I am taking the qualifying exams to get into the PhD program here at World's Best School in May. End of May, let's get that straight. I don't want to know how many weeks away that is, it scares me how fast it's coming up.
Qualifying exams here are viewed as life- and career-ending by the students studying for them, and by those who fail them. They are viewed as necessary and a rite of passage, and really not that hard, by those who have passed them.
I think it's all psychological, and I refuse to let it psyche me out.
It is traditional that the students studying for the exams form study groups for each of the topics they choose to be examined over. This is an excellent idea, and this is the second week that I have met with my study groups. I have three exam topics, but one topic there are only three of us, and one is not available for study-grouping, so I only have two study groups. Here is about how they go.
Study Group #1 - Control Systems
super-efficient super-awesome foreign student, email one week beforehand: okay, people, we're meeting this day at this time in this room, please prepare problems A-F for discussion.
me, day before just now looking at this: um, shoot guys, I don't have problems A-F. can somebody send them to me?
me, day of: painstakingly working through problems with my creaky old brain trying to recall methods from classes a year ago, carefully writing solutions in blue ink on classic green engineering paper. I make it through A-C (ish) before I get stuck. Do my best on D-E, give up on F. Hope for help during meeting.
super-efficient student calling meeting to order: okay, we are going to work through these like it was the oral exam. would someone like to begin on the board?
me, eagerly volunteering first because I am only confident on the first problems anyway: alrighty, given a complicated system of masses, springs, dampers, magnet actuators, and a pump with bellows, here is my block diagram. here is how I simplified it (diagramming furiously across the board) and here is my answer (triumphant circle).
study group: um, yeah, obviously. go on.
me, a bit deflated: okay, well, here is how I did problem B. same as you got? okay. shall I do problem C?
study group: well, we thought problem C was so straightforward as to be trivial. so we would like to skip it.
me, putting about six pages of my work on problem C back into binder: oh
study group: but would you like to continue with problem D?
me: well, here is how I started (write three lines and a block diagram) and now I'm stuck on .....
other grad student, taking up fresh piece of chalk: actually that's all wrong, now here is how it goes (trying to fix my diagram, ending up erasing and starting again)
me: sits down and tries to understand fast enough to keep up for the rest of the meeting
Study Group #2 - Manufacturing
me, being on top of things three days before in an email: hey guys! just as a reminder, we're on for studying this week
other guys: crickets
me, excited because this is my good subject: I know we're planning to go over topic X this week, and I found this really helpful summary of topic X, so here you go!
other guy 1: I'm out of town
other guy 2: I can't make it this week
other guy 3: what is topic X?