Meridith and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Qualifying Exam

I’ve made my way all the way to the end of my 20th year of schooling without much in the way of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Sure, the post secondary life is peppered with exams (SAT, ACT, GRE), finals, applications processes, and so on, but while all of these have caused me stress in the past, none even compare to my qualifying exams of my PhD program. This past May, after a year of courses and months of studying, I tackled three days of intense examinations which included a day of two 3-hour Stats Theory exams and nearly 48 hours of a take home applied project. I went in with months of studying, waves of support from friends and family (thanks!) , 6 pages front and back of notes to use, and even a belly full of sushi. I come out… completely and utterly defeated.

Failed like I failed to keep it together during
this episode of Dr. Who.

Going back a bit, studying leading up to these exams had pretty much become my life on top of coursework for my spring classes. The Fear and Guilt set in early and persisted throughout that time. If I was studying I was afraid of not being able to get enough exam practice and progress made in time. If I wasn’t studying, I felt guilty for spending any of the available time I had on anything else. Maintaining your mental health is important during this time, but it becomes increasingly difficult when anytime you make an effort to carve out time for yourself or your relationships that Guilt is always looming. When that first day finally arrived and we had our two theory exams, I tried to pump myself up and really believe in my abilities. I’d always pulled it together before! My brain was just. not. having it. Some of the questions threw me through a loop, some were from topics from other classes that I had not reviewed, some were fairly straightforward but my scumbag brain decided to wait to remember everything relevant until right as I was turning in my exams.

Afterwards we all desperately needed to unwind and decompress. Even our break between the two theory exams was only effective at allowing me time to dwell. If I can make a strong recommendation to others who might be in this between-exams position in the future: do NOT talk over things with your classmates. Especially if you’re in my position at the bottom of the pack. I unfortunately did not listen to this advice given to me by others and well, and to put it frankly, I proceeded to freak the fuck out a bit about my first exam.  To quote one of my favorite childhood movies, Return to Oz, “It can’t be helped now, Jack”. The highlight of that day was without challenge the party thrown for grad students by a member of my cohort. We did talk too much about the exams at first, but the stress was finally beginning to melt away with every Just Dance dance-off, round of Cards Against Humanity, and over-enthusiastic karaoke song.  

If only this was how we got our results!
I really wish I could spend the rest of this post discussing how to translate from coursework and studying to the rigors of summer research. I bet I’d have some great insight into that particular tract. Unfortunately, I had only just begun to switch gears when my results came back and it became quite evident that my summer would be consumed with frantic studying in an attempt to get up to speed on the past year of theoretical topics so that I might pass the exams upon my second chance in August. I cannot really describe how this felt other than soul crushing. For perhaps for the first time in my life I had gone up against a big goal, tried my damnedest, and then utterly failed. Facing a complete confidence breakdown, only further accented as I was one of the first to get my results back, I really floundered for a few weeks. Hell, I still am to a lesser degree. The barrage of support came swiftly and while I’m so grateful for all of those people and their nice words, at the time I was so far buried under my own pessimism that not much got through to me. I hope I was at least able to file away all of those comments, suggestions, and encouragements for later as I was more emotional able to process it all.

Sinking back into studying has all but completely taken over my summer plans. My advisor, who has been wonderfully supportive and helpful through this entire process, has made it clear that my one and only priority for the summer is studying as I absolutely need to show improvement come August. So for the past month and a half, and the next month to come studying is once more my life. I’m still trying to enjoy myself and take in the sights around Seattle, but I have to be way more focused and disciplined than normal. I wish I could provide more tips and suggestions for people who might find themselves in similar positions, but for now I’ve just got a big ol’ hunk of solidarity. I’m hoping that the power of hindsight will kick in more after I retake my exams and find out the results. If anyone else has any words of wisdom I would love to hear about your experience! For now, thanks for the support and OMG I’ve got to go study.

4 thoughts on “Meridith and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Qualifying Exam

  1. During my first year, I failed to find a faculty member to agree to be my advisor. As a result I tried to face the qualifying procedure solo. I had a full mental meltdown during qualifying. Anxiety. Depression. I quit. I felt broken and was ready to take whatever lesser degree the school was willing to give me and go hide. A faculty member I was taking a Quantitative Ecology lass with must have seen something in me, because he asked me if I wanted to stay to get the degree. He started putting together the broken pieces of me to build a scientist. He assured me that the next attempt would be different. We petitioned the appropriate committee and they agreed to give me another shot. We worked. The next attempt, at the oral exam, my new advisor was late. I sat staring across the table nervously at the faculty members that would be leading the inquisition. Suddenly, my advisor walks into the room and sat next to me; on my side of the table. He was sending a message to me and the other members of the qualifing committee.The message was received loud and clear. I was not facing this alone. He was on my side. It felt great to have an ally. My second try at qualifying was different. I rocked the hell out of it. These things are hard. Allow those people who are rooting for you to help you. Your advisors will help you reduce uncertainty and direct toward success. Communicate well with them so they know how to help. Good luck. I’m sure you will rock the hell out of it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Don, thank you, thank you, thank you. I really needed (still need) to hear this. Especially from someone I look up to and admire so much! I’m thankful that I have a supportive faculty here and several have reached out with offers to help. I think the hardest thing is to keep in mind that this year is a great opportunity to advance my knowledge and catch up in terms of mathematical rigor, instead of this big failure that is keeping me from really excelling at other parts of the graduate student experience (research, involvement, teaching, etc). It’s so easy for more negative thoughts to drag you down so I appreciate any and all stories and reassurances like this that keep me in the right frame of mind.


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