My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1

My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1 - image  on

I am excited to share with you today the first part, of a three part series, in my experience with my qualifying exam. This first post will share an overview of my story with the qualifying exam – what it looked liked in my department at my school, my personal journey with it and some of my advice along the way. My qualifying exam was comprised of both a written and an oral exam, therefore part 2 will be specifically about my written exam and part 3 will share the oral exam. Part 2 and 3 will provide more specifics on my process of writing, how many hours and how I prepared for the oral exam, as well as what I think helped and didn’t.

I now understand why there is such limited, genuine advice about qualifying exams online. After a couple months of pushing this blog post down my to do list, I decided to stop avoiding it. And as I began to share this experience, I already feel sick to my stomach. I still don’t know if I will be able to do justice to what this experience was for me. To be honest, it still feels like a blur. Additionally, the process is so unique to everyone. No two qualifying exam journey’s, that I have heard about, sound alike. But so many of you are asking and so, here I am and I will do my best to share what I can.

If you are interested in what the qualifying exam process looked like for my school, you can check out the details here. Essentially, we had an option between a take home exam paper or a critical review essay. I decided on the essay. I started in May 2019, with a goal to defend in September 2019. I ended up defending in May 2020. Here is how it all panned out.

My Qualifying Exam Journey

I started my exam in May 2019 after completing two years of my coursework. Throughout my coursework, I had gathered my committee, so I had felt prepared and confident when starting my qualifying exam journey (side note: I want to mention that I was and still am super happy with my committee members and their support in this process). I had also met with each of them a few times to discuss my proposal.

In May, I was able to spend some time in solitude with my books. It was a lovely month, I look back on the month with joy. In June, I was involved with organizing a research site study for a research project and I also participated in that two-week intensive research study at the end of June.

In July, I moved back to Toronto from Ottawa, officially, and felt drained after the site study. The transition from moving cities was also hard for me.

I then began a new research project, with two community organizations. This project is a national environmental scan on LGBTQI2S Seniors and Workers safety in health care, social care and municipal public services and planned to finish the end of October 2019 (spoiler alter: it is now August 2020 and the report is still not published). Although these two research projects had taken a lot of my time and energy, I do believe they are setting me up contextually for my teaching and future work. So here is my first tip:

Continue with other projects – or not – both are possible

Looking back, if I knew how everything would pan out, I still don’t know if I would change anything. I know other scholars who finished there exam within a month (they chose the exam style format). Although my qualifying exam journey was a long one, I was working on a lot of other commitments during this time and couldn’t put them on pause. So whether you choose to continue with other projects, or if you put your life on pause to get your qualifying exam done, both are doable and one is not better than the other.

I ended up getting my proposal approved in September 2019. In November and December, I was still working on this research project, I was a teaching assistant, and I was preparing to teach my first course – which included creating a course outline from scratch. I was getting frustrated the research project was taking longer than expected, and my goal of finishing my qualifying exam was not coming to fruition. I rushed to finish a first draft for the beginning of December, and booked the oral exam for January. Which brings me to my second tip:

Give yourself the gift of flexible goals and realistic timelines

If I didn’t have a goal of finishing my qualifying exam in September 2019, I don’t think I would have rushed to get this paper in by the end of December. I also don’t think I would have been so miserable for thesemonths. So please, I beg you, give yourself the gift of flexible goals and realistic timelines. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t meet your initial goals. Instead, reflect and adapt. And be realistic with your goal and all the other commitments you are juggling.

Without getting into details, my committee told me that they struggled with the decision to allow me to continue to the oral exam in January or not. They said the paper was fine and passable but if I really wanted to work on my academic writing, this was the time to do that and get the feedback and learning from my committee. So my supervisor decided it was best for me to continue to work on the paper and delay the oral exam. This was obviously heartbreaking to me, and all occurred over the holidays. But I do believe it was the best decision for me. After I had time to wallow in my misery, I met with my supervisor and we discussed what I needed to work on in my writing. It was a lot. But I also learned a lot. Of course I didn’t know some of these lessons, I wasn’t an academic writer yet and this is what the qualifying exam taught me. And so my next tip is:

Be open to learning, the qualifying exam is a transition from a student to an academic

Once I had a shift in mindset that this was a process of learning, I started to enjoy my writing again and this is where things shifted for me. From January-April 2020, I taught my first class, which I really enjoyed. I put that as my top priority and any second I wasn’t working on that, I was writing and rewriting my exam. I will share more about this in part 2. And so my main writing tip I have is:

Be prepared for lots of drafts

In coursework, we often submit one draft to our Professors and we receive a grade back right away – congrats, you received an A! In my coursework, I received straight A’s. I am not saying that to brag, I am saying that to show you that I was told I was an excellent writer, because I was for that level of writing. But academic writing is a different ball game and it requires a lot of writing, re-writing, editing and revising.

April and May 2020 is when COVID-19 hit. I finished my first course with a switch to online. My partner and I also had to move during the pandemic. Life continued and it continued to be crazy. I set aside a week in May to finish my paper. The committee loved it and we scheduled and oral exam for the end of May 2020. I spent about two weeks preparing for the oral exam, which was likely overkill, but I will share more about this in part 3. Which brings me to my main oral exam tip:

After you write, practice articulating what you wrote 

After writing about my paper for a year, I knew the material really well. Like really, really well. But articulating that now through my words, rather than my writing was a shift. So I made cue cards to practice out loud. I also had a practice round with my PhD colleagues, which I highly recommend. On May 28th, 2020, I passed my qualifying oral exam.

My Overall Advice

This brings me to the present day. If you are following me, you would read my mental health journey post and know that I was burnt out after this process. So my overall advice is simple – be kind to yourself and take care of yourself. You will get through this process, you are intelligent, you are capable and you are a scholar. No matter what the qualifying exam journey looks like for you, it’s your own unique journey and that is awesome.

That is it for today’s post. As mentioned, in my next two posts I will share specifics around my written and oral exam – how I prepared and more details about the experience.

If you have specific questions about the qualifying exam journey, leave them down below, e-mail me or DM me on instagram and I will try my best to answer them in the upcoming blogs.

Until next time,

Christine xo

P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.

P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2021/22 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.

6 thoughts on “My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing all of this! What reference software did you find most helpful? How did you organize notes on the literature you were reviewing to make your final list?

    1. You are so welcome. I use Mendeley – I like how it links in word. I organize my notes through an annotated bib in word. I put the citations in the table of contents so I can easily click on the citation i need at the top and it brings me to that sections, as the document gets really long. Hope this helps.

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