Monday, January 25, 2010

Sigh of Relief

As I write this, I am surrounded by the soft sounds of academia - pencils scratching, papers rustling, chairs creaking. Yes, folks, it's that time of year again - qualifying exams. I took these the last time they were offered, last May. Thank goodness I passed.

This year, I was asked to be the written test proctor. So during last week I read the test problem for every subject, to make sure it was clear for students and free from typos. For the subjects outside my area (like I know anything about acoustics or signal processing...) all I could really check was the typo part. But for the problems in areas I understand, and especially the three subjects that I took, I tried to make sure the problem was not ambivalent or confusing. And then, as a fun little test, I tried to solve them.

Ha. Nice try.

After my ego deflated a bit, and realizing I could not solve them with the knowledge I had floating around in my head, I tried to see if I COULD solve them, given a calculator and an open book.

Ha again. I wasn't even sure how to START. Well, maybe I could see how to tackle part a), but gees! parts b) through f)....

Let's just say that at this point, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, told myself I was just "out of practice", and went back to checking for typos.

Dear internet, it is a glorious thing to be past quals. I have watched a few of my labmates studying during last semester, and preparing more intensely over this past month. I have seen equations on the office whiteboard that bring back memories of long hours of memorization - of ink smudges on my hands, and papers scattered over bed and desk and floor. I remember it being a whole training process - like an athlete, striving to be at your maximum peak at the optimum time.

The other part of being the proctor is actually administering the test, which is where I sit right now. This morning as I walked into the test room to the stares of so many hopeful PhD applicants - as I passed out packets containing the standard by which they will all be judged - all that stress came flooding back. My heart started to race, my palms got sweaty, I started worrying about the controls question. Is there a name for this? I'm going with "Sympathetic Test-taking Syndrome." I've been a student so long that I have built up physcial responses to tests. I wonder how long outside of school this will last? Will I still be haunted by dreams of blue books and TI-89s when I am 40?

Ah, the hour draws near... I see the pace of scribbling around the room has speeded up...

I must go collect tests, and hand out the next one. Some students have one test, some two, and a few poor souls have three written tests. I was one of those with three. I feel for them. 

I see at least two students here today who took them last May with me - which means they failed then, and this is their last, now-or-never try at passing and getting into the PhD program here at World's Best School. I feel for them too.

Good luck, all.

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