My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1

My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1

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 articulate 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.

Mental health and my PhD

Mental health and my PhD

DISCLAIMER: This is my story of anxiety and depression. Please consult a doctor or health care practitioner if you are seeking help for your anxiety or depression.

Now entering my fourth year of my PhD. I sit here a bit stunned thinking “how did I get here”? Perhaps it’s because I am entering into my fourth year and only starting my proposal now. Perhaps it’s because I was supposed to get married and couldn’t because of COVID-19. Or perhaps it’s because I can hardly look at myself in the mirror because of the acne on my face and my hair is literally falling out. Whatever it was led me to this question “how did I get here” and had me searching for answers.

I am currently reading rockstar and writer genius, Glennon Doyle’s book – “Untamed”. I am only 30 pages in and I am already on board and ready to drink whatever she is drinking. In her book she tells readers to “quit pleasing and start living”. One of the lines that has stuck with my the most is when Doyle asks:

“Isn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?”

I remember so vividly starting my PhD. I was so determined to not get exactly where I am today. I exercised, I ate clean and healthy food, I took small breaks and even mini vacations. I did all of the things you were supposed to do in order to avoid the pain that I saw in every upper years PhD’s eyes. “I am not going to get to that point” I naively thought to myself. I was entering my PhD, so ecstatic to learn and follow my passion in my work “I will aim for balance and do whatever I need to do to achieve that” I told myself with tenacity.

In my first year, the graduate supervisor shared some advice that always stuck with me “the PhD is a marathon, not a sprint”. My first year was, of course, a wild ride. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and learned more than I ever thought I was capable of learning. I took a couple weeks off as a vacation before I worked all summer – thinking two weeks is what most people get as vacation, so this seems reasonable. But looking back I think I spent most of waking hours walking around like a zombie and at night sleeping as much as I could. The thing about the advice is, I had never run a marathon before. And I didn’t train for it before I started.

I entered my second year a bit more confidently, only to be knocked on my butt while putting what I learned into practice. During the second semester in my second year, I decided to finally admit that I need help managing my anxiety and depression. I went to see a doctor and we tried a few different anti-depressants over months at a time. None of them worked for me and honestly they made feel worse than I already was feeling. So, in consultation with my doctor we decided it was best for me to stop.

After I stopped the medication, I actually felt the best I had felt over the past two years. (which goes to show how much the medication was negatively impacting me). I was so happy to be off the medication and I was ready to get back to balance – eat healthy, talk to my therapist regularly, exercise, get rest; thats what you do to maintain “good mental health” right?

Well life loves to give me a good laugh. Right then and there I was knocked back down with some personal family issues.

This led me into my third year, where I was supposed to complete my qualifying exam in June 2019, which was delayed to December 2019. And then delayed yet again because it wasn’t up to the standards of my committee and I needed to make revisions. I recently just passed in March 2020. Needless to say, this rejection and lengthy process set me back. A lot.

The qualifying exam process was baffling. I didn’t feel like I could breath until I passed that exam. And I am still trying to process how it all played out.

After I passed, I realized my nerves were completely shot. My face was breaking out in acne. And because of my perfectionist tendencies I have a mental health issue where I pick my skin, which makes it much worse. I am also experiencing Alopecia – a condition where your hair falls out due to stress. See bottom right photo where I have patches in my hair and where it is starting to grow back again so it’s shorter than the other pieces. Emotionally, I realized I have nothing left to give. Nothing to give to my family, my friends, least of which, myself.

My PhD Qualifying Exam: Part 1 - image  on

But I passed, while also going through a global pandemic, and here I am, asking:

“Isn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?”

As I start to write my research proposal, I am also starting to think about how I can improve my mental health. My automatic response was – get into a routine, exercise everyday, take breaks, schedule a therapist appointment and eat clean. But I have to stop thinking this will save me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. It doesn’t work long term.

And although a lot of my research works towards dismantling dangerous and harmful systemic structures like academia, as well as the expectations that are placed on women, I know I am not going to change that overnight, or alone.

Instead I am going to the opposite of what I normally would try. Instead of looking outwards, I am looking within.

I plan to put myself before my work. This is not easy for me.

I plan to sleep in, instead of waking up at 6am, just to sneak in a few more hours of work.

I plan to sit in stillness.

No matter how uncomfortable it feels.

Or how much I tell myself that I don’t have time for this.

I know the answers to manage my mental health are within myself – not within any outside sources.

And I need to find myself again.

I need to listen, trust, believe and love.

It’s interesting, although I feel broken – I also finally feel free.

Until next time,


Burnt out before I’ve even started? How I am putting myself before my work

Burnt out before I’ve even started? How I am putting myself before my work

After two and a half years of my PhD, my body feels depleted. Last semester, nothing went to plan, which has made January was one of the hardest months of my PhD this far. I didn’t feel like myself, my body gave up on me and my mind felt against me. How could this be? I have only just finished my course work, I haven’t even started my dissertation! Am I burnt out before I have even started? Today’s blog post will share how I am restoring my body and mind in order to hopefully continue on this PhD marathon.

Continue reading “Burnt out before I’ve even started? How I am putting myself before my work”

Mindset shifts for grad students

Mindset shifts for grad students

The end of a semester is often a busy time for most scholars. The past two months have been especially difficult for me. I am completing my qualifying exams, prepping to teach my first course, working on a research study, and other paid jobs. In times like these, it is easy for me to get caught up in a negative mindset. In this blog post I want to share how I have been trying to shift my negative mindset to a more positive one.

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Setting Boundaries in Grad School

Setting Boundaries in Grad School

I have recently started to prioritize boundary setting in my life – both in and outside of my degree. These boundaries started partly because I am learning to trust and care about myself more. But it is also due to the fact that I never thought I had the power to set boundaries. I never was in a situation to say no to opportunities (still not) and I felt like I was never doing enough academically (still do). All of this changed when I started to put myself first and push back on the demands of academia. Read more below to find out what I have learned about boundary setting.

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Tips for Working from Home

Tips for Working from Home

Hi Scholar Friends, I know it has been a while. I am deep in the midst of my qualifying exams and I am taking a break to write this important post. After finishing my coursework in the spring, I have officially moved onto the isolation component of my PhD. Everything I do from this point on is, well pretty much, on my own. My work space consists of a 9×9 room in my 500 square foot apartment, with no door and no windows. But it is a designated space, and I have the necessities. I have found working from home more difficult than I expected. I had worked from home before but never 7 days a week. Over the past few months I have figured out some strategies that have helped me in this journey. Below you will find some of my top 5 tips for working from home.

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Career Conversation on YouTube

Career Conversation on YouTube

Last week I was featured on Career Conversations. I completed an interview with Stefanie and during we discussed everything from mental health, time management and blogging during my PhD. In this blog post, you will find a link to the full video, as well as an overview of the key takeaways. Continue reading “Career Conversation on YouTube”

Time Management Tips for PhD Students

Time Management Tips for PhD Students

This blog post needs no introduction. If you are a grad student, time always feels scarce . I often feel like I don’t have enough time. My only option then is to make the most efficient and effective use of what I do have. Here are my top ten tips for making the most out of my time.

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10 personal reflections of a 2nd year PhD student

10 personal reflections of a 2nd year PhD student

After finishing the first year of my PhD program, I spent some time reflecting and wrote a blog post on personal reflections from that year, you can read that post here. This process helped me reflect and naturally I wanted to do it again for my second year.

Similarly to my first year, after course work was finished, I was exhausted and depleted. Although I finished a big milestone of finishing all my coursework, it suddenly dawned on me that I still have four more years to go. I just finished two of the most challenging years of my life but yet I felt like I was just starting again, moving into this new phase of my own research and teaching. Not only was this very daunting but also brought on even more anxiety than usual.

On top of this, I also had many other life events that arose. So recently, I took some days off and now I am feeling more like myself. If I am being honest though, I could still use some more time. But I also am realizing that I need to start making that time and building it into my schedule.

All this to say, a PhD is challenging and here are my 10 personal reflections from my 2nd year as a PhD student:

Continue reading “10 personal reflections of a 2nd year PhD student”