The Qualifying Exam Doesn’t Have to be Scary

The other day, I realized that my qualifying exam was the last true exam of my formal education. I took the exam in mid-May of 2023 and have spent the past several months reflecting on the experience, thinking about what advice I could give to the class the year behind me. I decided that, even though some of the stress was inevitable, some of it could have be avoided if I had been armed with information from the start.

For those who are unfamiliar, the qualifying exam is sort of a pre-defense of what you think your thesis will be in a research-based Ph.D. program (it is also known as a prospectus, QE, quals, and many other nicknames). Typically conducted at the end of the second year or the beginning of the third year, it involves several months of intense study of the current scientific literature and writing a scientific proposal with original experiments. The exam itself is usually a presentation of the proposal (either in chalk talk or power point form) in front of a small committee of faculty members who have already read the submitted written proposal. Passing the exam means you have satisfied all academic requirements and have the go-ahead to start working on your thesis in earnest. And yes, it is as stressful as it sounds.

It’s difficult to know what the qualifying exam is actually like until you’re in it. Many programs try to prepare students during their first year classes, but it can be difficult to replicate. There were several things I wish I had known or done better leading up to my own exam, so as a way to start a more open conversation about the range of QE experiences out there, I’ve listed just a few of those things here.


1. Communication with your committee is key

The months of thinking, writing, and preparing can be helped along by the QE committee (for tips on the writing process, check out my previous post on how to write scientific proposals!). Some programs allow you to choose the faculty on your committee. It can set you up for success, but only if you know what to look for. Even if you don’t get to assemble the committee yourself, understanding their expectations is absolutely crucial for getting through the QE. No one wants to be surprised by anything the day of the exam! Here are some additional pointers with regards to the QE committee:

  • Don’t feel rushed to pick your committee members. It’s easy to compare yourself to your peers’ timeline (see tip #4 below), but try to stay focused on your own situation and needs. Set up a meeting with each person early in the process (~3-4 months before your approximate exam date) to discuss the general direction of your proposal. You can use this as a low-stakes brainstorming session to see how well you communicate and how excited they are about your project. Remember, you don’t need to commit to anything in the first meeting unless you’re sure they’re a good fit (you can always send a follow-up email one way or the other!). This tip is doubly true for picking the chair of your committee; they will be your main guide through QE preparation, so make sure it is someone who A) thoroughly understands the process and B) communicates well with you.
  • Communicate early and often. Different professors have different preferences for how much (or little) they’d like to hear from you as you prepare, so make sure you ask in the beginning. You don’t want to annoy or antagonize them, but more communication is almost always better. Keep in mind that you don’t need to spam them with ten thousand drafts! You can ask for specific guidance on an aim or for their opinion on the scope of the proposal. Having a clear question in mind will help them help you better (and not waste their time). However, if their style or frequency of communication doesn’t mesh well with yours, consider going with a different faculty member even if their expertise was more relevant to your project. Faculty with QE committee experience will be helpful regardless of the topic.
  • When in doubt, defer to your chair. It can be difficult juggling the expectations of multiple faculty members. They may want you to prioritize certain aspects of your proposal that is within their expertise. However, at the end of the day, your chair is the one who will run the exam and synthesize the committee’s discussion into a final decision. They should also be able to advise you on how to address other committee members concerns while not simply fixating on one person’s opinions. When you feel lost, talk to your chair.

2. Find the right amount of practice

Once you have a grasp on your aims, it’s time to start thinking about how to present it. Guidelines for exam presentations vary wildly across programs, so it’s important to understand yours before working on your spiel. For example, my program’s QE allows 5-10 minutes of an un-interrupted background presentation before the committee can start asking questions. To get the hang of presenting a tight 7 minute intro followed by an almost 2 hour barrage of questions, it is CRITICAL to practice ahead of time with classmates and colleagues. However, I believe that there is a sweet spot in the number, timing, and type of practices you do. Below are some tips to help you formulate the right practice plan for you:

Photo by © This is Engineering via Unsplash, CC0

  • Set up a practice with at least two of the following group types (in order of priority): 1) your current lab, 2) the labs of your committee members, 3) grad students outside of your program, and 4) your cohort. In addition to helping you with public speaking, presenting in front of each group will expose different gaps in your logic and knowledge that you otherwise wouldn’t find on your own. Three practices are usually enough to give you some experience presenting and fielding questions. Make sure to space your practices to give you time to incorporate feedback!
  • Your first practice will feel awful. Full stop. Even if you’re a rockstar and absolutely crush every single practice, you’ll still admit that the first time maybe wasn’t your best. Personally, I was still working out the right method for one of my aims during my first practice. I was presenting in front of a group of amazing peers and colleagues who gave me encouragement, concrete suggestions, and thoughtful feedback, and I still felt like I wanted to cry afterwards. I was mortified until some other students told me that that was normal for a first practice and I was doing just fine. So I’d also like to normalize the crappy first practice, right here and now.
  • Late practices can do more harm than good. What even is a “late practice,” you might ask? To me, a late practice is one that doesn’t give you enough time to meaningfully incorporate feedback, but still gives you time to be stressed before the exam. My last practice was with my lab about a week before my exam, which was also around the time that I sent my committee the written proposal. That gave me a week to really perfect my intro, run through it at home, and decompress before my exam. Note the difference between an official practice and a quick run-through that you can do with friends, roommates, or by yourself (I’d recommend doing these run-throughs as often as you can)!
  • Practicing a lot can help you prepare, but there’s only so much you can do. There will be information you don’t know and questions you can’t answer, no matter how many practices you’ve had. Again, don’t fall into the trap of comparing your number of practices with your classmates’. It’s also normal to not feel prepared, even after all the thinking and practicing you’ve done. If your chair has okayed the written proposal, that means they think you’re ready! Be confident in all the knowledge you’ve accumulated and your ability to communicate it – you’ve become an expert on your topic over the past few months without even realizing it!

Photo by Jonathan Borba via Unsplash, CC0

3. Listen to your body

This is by far the most important piece of advice that I wish someone had screamed at me during QE prep: the stress takes its toll. We made it through high school and college with exams looming over us all the time. We’re getting a Ph.D. for crying out loud, you’d think we know how to handle stress! Well, good luck telling that to your body which needs rest and nourishment and to be pampered every once in a while! Most of us have never gone through something like this before, especially for this amount of time. So before you crawl into a hole for three months, determined to just power through, read these tips:

  • Make sure you eat. Also drink water. I promise you’ll feel better.
  • Be kind to yourself on the days when you can’t bring yourself to work. You’re not a machine, so don’t expect your brain to be functioning at top performance every day. There were days where I fell into an intense depression and I couldn’t get out of bed. I was internally screaming at myself to get up and work, spewing every insult and expletive at myself I could think of. As you might imagine, it didn’t work.
  • Get a therapist! The QE prep process is mentally and emotionally taxing. You don’t need to try and tough it out or struggle with your mental health alone. I have an incredible therapist who kept me grounded and wouldn’t allow me to give in to the (very powerful) negative self-talk I have developed over the years. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help as well if that’s more your speed.
  • EXERCISE!!! Go for walks, do yoga, lift weights, whatever. You need to counter all that time you spend hunched over staring at a screen. It’ll be good for you physically and mentally (we ❤️ endorphins; I highly recommend Yoga with Adriene for some quick stretch routines!). People often experience the physical manifestations of stress during quals in different ways that may impact their long-term health, so be careful! 
  • Get 2-3 good nights of sleep before the exam. Your mission during the couple days before should be to rest (physically and emotionally) as much as possible. Athletes don’t do a full workout right before a competition for a reason.

4. Find support in your friends (carefully)

It’s easy to isolate yourself during this period, but that’s where your support network comes in! You’ll need folks around you who will listen to your frustrations, give you perspective, or just distract you by forcing you out of the house to grab lunch with them. The tricky part is knowing what kind of friend you need at a given time. I’ve divided them into three groups and listed pros and cons for each.

  • Friends outside of science and grad school: Pros – they will remind you that there is life outside of quals and grad school. Encourage them to talk about non-QE related things with you! Cons – you’ll have to explain what the qualifying exam even is about 3,000 times, which can get tiring and stressful in itself.  
  • Friends within grad school in different programs and/or years: Pros: they will likely have some helpful advice or stories about their own quals that will make you feel better. Cons: they have gone through quals, but may not remember exactly how it felt or experienced it under different circumstances.
  • Friends within your own cohort: Pros: You are all in the middle of an extremely stressful experience and it can help to talk to people who know exactly what you’re going through. Cons: It’s very easy to start comparing yourselves: how many papers you’ve read, how many times you’ve met with committee members, how many practices you’ve done, etc. Establish boundaries (either explicitly or to yourself) for how much quals talk you’re willing to participate in and recognize when it starts to stress you out. 

A balance of all three, combined with some strategically placed quiet/alone time, can keep you grounded.

5. It’s okay to not feel great afterwards

I was often told that I would feel amazing once my qualifying exam was over and I had passed. At the very least, some of my peers reported that it might feel a little anti-climactic. I was not prepared for the flood of negative feelings I had immediately after my exam. Of course, I was glad that I had passed, but that was overshadowed by feelings of frustration and exhaustion and inadequacy. I felt like I hadn’t done my best and that I didn’t even deserve to pass, despite having worked hard for months. And the fact that I felt this way somehow made me feel even worse for not feeling how I was “supposed to”. There is no right way to feel after the exam, though. No matter how you defended yourself or how harsh your committee was, you are allowed to feel however you want. If you passed, they can’t take back your advancement to candidacy now! And if you didn’t pass or received a conditional pass, it does not mean that you’re a bad scientist or a bad student or a bad person. You may not have been ready the first time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t crush it the next time!

As I mentioned at the start, there is a huge range of exam experiences. Just because the exam wasn’t a big deal to one person doesn’t mean it wasn’t traumatic to another, and vice versa. It’s an extremely personal event and can depend on the student, committee members, subject matter, whether someone had coffee that morning, you name it. Please respect other people’s feelings and don’t diminish someone’s negative (or positive) experience.


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