How to Survive Quals
The qualifying exam is probably one of the most stressful periods of graduate school. You’ve passed the dreaded Core Course, worked your way through a couple semesters of classes, rotated through a few labs, and have hopefully found a great lab with a promising project. Now comes the rite of passage: the qualifying exam. Although just picturing a committee of professors grilling you with questions for two hours can be nerve-wracking, here are a few tips to get you through it!
1) Don’t panic. Graduate school anxiety is real, but try not to let it get to you. This is easier said than done, but rest assured that your qualifying committee is not trying to fail you. They want you to pass.
2) Set a study schedule and routine. Before you start studying, try and map out what topics you want to cover each day/week, but don’t get discouraged if you fall behind on your schedule. Be adaptable and know that it is not a race. You are only in competition with yourself.
3) Find a study buddy. Your study buddy doesn’t have to be studying the same material as you. They can just be someone to hold you accountable for your study time, a reference for a basic question, or simply someone that will save you a spot in one of the study rooms at the library.
4) Talk to upperclassmen that have passed their quals. If you haven’t already made connections with upperclassmen, you should! They have already been through the gauntlet and can provide you with insight on how to prepare for the exam. Chances are they either had the same committee member on their quals, or know another student that can give you tips on what type of questions to expect from a particular professor.
5) Set boundaries for your time in lab, and don’t forget to make time for yourself. If you don’t have the luxury of taking time off from lab, try to designate time when you are in lab. Maybe that means coming into lab at 8 a.m., and leaving at 1 p.m., then going to the library to study. Most impotantly, make sure you set aside time for yourself. You don’t want to burn out. Find ways to relieve your stress such as exercising, cooking, reading a book, or watching some Netflix.
6) Practice. Get comfortable with explaining concepts out loud. Practice drawing on the white board, and have a couple of figures or diagrams prepped for the actual day. Try and predict questions that your committee will ask. You’ll likely be asked a question that you prepared for. Also, hold multiple mock qualifying exams. These can provide you feedback on your strengths and weaknesses, and can help calm your nerves come exam day.
7) Be okay with what you know, and okay with what you don’t know. You will most likely reach a point when you’re tired of studying, and just want to get it over with, but you’re terrified. Don’t be! If you’ve put in the time and effort, you will be fine. There will always be something that you “don’t know”. No one can possibly know everything, although you can certainly kill yourself trying. Quals are about testing your understanding of the material and your ability to apply it. So if you are confident about what you do know, and can accept your own limitations, you will do great! Don’t stress—It’s just grad school!