Qualifying… to do what?

This Friday I’ll be going through the second of three major exams on the road to a PhD.  At Scripps we call it a ‘qualifying exam,’ which I recently realized sounds quite weird.  Especially when you use it in a sentence- “I am qualifying on Friday” or “Has so-and-so qualified yet?”  Qualified to do what exactly?

In this case, to finish your PhD.  To be honest, I think this is assessed often and you’re notified by an advisor relatively quickly if you are not qualified to do a PhD.  But the three major exams give your advisor and your committee and opportunity to make sure you are on the right track and developing the ‘correct tools to succeed.’

Exam 1 was called ‘departmentals’ and was held after my first year of classes.  For me, it was two full days of written questions, based on courses I had taken.  This is far beyond the world of ‘can I bring a calculator?’  Although most of my questions involved math, even the most advanced graphing calculator wouldn’t have done much for me.  After the written test was a one hour oral exam, given by four seated scientists to me standing in the front of the room armed with a dry erase marker and white board. I managed to put that one behind me in October 2009.

Exam 3 is your thesis defense- a public presentation of what you spent the last 5-8 years doing, a grilling by your thesis committee, and the granting of your doctoral degree.

And exam 2- qualifying- is the one I am getting ready for now. The first steps were to form a thesis committee (a set of scientists to help guide you through your research) and write a thesis proposal (an outline of what you’ll be doing for your thesis).  I sent the written proposal to my committee last week, giving them lots of time to ponder and come up with difficult questions.  On Friday, I will present my ideas and methods to them, along with results of work I’ve already done, and they will ask copious questions.  One of my advisors suggested that I prepare a talk that takes me 30 minutes uninterrupted, and to allow 3 hours of time.

It is exciting and a little scary.  But now that the grunt work (mostly writing the proposal) is done, I’m feeling good about the whole process.  Being forced to write down your ideas as a scientific proposal (you know- background, hypothesis, methods, expected results) makes you really think about them and how viable they are. So I still have all fingers crossed for Friday to go well, and I hope that my committee gives me a big thumbs up at the end so we can all go drink champagne and get the long weekend started.  I am also looking forward to it as a chance to refine my research ideas and make them better, and I’m even getting a little excited.

I won’t make you read my 17 page long proposal, but in case you’re curious here is the outline:

The Interaction of Multiple Stressors on Coral Reefs: Can We Determine Resilience to Climate Change?

Doctoral Thesis Proposal

  1. Introduction and Overview
  2. Major Research Questions
  3. Research Chapter 1: Coral Habitats- Large Spatial Scale Comparison Studies
  4. Research Chapter 2: Future Projections of Coral Reef Habitats (NCAR/SUNNY)
  5. Research Chapter 3: Island Effects on Oceanography and Larval Connectivity
  6. Research Chapter 4: Historic Ecology of Caribbean Coral Reef Fish Communities
  7. Timeline
  8. Expected Publications
  9. References


4 thoughts on “Qualifying… to do what?”

  1. Lauren – you know I will be thinking of you and sending you all the good vibes possible, even though I’m sure you won’t need any. The Bestest of Luck! Have a glass of champagne for me! 🙂


  2. Your project sounds awesome – very jealous of your lifestyle. You will do fine in front of the committee – you know your stuff – and it will feel good to show them just how much you know. Like we say in French… ”Merde !” (good luck) 🙂


  3. thank you both for your support!
    Ellen- I will surely have champagne in your honor. Make sure to toast me from Florida on Friday 🙂
    Carole- I’m jealous of your lifestyle!
    big hugs from a soon to be PhD candidate


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