the qualifying exam: arguably the scariest experience (so far) in my life

After a sleepless night (try as I may, I just could not sleep), my husband (who consistently drags his ass out of bed a full 20 minutes after me) jumped out of bed before me.  I couldn't believe it was already time to wake up and prepare for this dreaded day.  In fact, I stayed in bed for another good 20 minutes thinking self-defeating thoughts before finally dragging myself out.  We then went to get some bagels and coffee to feed my committee.  My husband kept insisting that I eat a bit, but it's just not my style to eat before exams and besides, I didn't want to end up so nervous that I perhaps would throw up on my committee.  It really was surreal.  I've never felt so nervous before in my entire life and that includes a whole lot of med school interviews, presentations, and the USMLE Step 1 (which is one of the most important things not to screw up if you want your pick of specialty).  I don't know why it seemed like such a monstrous, unsurmountable mountain to me, but it did.  Honestly, I've never walked into anything before in my life thinking that I would fail.  Sure, I've been scared, but I've never fully believed that there was the possibility of failure.  Here, failure seemed to be inevitable.

So off I went to my doom.  I left nice and early in order to have some time to gather myself beforehand but was foiled by the fact that the location of the exam had been moved.  After barely settling in, I was joined by the chair of the committee and then Replacement Committee Member, who was very talkative.  Which was good.  But still.  I just wanted some silence. 

And do they really have to make the whole thing so nerve-racking?  After everyone in the committee arrived, I got shuffled out of the room so that they could discuss how they were going to proceed.  Those were the longest minutes of my life.  I was trying so hard not to freak out, but I couldn't.  I tried rehearsing my talk in my head, but couldn't get past the introduction, which only served to freak me out more because it made me think that I had forgotten it all.  Then I tried reading some of the stuff on the bulletin board, but realized that I wasn't reading but rather memorizing the stuff, which was distracting from my attempts to not forget my talk.  So then I tried pacing, but after a few circles, I started getting dizzy.  So I couldn't do anything but stand there and wait while my fight-or-flight response went wild.

Then I'm finally called in and the pain begins.  First, there was my talk.  They did not let me finish it at all.  Not even close.  And they asked me questions that would have been explained had they only let me finish.  Needless to say, that lack of control over even the beginning threw me off.  Then onto Replacement Committee Member, who got the first shot at me.  Of all things, pericytes!  I didn't even study anything remotely close to pericytes.  AT ALL.  I was lucky to even remember what they were.  And how do you expect me to design experiments having to do with brain slices when I have no experience with such things?!

When that torture was finally over, I was so shaken up that I couldn't even remember crossbridge cycling anymore!  I had carefully gone over this topic too because I was sure that I would be asked about it.  Had they asked me my name at that point, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to spit an answer out.  And I still had three more people to go.

The next purveyor of doom happened to have conjunctivitis for the occasion and was wearing sunglasses!  Just imagine walking into an interview to be greeted by someone wearing dark sunglasses who then did not take them off for the duration of the interview.  Talk about creepy.  Not to mention her off the wall questions.  It was at that point that I started accepting that I was probably going to fail.  And I still had two more people to go.

Onto Evil Committee Member, who strangely enough, wasn't quite as evil as she was when I met with her.  But still, I couldn't wrap my head around the Frank-Starling length-tension relationship, no matter how hard I tried, even though I did know it.  It was quite pathetic, really.

And just when I was down to my final committee member, Conjunctivitis Member decided that she needed a bathroom break after I'd decided that I just wanted to go straight through (I figured that no breaks would mean that I wouldn't have time to sabotage myself with self-defeating thoughts in between).  So we take a break.  And then, finally, it's the chair's turn.  Her questions were nice and easy.  Well, easy if you think tracing motor and sensory pathways is easy.  Which I do.  Because I like that kind of stuff.

And then it was out of the room for me while they discussed my fate.  No pacing this time.  I spent the time trying to build up a strong front for when they failed me.  I mean, really, after that fumbling performance where even I wanted to fail myself, why would they pass me?  I was surprised that no one stopped it in the middle and just kicked me out for being an insult to PhDs the world over (though I've never heard of such a thing happening).  I figured that if I didn't burst out in tears that I would then at least have some of my dignity left.

The moment came and the chair walked out with a smile on her face.  For a moment, I marveled at how evil she had to be to be smiling about someone's failure.  But then she told me that I'd passed.  And I almost responded with, "WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!  Really?!"  But I didn't.  Instead I walked in to have everyone congratulate me.  I thought I was dreaming.  And I still can't believe it now.  I can't believe that I passed.  Or that it's finally over.  Only now do I realize what kind of burden it was to be dreading this test for over three months.

But trust me.  I would never do this again.  Ever.  It really has been the worst experience of my life.  So far.  I'm sure things will happen once I return to med school that will be far worse.  But for now, the PhD qualifying exam is the reigning champion. 

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  1. and that’s why i called it the dreaded phd qualifying examIt’s always hard to get back into the more annoying things in life (such as setting up my quals) after enjoying the more fun things in life (such as having a nice semi-relaxing weekend with my non-crazy family). I almost convinced myself not to check my email today, but knew better. And things were going well at first. Committee member #1: December is good. I like certain days of the week. Committee member #2: December is good except for a few dates. And then there was committee member #3: December is not good at all. D’oh. Eh well, that’s to be expected considering I’m trying to schedule this all at the last minute. On to committee member #4’s (who is also the chair of the committee) response: WTF, why didn’t anyone tell me about this? Okay, so maybe those weren’t his exact words, but close enough. I proceeded to start freaking out once I read this response because committee member #4 is by far the scariest member of my committee and also the chair of my committee, who I really didn’t want to piss off. So I freaked out for a good fifteen minutes or so before deciding to ask my older and wiser major professor how to proceed with this turn of events. Instead of being helpful, he just kept right on rubbing it in my face, saying “That’s why I told you to contact your committee earlier. You’re going to fail now that the chair of your committee...
  2. random qualifying exam committee shuffle: the aftermathSo I finally got to meet with my replacement qualifying exam committee member today.  Let me just say that these meetings must be designed as preliminary tests to see if they're going to be nice or mean during the actual exam.  Because just getting into the same room with these people is in itself a challenge.First, there was the committee member who wasn't there.  Nope.  Door closed.  No note.  Nothing.  What else could I do besides stand around waiting (like an idiot) assuming that she was just running late?  So that I did.  For 20 minutes before I decided to wander around looking for someone I had never before seen in my life.  As expected, that turned out to be a rather fruitless search.  Though I did pass a lady in the hallway otherwise occupied with talking to other people twice in my search.  Lo and behold, when I walk back to the committee member's office, it was her.  I swear it was a test to see if I would wait it out or leave.  I can understand being caught up in conversation for five minutes, but not 20 and not such that you don't notice a confused grad student wandering by multiple times during your conversation.Then there was the committee member who ultimately backed out.  Her test must have simply been whether or not I was able to find her office.  Because damn was it hard to find.  I felt like a rat in a maze after awhile, what...
  3. how to freak a grad student out (tip #323): ask her to take her qualifying exam earlierHere's another way to freak a grad student out.  And it's almost as cruel as randomly changing one of her qualifying exam committee members.  It's rather simple, really.  Ask her to change the time of her qualifying exam from afternoon to morning so that she can't possibly spend the morning either sleeping because she stayed up really late the night before preparing or doing last minute studying/freaking out.  Not only that, but make sure that you're having her change the time for a completely non-life-threatening reason such as simply because you felt like it.  Even better yet, also make sure to request this change as close to the actual date of the exam as possible so that it'll really catch her by surprise.Yep, that's exactly what the chair of my committee wanted.  And that's what she got.  I was counting on Evil Committee Member to shoot the request down, but she didn't.  So now, I get to fail my quals that much earlier on January 24th.  My husband thinks it's a good thing because I'll be fresh and will get it over with.  But I just think it's going to make things worse than they already are.  I'm so screwed ...

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2 Responses to “the qualifying exam: arguably the scariest experience (so far) in my life”

  1. 1 314

    congratulations! i know you’ve worked insanely hard and gotten through a lot to come to this.

  2. 2 mylifemypace

    Thanks for your support! I can’t believe that it’s really over AND I passed! :D

  1. 1 change isn’t so hard… at my life, my pace

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