Sometime during the first years of a doctoral research program, Ph.D. hopefuls must pass a challenging qualifying exam. This typically consists of a research presentation to a panel of professors, followed by an oral examination (hence, the vernacular “GBO” or “DBO,” for graduate/doctoral board oral exam). Successfully passing the exam transitions students from a focus on classroom learning (as a Ph.D. student) to a focus on research (as a Ph.D. candidate).

My exam — scheduled for an inconspicuous July day during the COVID-19 pandemic — took place virtually instead of in-person. This affected both the mechanics of the exam and my preparation. With no immediate end to the pandemic in sight, I have compiled the lessons I learned from my online examination and some from my peers. I hope this advice is useful for Ph.D. students who may have to take their qualifying exams during the pandemic. These comments fall into three main categories: exam preparation, taking the exam and post-exam reflections.

1. Preparation

  • Schedule your exam board early. Perhaps the most stressful component of my exam preparation was communicating with members of the board and finalizing an exam date that worked for everyone. Professors are busy, and they manage hefty amounts of virtual communication. This load is amplified under pandemic conditions, as many professors are working from home, which introduces further demands during working hours. Despite soliciting board members nearly two months before my targeted exam date, I wish I had reached out weeks earlier. While some professors responded to my email in a day or two, for others it took multiple emails sent over a few weeks to get a response. For one professor, it took multiple emails, a call to the office secretary, a call to the professor’s cellphone and then a text to finally make contact.
  • Once you have confirmed your board members and a date, make the remote meeting links easy to access. Consider checking that all members are comfortable with a virtual meeting and with the platform of your choice. In the chaos of my exam day, the last thing I wanted to deal with was a professor who couldn’t enter the Zoom meeting (which, of course, did happen).
  • Prepare the technology. Make time to test and retest the hardware and software you will use for the exam. My examination included mathematical/engineering components and required writing. For this, I borrowed from a friend a digital writing tablet that plugged into my computer. However, it took some time to get used to the interface, and I ultimately encountered technical errors requiring me to use a different computer altogether. The lesson: Make sure you know your hardware works to avoid exam-day panic. (For writing on my computer, I used the XP-Pen Deco 01 V2 model. If you have an Apple Pen + iPad or a Surface Pro, that will work great too.)

    Be sure to test your meeting software (such as Zoom) and screen-sharing capacity with multiple users on your internet connection. Since my internet had a spotty track record, I blocked other devices from the network during my exam. One of my peers plugged right into the internet router, which also worked well.

  • Practice! To both improve your mental performance and test the limits of your hardware, organize practice exams with your older peers. Include students who had the professors you’ve selected on their examination boards. But be careful — mock exams can become ineffective if your volunteers aren’t given guidelines on what to expect. I found that inviting my selected mock examiners to replicate their experience with a specific professor, and providing them with a list of topics, made my practice runs worthwhile. The practice exam is also an invaluable opportunity to become more fluid using your tablet/pen, headphones and conferencing software.

2. Exam Day

  • At the start of my exam, the chairing professor was “virtually” nowhere to be found. After several minutes of panic, I called him and learned he had mixed up the exam date. He graciously called in while on vacation, appearing on Zoom from a beach house on a distant coast. The takeaway: Make your selected professors’ jobs as easy as possible by confirming the date on the day before your exam and by having multiple channels of contact available for them.
  • Exams can have various types of questions, depending on the subject matter and the professors on your board. While many questions may feel like a “guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking” exercise, the questions I received came from one of three categories:
    • Memorization-style This type comes right from the class material and can be answered using methods and examples from class. For instance, I was asked to write out the equations defining a state estimation model and describe each component.
    • Applied questions. These take a principle from your research and connect it to a concept from class material. Until the connection becomes clear, these questions can be a little confusing. One example was to derive a likelihood function (using the approach from class) for the genomewide association model used in my research.
    • Concept-twisting question. This type of question will take a principle relevant to your research or course material and bend it into a complex, unfamiliar situation. I would say these require the most thinking and are the hardest to anticipate. For example, I was asked how to combine several data types into a regression model that would unlikely be combined in practice.
    • Note that these categories seemed to correspond with the professor delivering them. My PI preferred concept-twisting questions, while my statistics teacher preferred applied questions and the engineering professor asked mostly memorization-style questions.
  • Take time to breathe and think. It is absolutely OK to ask professors to restate a question, or for you to repeat a question back to them if you are unsure what they are asking. This is especially important in the virtual setting, where poor connections might make speech difficult to understand. Some silent time to think is fine — let them see you’re thinking!

3. The Aftermath

After answering the board members’ questions to their satisfaction, I was put into a Zoom waiting room while they deliberated. After several long minutes (during which I paced nervously), the professors greeted me with smiles and congratulations that I passed and had impressed them all. But I didn’t believe them. I felt I answered many of the questions poorly, made silly mistakes and looked foolish in front of my PI. While elated that I passed, I felt a strong wave of imposter syndrome. I felt humiliated by their congratulations at what I perceived as a poor performance. What I ignored in that moment was that the GBO examination was intended to test the limits of my knowledge. There almost certainly would be a point where I felt stumped. Graduate students are only human. Mistakes are bound happen.

GBOs end in one of three ways: a pass, a conditional pass (the board requires additional coursework or research) or a fail. While I passed, and I believe most students do, the other outcomes are not unheard of. In fact, one of my peers in the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology graduate program — who I look up to and admire for his love of science teaching — failed on his first attempt. When I asked him about it, he recounted how difficult it was to move on from the devastation and discouragement of failure. His advice?  “Be kind to yourself and get mental health help if you need it.” Passing on his second attempt, he pointed out a retrospective silver lining: “Once you pass your GBO on the next attempt, you will have proved your ability to overcome failure and achieve success, which is a very valuable skill.”

While this possible outcome is sobering, my friend’s experience reflects the purported purpose of this exam: to test a student’s ability to think, and to stretch them intellectually. My exam was thoroughly unpleasant and stressful, but I learned so much in the process. As one of my peers heard from their board, “There are gaps in your knowledge, but that is why you’re here!”

Note: The author is in the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program, which requires GBOs to be more class content focused than research focused. Be sure to know the focus of your program’s exams.


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