Planning to be Overwhelmed

For most students, across all levels of education, the summer represents a time for relaxation and recovery away from school and class responsibilities. Particularly responsible students may hold a summer job to earn some money and occupy their time. Graduate students don’t get that luxury. We work year-round, whether in class, in the lab/doing research, or gaining valuable job experience through external (outside the university) internships.

As grad students, we can’t stop being productive and I have no desire to put off necessary tasks until our academic year starts anew in August. My next big milestone towards my PhD is called a candidacy examination. The candidacy exam is a comprehensive evaluation of a PhD student’s ability to undertake a doctoral research project.

For my program, candidacy includes a six page written proposal detailing your planned experiments and the knowledge you expect to gain, in addition to a 20-25 minute presentation on your project. The written proposal must be submitted three weeks before your exam. On the day of your exam, your presentation is followed by 2-3 hours of questioning meant to assess your knowledge on the biological and experimental principles involved in you project.

At the end of your exam, a committee of six faculty members determines whether you receive an unconditional pass (no additional work needed), a conditional pass (some additional work needed), a re-take (a lot of additional work needed & take exam again), or a fail (most likely will remove you from the program). Re-takes and failures are extremely rare (one every ~10 years), but these are incredibly stressful for students both during the exam and in the weeks leading up to it.

I am currently preparing for my exam, which will occur sometime in the 2nd week of July. We are told to allot six weeks to complete all necessary components for candidacy though, in truth, preparations begin long before that.

As of now, I know who will be on my exam committee, the outline of my project, the information necessary to write my proposal and make my presentation, and the timeline of when things need to be submitted.

Some hard deadlines exist to keep us on track through this process, but I need soft deadlines as well to pace myself. I don’t want to burn out before I even walk into the exam room.

Right now, the only thing I need to do is submit paperwork asking permission to take my exam, though that is being delayed by the required 10+ signatures from faculty, who don’t necessarily respond to requests as promptly as you’d like them to.

In the weeks before my exam, I will be submitting my written proposal, practicing my presentation and receiving feedback from other students/faculty, and (hopefully) meeting with the faculty on my exam committee to gauge their reactions to my proposal.

Unfortunately, my candidacy exam is not the only thing I’m working on this summer. I will also be competing in the elevator pitch (if I get past the prelims) and poster presentation competitions in my graduate school’s annual Student Research Day at the end of June. I’m not stressing yet about the elevator pitch competition because I have to be chosen by my program first before I’ll be allowed to compete during Research Day.

For the poster presentation, I’ve laid out the data I want to include and the story it would tell but, unfortunately, I don’t have any of the data yet and will be working my tail off over the next couple months to get that work done.

My experiments have a natural pace to them, including down time while cells are growing, followed by chaos when setting up multiple analysis techniques at the same time. This predictable pacing allows me to know when I can study for my exam or continue writing my proposal, and when I need to prioritize my time for experiments. I will need to have all of my experiments completed a week before Research Day so have time to design the poster and send it out for printing.

Colleagues, especially faculty, keep telling me that I’ll get through this process fine. I believe them, but I’d rather over-prepare than under-prepare. However this turns out, I’ve already told my PI that I’ll be going on vacation for a couple weeks after my candidacy exam. On that trip, I’ll either be celebrating, sleeping, or looking for a new job.

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