Prelims summary and advice

Written by Matt Sosna on July 28, 2015

Sometime within the first two years of a North American biology PhD, grad students take an exam that determines whether their research ideas hold water or whether they should leave. No pressure! This rite of passage is called the generals, qualifying, or preliminary exam (“generals,” “quals,” and “prelims”), and it’s analogous to a Masters defense in the European system. The specifics of the exam vary greatly between universities but tend to involve a written literature review and thesis proposal, sometimes a written exam, and a multiple-hour oral exam by the thesis committee. The committee, which consists of 3-5 professors who read your proposal, will ask you questions for around three hours and then decide whether you should stay.

Preparing for generals in the month leading up to it was easily the most stress I’ve experienced in grad school [up to that point! Submitting the full dissertation was pretty stressful.]. Yet, it didn’t have to be. This post is a summary of what my generals was like and some advice based on what I learned.

What my experience was like

Prelude to the prelims

I opened a Word doc called “draft 1” in Summer 2014, about a year ahead of the exam. This doc just served as a place to paste quotes from articles and write a sentence or two of methods when I didn’t have other work to do. The amount of writing in the 10 to 6 months pre-generals that made it into the final document was tiny, maybe 1-5%, but my mentality was that any bit I could add now would be an hour saved in the frantic last days before submission.

A lot of my thoughts on what exactly I wanted to study changed over the months, especially when I got preliminary data in November. It’s one thing to say you’re interested in collective antipredator behavior and another to specify that in chapter one, you’ll study how alarm propagation in golden shiner schools changes under predation risk, and why this is important. For me, the stress began mounting as I prepared my second-year talk a month before the exam. (2nd-year Princeton EEB PhD students give a 25-minute talk to the department on their research plans.) How silly would it be to stand in front of the colleagues I respect and see every day and to fumble around with half-finished ideas? No, I needed a presentation that reflected how seriously I took my work, how much I had thought through my ideas, and how I wasn’t walking down a research dead-end.

(Note: despite losing quite a bit of sleep the night before as I gave the presentation a much-needed redo, the talk went well and I got good feedback. I’ve used the talk multiple times since then to quickly show research plans to collaborators and colleagues and get discussion started. No need for all of these paragraphs to be somber!)

The last month

The talk symbolized an important transition in the PhD: I was no longer just interested in ideas; I had to be able to convince others that a potential project was not only possible but also worth pursuing. Over the next month, I read and wrote constantly. I wanted to make sure the ideas followed airtight logic, which meant spending a lot of time crawling through articles to find that one paper that showed that fish at the front of the school tended to be the hungry ones, or was it just the edge and not necessarily the front, and is the species closely enough related to golden shiners to be relevant…. Again, it’s one thing to have a general idea of the literature supporting your ideas, and another entirely to have the details. Unless your study system is totally novel, there are a lot of details to learn about your species’ life history, the methods researchers in the past have used that you plan to use, and the theoretical and empirical justification for your research avenue. With a week to go before the exam, I submitted a 46-page PDF to my committee and had to let out a laugh at the relief that it was no longer in my hands. (Note: many of those 46 pages were the 180 references!)

Over the next week, I just wanted to take the exam. I felt as ready as I could be, and I filled my time by skimming a behavioral ecology textbook and a few articles to make sure I was familiar with common topics. My exam was scheduled for the last day in the two weeks of generals dates, so I watched five of my cohort members celebrate the passing of their exams and grilled them on the details. All of them said it wasn’t as bad as they’d worried, but they were glad to be done.

The exam

As is the unofficial tradition here, I brought some breakfast food for my committee and a short presentation with the major justification and goals for each chapter. (The exam started at 10am and went through lunch.) Before we started, I left the room and my committee discussed my proposal and what they wanted to ask me about. I returned, began my presentation, and was asked immediately why I was interested in heterogeneity, which was in my title. I answered, and then… the details get pretty blurry!

What I do remember is that the committee was very fair throughout the exam. They raised concerns, listened to my justifications, and told me when they disagreed with my reasoning, but they also told me when they thought an idea in my proposal was exciting, and they offered suggestions on how to make the experiments stronger. The mood was formal but almost relaxed, and it felt like a discussion on finding the best way to have an interesting research trajectory that could teach us something. I passed, but my committee asked for me to resubmit the methods section of my proposal, which we agreed needed some work, in a few weeks. I appreciated it, actually, because while I would incorporate their feedback anyway, it was a good additional incentive to synthesize it in one place.

And then… it was over! Really over. After the celebration that Friday, I had an incredibly quiet, anticlimactic weekend where I had to relearn work-life balance. When I took away the work I’d been doing for hours every day the past month, what was left? My favorite hobbies, including drumming to songs I love, had been largely neglected because I was “too busy,” but doing nothing but hobbies on my free time felt strange without structure to my days. Once the concrete motivation of a pass-fail exam was removed, it took about 2 weeks to fully reignite the curiosity and excitement for my project and to find a sustainable work-fun pace, where I wasn’t in the office until 9pm every night, but I was still making progress every week that I was satisfied with.

Advice for PhD students

1) Start writing early

This one might seem obvious, but not in the way you’d expect. I found it really helpful to have a place to store thoughts as far as a year in advance of the exam. The actual format and details of my project ideas changed up to the days before the proposal was submitted, but it was good to have something down before the pressure started building. This was helpful when I started writing the “actual” proposal because it felt like I was adding to a first draft of ideas instead of starting from scratch.

2) You’re smarter than you think. It’ll be alright

Writing a proposal for your PhD plans can shake up your confidence. You’re constantly looking at holes in your logic that you’re trying to fill: how long to wait between trials, is your species really the best for this question or are you just using what the lab studies, are your questions interesting to anyone besides you? These questions didn’t seem too important before, but now your proposal feels childish without addressing them. You need to deeply commit to your ideas to understand them well enough to convince others (and yourself) that they’re important. There’s a lot of self-doubt involved, but you’re doing better than you think. There’s a lot to learn, but you’ve also learned a lot in the past year and a half. Keep at it. One of my favorite quotes really applies here: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is that we’re constantly comparing our behind-the-scenes to others’ highlight reels.” Everyone had to figure out the details of their projects, and it’s natural to struggle a bit as you learn everything you’ll need.

3) View the exam as a discussion

Your committee wants you to do well. Your department is training you to become a knowledgeable scientist, and the reason generals is hard is that there is a lot of nuance to doing good science. Disagreeing with each other is inherent to finding the best possible path to new knowledge. Your committee and you have the same goal, for you to do a PhD that answers interesting questions, and there’s no point in being scared that they’ll ask you something you don’t know the answer to. (Spoiler alert: this is guaranteed to happen.) Take notes, ask them questions. This is probably the only time in your career that you’ll have five incredibly intelligent people closely examining your work and giving you feedback for hours. Take advantage of it.

Good luck!
-Matt

Written on July 28, 2015