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A Brief Guide to Qualifying Exams

Qualifying exams encompass a stressful time during your Ph.D. We know, we’ve experienced them. It can feel like an insurmountable mound looming in the distance. But this doesn’t have to be the case, and we know you will pass. DBBS Interim Associate Dean Steve Mennerick has written up the following document as a means to help demystify the QE (updated February 2023).

A brief guide to DBBS qualifying exams

Steve Mennerick, interim Associate Dean, DBBS

I thank the following contributors for input, discussion, and commentary: John Edwards, Alex Stinson, Lucia Capano, Marwa Mikati, Joel Dalton, and students at Wednesday Wraps. My acknowledgement does not indicate that these generous commentators endorse the sentiments expressed.

This document is designed to serve as a broad primer on Qualifying Exams, for students in all DBBS programs.  Program specific guidelines can be found in the program section of the Student Resource Center. Program directors are charged with making expectations, process, and rationale as clear as possible. Several updates have been made to guidelines in the last few years, and discernment continues in response to feedback. All programs emphasize the challenging formative educational experience of the QE, but it also serves as an opportunity for faculty and students to discern whether a student is matched to the requirements of a Ph.D..

What is the QE designed to test?

DBBS students are expected to acquire broad knowledge of their field as well as specific facility with their own research topic.  Programs navigate these poles differently, and this is one reason that QEs differ in form and content among programs. Some programs expect the QE to bolster and test breadth of knowledge, while others emphasize specifics of one’s research interest and thus emphasize depth. Both expectations are valid and will test critical reasoning as well as ability to synthesize and interpret results. In addition to the content of the exam, QE learning includes navigating the vagaries of peer review systems.

Despite the differences among programs and the complexities of scientific arguments, there are some simplifying principles. Keep in mind that science, at its essence, requires evidence for an assertion. Whether you are writing a review, a specific aim for a mock grant, or are critically evaluating primary papers, make clear assertions that you can support with evidence. For a review-format exam or for a primary paper evaluation QE, evidence will come in the form of critically evaluated published work. In the case of a specific aim in a mock grant, published data, preliminary data (as allowed), and appropriately designed experiments will yield your evidence. This assertion-evidence rule can also apply to the justification of your choice of QE topic. If your QE has particular requirements for the topic, make sure that you understand the requirements, and offer evidence that your choices meet these requirements. 

Preparation and handling stress.

QEs can be complex and stressful to navigate, but rigorous preparation and strong understanding of your own work are key to alleviating concerns. Also, be assured that I have been working with your program directors, who all agree that the emphasis for all DBBS QEs is on the formative learning experience, at the expense of pass/fail test. Below are some ideas and resources to consider in preparing to demonstrate your knowledge and command:

  • Studying and preparing for the QE requires planningHowever, ask your program directors and senior classmates about the strategies required. Classes, research rotations, and scientific discovery are important too.  Some programs wait to release QE details so that you can concentrate on the other important facets of your training. 
  • Know your program guidelines. Each program has a description of the QE format and timing in the Student Resource Center. If your program does not provide clear guidelines, including an evaluation rubric, ask your program directors how consistency of evaluation is maintained and what competencies the QE is designed to evaluate.
  • Talk to older students about what worked for them and what did not.
    • You may get different answers from different people, but look for commonalities in their suggestions and for ideas that resonate with your style.
    • Keep in mind that format and content of the QE may change from year to year.
  • Talk to your lab PI about the time required to prepare or reducing your hours in lab to help manage your time. Open dialogue with your lab PI is important, and if you run in to problems, talk with your program director or program coordinator.
  • Still feeling overwhelmed? Reach out and speak with a mental health counselor – they are here for you and can help you build the toolkit you need to succeed.

Digging in.

  • Think about the questions that interest you. It will aid your commitment and interest in your QE preparation. If you have general knowledge component and/or an assigned topic outside your specialty, find the importance of the topic to the field, and try to place yourself in the position of those in the field.
  • Find the gaps in existing literature
    • For proposal style QEs, what exact phrasing of the hypothesis will allow supporting evidence to be gathered? Try this video. You may also want to review the Canvas site for Graduate Research Fundamentals. 
    • For literature review-style QEs, what holes in knowledge remain after weighing the balance of evidence in the literature? These holes may serve as the basis for future experiments, and committees love this level of analysis.
  • For proposal formats, iteratively edit your specific aims and your approaches to evidence gathering until there is an airtight match. It will likely take many iterations!
  • Discuss your proposed work with other students for constructive criticism, as allowed by program guidelines. Leave plenty of time to do the thinking and editing needed to act on the suggestions.
  • A clearly and cogently designed live, oral presentation is important for many QE formats
    • We have assembled resources in the Graduate Research Fundamentals Canvas site that may help with delivering presentations. 
    • This series of videos includes particularly helpful tips for developing internal confidence and projecting external confidence. Practice, practice, practice!

Beyond the exam.

  • Students are offered a second opportunity for passing QEs to enhance the learning potential and correct deficiencies
    • This process is an opportunity for some students to re-evaluate whether graduate school is right for them, and resources are available to help guide students who exit at this point.
    • Failure rate is small on QEs, but failure is not a judgement on your value as a person. Students who have left their program after the QE process have gone on to varied, satisfying careers.  Some have joined other advanced training programs that were better suited to their skillset.
  • Finally, take the guidance received from the QE experience to the next phase of your training.
    • Discuss deficiencies with your PI and thesis committee.  
    • Find opportunities to fill gaps identified by the QE experience. It is one of many milestones in which competencies of a Ph.D. level thinker will be revisited, developed, and honed. 

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