Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What I Meant to Say...(aka Cultures for Quals)

Not long ago I posted about passing the PhD qualifying exam. Hooray! I provided a rather informational view of the prelim process (what you'd find on our Aerospace Dept. web page at the University of Michigan), and then a recapitulation of some of the culture surrounding the process.

As every student can attest, the culture surrounding professors, exams, and classes is usually fairly loaded with tradition, and reputation for the class itself, the tests, and the professors teaching. The culture surrounding the PhD qualifying exam is even more encumbered with these traits because of the gravity associated with arguably the most important test in a student's career. In our dept. the PhD qualifying exam was recently changed (as I mentioned in the first post), and unsurprisingly the culture surrounding the exam changed alongside it.

In years past (so I'm told) students got together many months in advance and began studying. Practice sessions were numerous with plenty of example problems. Those practice sessions were often conducted by students who previously passed the exam. A camaraderie was established between those students that lasted far beyond the exam. Despite the individual nature of the exam, the students made a group effort, and there was strength in numbers. Celebration afterwards consisted of a night of binge drinking followed by a solid month of surfing the web in lieu of research (well that's what I've been led to believe ;-) ).

Today's culture is a bit different. The group camaraderie isn't quite as strong, the celebration shorter, the preparation more individual, and to my knowledge few students having passed the exam are willing to donate their time to the cause of future quals takers. Perhaps this is good to some extent. At least one important upshot of the change is the large number of practice sessions generously conducted by the faculty. Those practice sessions, without doubt, for me, were the most important part of preparation for the PhD qualifying exam. Were they tortuous as one professor regularly joked about? Yes. Were some professors hard on us? Yes. Did they bring out a slew of tricky problems not covered in class? Yes. But I don't believe for a second that any of us who took the exam would deny the importance of being instructed, especially in such a small group setting, by admittedly some of the world's best experts in our area of education. Let me be crystal clear here: despite whatever "torture" was inflicted, despite being pushed to the limits, and feeling that self-destruction was inevitable for being forced to derive the EOMs of a glider (which I of course learned how to do after the fact, which I think is the point of all this education anyway), the benefits far outweighed the costs, and I sincerely doubt my ability to pass that exam without the help I received in this regard. My feeling is that these practice sessions (a far cry from merely being a chance to torture pathetic grad students) really represent the desire of faculty to help promising researchers be successful and appropriately represent the institution they know and love.

This is one aspect of the culture of our quals that I really hope sticks around. The binge drinking can go (I don't drink anyway), and I'd get bored after about a week of surfing the web. But the instruction provided here in our dept. from top-notch faculty really is unparalleled and I would be sad to see those faculty conducted practice sessions stopped, especially if faculty felt it was unappreciated.

For my own part, I think it is important to show that former quals takers recognize the importance of and are willing to conduct practice sessions with the next gen quals takers. Rekindling that camaraderie, the passing of the torch, and the support from generations past creates the potential for developing strong relationships, increase academic prowess, and represent the university even better.

...and that's what I really meant to say.

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