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Post Quals

Today, I (almost certainly) passed my qual[ifying exam]s for my entrance to the Ph.D. program. It’s a pretty confusing and vague process, so I figured I might as well try to document it. Obviously my experience is only relevant at UIUC, but hopefully my feedback can be extended slightly. Overall, I’m still neutral on what it accomplishes.

Sign up

Start slow, start simple. You go to whatever online form you have and put your name in.

Try to figure out what it is?

Online information for this sucks. At this point, I’m not sure if they deliberately leave it vague so you’ll freak out, or if they just have no idea how bad it really looks. From my university’s website:

Competence in research. The Graduate Faculty evaluates the candidate’s ability to do independent research work. The Department administers a research oriented examination of the student and also takes into account the Ph.D. adviser’s comments in making this evaluation.

Scholastic competence as determined by undergraduate and graduate academic records, including grades, class ranks, instructor evaluations and comments, and GRE scores.

Step 2 is, admittedly, pretty clear. Doesn’t mean you have any idea on what you’re supposed to do actively, since all those events have already happened in the past, but at least it’s well-defined. Step 1 seems obvious, as most people justify research competence by publications, but we’ll see that’s not quite what we expect.

Pick an Area, Get a Committee

There’s a list of research areas available to you, and you are forced to choose both a primary and secondary area. The current research areas are only about 70% accurate to current research divisions in my opinion. This means you have some people who do exciting research that’s hard to “classify” into one of the suggested groups, but that’s a better ratio than expected honestly.

From there you choose several professors from your primary + secondary area. Obviously you try to choose the ones you are most comfortable with or the ones whose classes you did well in, but you don’t get to choose. In the end, 3 are assigned to you.

Please, Please Be Free

Now you have to go get all your professors together, with you, in a room, for two hours. This is without a doubt the hardest part of the qual. Not to fault the professors, they have deservedly busy schedules, but two hours does seem a tad obscene. I effectively offered up 3 months of M-F, 8AM - 6PM availability, and we only found one common time slot that worked for everyone. This took about two weeks, mostly due to async response timing. Shoutout to WhenIsGood, much better than Doodle.

What does this even mean?

Next you have to prepare the documentation. The slide below outlines what that is:

Sorry for huge pic, high-res better than nothing. First reaction: huh?

I’m presenting to a group of the most respected individuals in my field on why I should be admitted to a Ph.D. position, and I shouldn’t focus on my individual accomplishments? I get the idea of being able to present your research to a wide audience, but this is not that. Furthermore, I’m not supposed to focus on my individual contributions? I have one (1) accepted paper in a peer reviewed conference. Isn’t that already a good sign I’m pretty capable of doing research on my own?

Interrogation Tactics

Now for the last and best part. You are told to “prepare and study any background material that is relevant to your field” - OK, so like the last 3 or so years of my education, got it. You give your presentation, then you just get asked a whole bunch of questions that you “should be expected to know”. In an ideal world, you would just be able to answer all their questions, they would be straight forward, everyone wins. The questions would all focus on your area and background (both primary + secondary), with reasonable expectations.

That’s not what it really is. Instead, the professors tend to pick questions from their own backgrounds and attempt to apply it to yours (much like most undergraduate courses). Then there’s the weird balancing act of “you’re really good in this area, so you’ll teach the undergrad courses, but we’re not sure if you really know everything” that they had to play. For me personally, the questions were more so “trick” questions, which was fine. I definitely way over-studied/prepared for this (namely due to fear instilled by my advisor) but I’m glad it’s done.

I really think the process only makes sense for students who have backgrounds from other schools. I knew all three professors at my qual personally, took classes under all of them and taught for one of them. It was honestly just a preparation for my conference presentation in a few weeks. Of course, I won’t know for sure if I passed until May 1 (my advisor gets the final say), but I’m not exactly worried either.

Update

EDIT [421]: Got my feedback, did well, now what? Good questions.