We're a little crazy, about science!

Day 78: The Qualifying Exam


It never occurred to me that this was unique to the American higher education system. However, when I was having a conversation with an overseas collaborator at the Bristol Robotics Lab in the UK, I got a confused response when I mentioned I was getting ready to do my qualifier.

When you do your PhD here in the US you are technically labeled a PhD student. After some time, depending on your school and your program, you are required to take your “qualifying exam.” Which is essentially a milestone to your PhD signifying that you know what you are doing, then you get the coveted title of PhD candidate!

To make things extra confusing there is no real standard for your QE, instead the rules are set by your department and even within the subdivisions in your department I’m a biomedical engineer, so my qualifying exam would be different than the one for mechanical engineering even though they are both in the broader engineering school. You can even go further, for us if you are an electrical engineer, depending on your topic you can end with a different set of requirements for your qualifier.

Some of them are actual exams, I am thankful that mine is not, I do not do well with exams. Stress you see, not a friend. For my QE, I am to perform an experiment by myself, then analyse the data, draw some conclusions, create a report (roughly 8-10 pages, but in my case I ended up with 14), then do an oral exam based on your findings.

Then you either pass, are asked to modify something (pass with modification) or fail. You don’t typically fail, but you can end up needing to modify your presentation/paper/methodology/etc. I was asked to modify my presentation, not the best feeling, but it wasn’t an outright fail, even though it felt like it at the time. Thankfully I’ve beat my data to death pretty much at this point and I’ve gotten the thumbs up from my PI (the person running the lab), so I’m feeling better about this time around.

That is one of the handful of things I need to finish soon. I will hopefully get the greenlight from my PI tomorrow to schedule my defense again and I will have conquered my QE. Fingers crossed, tomorrow I’ll probably be posting on how that goes and I’ll keep everyone posted with the outcome (of course). Good luck to anyone else getting ready to do the same.

Until next time, don’t stop learning!


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