JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

A year ago (see Chapter 3), I started taking my cumulative/qualifying/comprehensive exams: six fabulous questions on any topic within (or without) the curriculum. Answer four of them well enough, and the faculty passes you. If you're not up to par for that particular exam, the faculty fails you. There's no explanation, no chance for redemption, and the failed exam seems to disappear magically into thin air.

Well, there is good news to report: I am finally done!

Somehow, I thought I would be more overjoyed than I actually am, but then, in a month or so, when the new first-year students are taking their next exams and I'm not, I'm sure I'll feel liberated--or something of the sort.

Now that I think about it, I wonder why I'm not more thrilled about this. ... Maybe it's because I know there will be another set of qualifications that I'll need to meet to take my next step toward the Ph.D. Then what? More hurdles, undoubtedly. If not here in academia, then somewhere else for someone else.

I have this sneaking suspicion I'll want to work for myself one day. ...

The year 2002 has definitely been one I prefer to "disremember." Had you told me a year ago that I would have experienced this much stress in the qualifying process, I might have run for cover. Had I know that my study buddies would have finished before I did, I might have cringed. And had I known that I would experience a confidence crisis along the way (see Chapter 7) that would cause me to question everything I was doing and my ability to complete the task at hand, I expect I would have declined the experience.

Although I'd prefer to leave this year undisturbed in the annals of my life, I have learned things about myself that bear repeating, even if I'm not particularly proud of some of them. For example:

  • Stress makes me cranky and crazy. My appetite goes to hell and back; I break out; I look like crap; I'm tired; I can't sleep, and when I do, I have weird dreams. It's all very entertaining, considering that I've never experienced stress this bad before. So, because I find this all intolerable, I'm working on finding a rhythm that will reduce the effects of graduate school stress.

  • Obsession is annoying. It's amazing how one thought can possess you and wander around in your mind and keep you from focusing. My favorites were the exam questions that kept coming back to haunt me. You try to push them out but, when you're not looking, they pop back up to say hello.

  • I'm weaker than I thought I was. Taking a test doesn't make me feel magnificent or send me into despair; I choose to do that to myself. But it's funny how waiting to look at a little sheet of paper giving the results for an exam can make your stomach turn flips and your mind bend in all directions wondering if you answered a question correctly, whether they'll pass you, and who had to fail so that you could pass.

  • I'm stronger than I thought I was. In the end, the effects of the test, graduate school, and how long it took me to complete the process are still not that deep. I have all of my faculties intact (I think ...); I eat; I sleep; and although it may be hard sometimes, I continue to get up each day and keep trying. I haven't given up, although I've thought about it. I continue to move forward, 1 day at a time, and take comfort from what I have been able to do.

  • Passing all of my exams with no mishaps wouldn't have guaranteed me greater happiness. One of my classmates, for example, decided to quit school after the holidays, despite the fact that he had passed all of his exams the first time through.

Playing the Game--Advice for Comps, Part Two

In addition to sharing the lessons I've learned about myself (see main text), I'd like to add to the advice I offered in Chapter 3 for those of you in the throes of preparing for or taking written exams for your qualifiers/comps/whatever they're called:

Once you find a study style that works for you, stick to it. Although I was thrilled to pass my first exam, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had spent more time and effort studying for it than I needed to. I got complacent and didn't study so long or hard for the second one. Hindsight shows me that the endless reviewing, rewriting, and rethinking of problems taught me more the first time than I learned all the other times.

Listen to your gut, part 1. Jeff, although he was a decent advisor, was a newbie to the department and didn't know squat about the exam process. Part of the problem at the beginning of the comp process was that he was trying to discourage us (mildly) from studying because he believed we would pass eventually. So, I slacked off my studies but ended up feeling guilty on two fronts. First, I didn't think I was getting enough work done in the lab. And second, I felt guilty for not studying enough, but I wanted to maintain a good relationship with my advisor. Had I known it was going to cost me some months and considerable heartache, I would have put my foot down sooner and insisted on taking more time to study. Point being, this is my life, and I have to live with myself and my decisions when I go home at night. A happier advisor is nice, but whom should I try to please first, him or me?

Listen to your gut, part 2. Using the old excuse, "hey, there's always something you don't know," to avoid looking at everything we'd been taught in class was lame. Yes, there is always something you won't know, but I could have increased my chances of passing comp exams 2 and 3 if I'd thoroughly examined all of the material I had in front of me. I used lab work as an excuse not to study more and the volume of material as an excuse for why it was futile. But in the end, what did my (in)action get me? An extra 6 months tacked onto my exam process.

I sincerely hope that my penchant for selective amnesia will take over and help me forget the "uncomfortable" parts of this process while remembering the lessons I've learned, so that I can take them into the next stage of graduate school and beyond. I know I'm not a shining example by any means, but I hope that a brief glimpse into my mind will provoke you to examine your own. For those of us who have had "issues" with portions of our travels in this world, introspection, in all of its gory glory, can often be a good thing.

I'm truly thankful that I've cleared this set of hurdles. Granted, my knees and shins are bruised and scraped, and it wasn't a perfect run because I knocked a few down. But then, they say what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Until next time. ...

You can send e-mail to Micella at Micella_Phoenix_deWhyse@hotmail.com

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.