My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 2

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It has been a while since I revisited my qualifying exam that took place back in May 2020. If you are new here, make sure to check out Part 1 of my qualifying journey here. This first post shares 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. This next part, I will share specifically about my written exam. And shortly after, in part 3 I will share my experience with the oral exam.

The preparation phase

I still remembering getting ready to prepare for my qualifying exam and experiencing this overwhelming feeling of not understanding what to expect of the exam, what they expected of me or how this process will play out. When discussing with upper year students, they all seemed to have differing experiences or were too traumatized from the process to even discuss it in depth.

The only advice I was given was from a small paragraph in our PhD handbook and some ambiguous advice from my supervisor, mentors, and colleagues. One thing was clear, it was best to focus my exam on either a theory, method or topic in relation to my thesis in order to use these pieces later on in my dissertation. So there I went, into the abyss that is the PhD qualifying exam and started myself out with a plan.

My “plan”

Of course, nothing went to plan. This should be expected but I think we all still hope for the best. When starting out, my plan began January 2019, I hoped to defend in the Fall 2019. If you missed it from Part 1 – in reality, my defence date was May 2020…a year and a half after I began.

My process

My process included many, many, can I say many for a third time? drafts. It began with multiple drafts of the proposal itself. Some things that helped me with my proposal were the following:

  • mind mapping
  • meeting with committee members
  • meetings with colleagues
  • attending conferences
  • and reading – lots and lots of reading

The reading list

In May 2019 my reading list was approved from my committee. So if you map it out, this took four months since I started preparing, for me to put my reading list together and move forward with it. My reading list consistent of 34 seminal texts, articles and other books. But the process to land on these 34 books began with me reading at least double. Along the way I kept a word document with a table of context. Each heading was the reference to each book, and I would keep notes under each on so it was easily to find.

The proposal

Another four months later and my proposal was accepted. The proposal included this reading list but also the main aim & objectives of my written qualifying exam, my suitability, the main concepts being used and defined, the contribution to social work research, as well as the overall format of the paper itself.

The drafts & final submission

With the proposal done in September (my original “planned” qualifying exam date), I set a new goal to defend by November/December 2019. I felt some pressure to submit before the end of term as my first teaching contract began January 2020, in which you needed to have passed your qualifying exam before starting.

I submitted a draft to my committee at the end of November, with a tentative defence date in December. I was thrilled and proud of what I had just written. Unfortunately, the defence date was cancelled because I had to submit revisions to my exam before defending.  

This news crushed me. I wasn’t expecting revisions and although I didn’t fail, in my mind, I saw this as failure. If someone had prepared me to know this is part of the process, it might have all unfolded differently. This news, the pressure of teaching, on top of the financial insecurity and other demanding commitments, all contributed to what I call my mental health rock bottom. If you haven’t yet read about it, check out the post here.

I was depleted but I felt like I had no choice but to push through until I finished the exam. I couldn’t see my life passed this exam. It consumed every part of me.

Luckily, the Director allowed me to teach that term in January 2020 due to the fact that I had submitted a written qualifying exam draft and my committee didn’t see any issues with my ability to pass in the New Year.

So, January 2020 came around, my first-time teaching, as well as a global pandemic. Needless to say, the semester was busy while I tried to best to revise, revise and revise my paper yet again. I submitted the revised version to my committee at the beginning of May 2020.

Don’t worry, the story has a happy, I was able to successfully defend my oral qualifying exam on May 28th, 2020 (stay tuned for part 3 on my qualifying exam journey) and began focusing on getting healthy again.

My takeaways and reflections

I’ve shared my main advice in Part 1 of this series, and these still remain true:

  • Give yourself the gift of flexible goals and realistic timelines
  • Be open to learning, the qualifying exam is a transition from a student to an academic
  • Be prepared for lots of drafts

And I will also add

  • continuously go back to your literature. Often times we can get so focused on our pathways of thought on how to move forward. Or we think the literature review only comes at the beginning of the process. But continuously going back to it, over and over and over again, really helped shape my thoughts and allowed me to see concepts in new ways.

I am not going to sugar coat anything. The qualifying exam process was probably the most difficult experience of my life. Many folks think it is designed this way on purpose to see if you have the grit to continue through it. I am still trying to make sense of the whole process and how, in the future, I can make it less soul sucking for students I supervise. I learned a lot through this process, but the learning environment was unhealthy. So, my biggest piece of advice is to remind yourself that although an exam, you are still learning. Be kind to yourself and take care of yourself along the way because academia won’t be there to do that for you.  

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

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2 thoughts on “My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 2

  1. Hey Christine,

    Thank you for the great post (as always!).
    I have my candidacy exam tomorrow. About 24 hours later. I was hoping to see the post about the oral exam here before then, as my exam is just the oral exam (15 min presentation of my research work, and about 2 hours for 2 rounds of Q and A sessions).
    I feel like you totally understand how much stressful this is to me. I’m struggling so hard to think positively, and to believe that this is not the end of world. However, this is a bit out of control as I don’t know what they are gonna ask and I have no control on it!
    I would appreciate it if you could give me any advice in this before posting the main blob post about it. I just cannot see this exam to end as it has been bugging me for a year… this may be my most traumatic experience ever!

    1. Hi Fatemeh,
      I think at this point with the oral exam being so soon, my only advice for you is to stay present in the moment. I am sure by this point you have taken in everything you need to know. Remain confident that you know this material better than most people and that as long as you stay present you will be able to attend to the committees questions in a mindful way. I encourage you to think of the oral exam as an opportunity to talk about what you enjoy talking about with a group of colleagues – a time to nerd out. It is also a rare opportunity where everyone is deeply engaged in your work. A real opportunity for growth and learning. I found the oral exam to be a great experience and really allowed me to look more positively at the qualifying exam as a whole. I hope your experience is the same. Best of luck with it.

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