golden Rule #4: Reduce your stress.

The qualifying examination is clearly one of the most stressful events in a graduate student's academic experience. This is very common as the exam is often shrouded in mystery, is an unfamiliar test format, and can be "high stakes".

If you have prepared systematically, you are in great shape and should be confident that you are well prepared to succeed in your qualifying examination. If your stress levels are severe or debilitating you should seek help immediately. However, for minor stress, the following tips can help calm your nerves and increase your confidence.

  1. Schedule your exam at a time and location for your comfort. If you are a morning person then schedule your exam during the morning or in the afternoon if you are an afternoon person. Talk to your committee several months in advance about scheduling a time, and they may be more flexible to accommodate your needs.
  2. Decide in advance:
    1. How will you respond to off-the-wall questions? Off-the-wall questions include those from “left field,” or those that you have not anticipated. Expect that you will get a few of these and create a plan about how you will respond to them. Perhaps you can ask your committee member to repeat or clarify the question. Take a few moments to think about it. It is okay if there are a few seconds of silence. Restate the question out loud so that you can make sure you understood the question as it was asked. Then go for it! You are well prepared to answer.
    2. How will you respond to questions that you do not know? It is almost inevitable that you will be asked a question or two during your examination and will not know the answer. So it is best to prepare ahead how you will answer it when it is asked. Do not try to “fake” your way out of it. It is best to be honest and say that you don't know. Some possible answers include:
      • “I don't have that information at this time. However, I would obtain that information from…”
      • “That is a good question and I am not sure about the answer. However, I would find the answer by…”
      • “I am not sure what the answer is, but if I was to make a hypothesis based on my knowledge it would be….”
      By having a plan for what to do, you will reduce your stress level if and when a questions is asked that you do not know the answer.
  3. The week before:
    1. Reconfirm the date and location of the qualifying exam room with all your committee members. This way you can touch base one last time with all of them before the big day. You can rest assured that everyone is clear on the day, time and place.
    2. Visit the exam room and check that the keys fit, the lighting, heating, air conditioning, are all functional and ready to go. This will help alleviate any of the nagging “what ifs” about your exam day.

Golden Rule #5: Have an exam day plan.

It will help you immensely if you have a plan and know what to expect on your exam day.

  1. The morning of:
    1. Dress appropriately. This is usually professional or business dress. Look good… Feel good.
    2. Eat a small meal. Even if you are nervous, try to eat a small meal. Your exam may be upwards of three hours, so you really need to fuel your brain and body.
    3. Drive or have someone drive you to your exam. Try to avoid biking or public transportation if you can.
    4. Get to the exam room early, at least 30 minutes before your exam is scheduled to begin. Open the door, turn on the lights, heat or AC, and set up any audio visual equipment that you may need. After that do not wait in the room, go for a walk and watch your time. Be back to your exam site five minutes before your exam.
  2. During your exam:
    1. Understand the time constraints of the exam. Use your watch to keep abreast of time and pace yourself accordingly. Speak slowly, and clearly. Do not cut off any of your examiners when they are speaking (as they are using up time that could be filled with more questions for you).
    2. At the break, leave the exam room and go for a brief walk, or stretch outside, in another hallway, or in the restroom. You are half way there!
    3. At the end of the examination, be sure to thank all of your examiners politely for their time, consideration and efforts.

After your exam try to take some time to celebrate with family and friends. It is a big accomplishment, and you should reward yourself for your efforts.