Saturday, May 25, 2013

Post Written Exams

Hello friends, I'll be recounting the last couple of months from the comfort of my mother's couch in CT.

Don't worry. I didn't drop out of graduate school, I'm just taking a short holiday now that the semester is officially over.

I guess the big event since my last entry would be my comprehensive exams, which was quite the adventure. Part of what made it so "exciting" was that I made the decision to have an extra person on my committee, even though by guidelines it wasn't necessary. I only needed 3 people, but I opted for 4. Personally, it felt necessary. Comps are viewed by many as a hoop that needs to be navigated to get on with the PhD process, and that just seems pointless to me. They were going to make me do this anyway, so I decided to get as much out of it as possible and poke the brains of as many smart people as I could. Now that it's all over, I feel like I have a much wider base of knowledge, and that I set a precedent for what my expectations are for myself and the people I work with.

Originally I was scheduled to have the big day on April 25th. Then, my committee had some scheduling issues and the date was in limbo before we landed on May 2nd as the only available day everyone could get together for a 3 hour block of time. I was really upset about the change. It was the lowest part of of the ordeal for me, especially since this news came during my second set of written questions. I was livid that they were putting my through that stress during a time where I should have been concentrating only on my exam response. Eventually, however, I accepted it as just another inevitable thing and got over it. Part of the issue was having a larger committee than usual.

In the end I passed, with distinction. Phew. It actually wasn't so bad in retrospect. The hardest thing was not really knowing what they were going to test me on. I had people from three disciplines who were going to be testing me, which leaves a lot of fair game. In the end I taught myself population and community ecology, and read as many papers as I could find that were relevant to my research. I had made a short talk to give at the beginning, but we ended up spending two hours going through each slide, and they completely directed the conversation.

I learned some important things during the process, unrelated to my actually dissertation.
1. If not given guidelines on the length to a written response to a question I will produce 12 pages, on average, not including references.
2. Faculty are far less intimidating if you treat them like colleagues.
3. Scheduling meetings that include more than 3 people is a lot like herding cats.
4. When you are the focus of a discussion, be in control.
5. Nothing is so important that you should make yourself psychologically or physically ill over it.

I've actually been aware of that last point for a while, seeing as how I've been doing the whole grad school thing for many years now. During my exam preparation, I didn't isolate myself or go into seclusion. I decided from the beginning that I was allowed to have a life. That's my attitude toward grad school and life in general, and it kept me sane during comps. I didn't give up weekly hang-outs with my friends, game nights, etc. Studying and planning my PhD research became my job for a couple months, and I treated it different from the rest of my life. No job is worth being miserable over.

I came out of comps as a well defined PhD candidate. I'm sure my research will change, given  unforeseen hurdles or funding issues, but I have direction at this point and can get this ball rolling finally.