“Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!” “Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!”

Gordon Watts and Chad Orzel have some thoughts on qualifying exam season. This confused me until I realized that what other departments call the qual is what Berkeley’s physics department calls the preliminary exam. Incoming grad students take the written prelims as soon as they arrive: these are a pair of six-hour exams given on consecutive Saturdays, one on classical physics and one on modern physics. After passing the written exams, one then takes the oral prelims which are an additional two hours (again divided evenly between classical and modern). One must pass the whole fourteen-hour suite before joining a research group.
This is every bit as stressful as the links above describe; the grading is set up so that only about two-thirds of the students pass each round, and officially you only get three tries. (In fact, almost everyone passes by the third attempt.) I don’t really have any advice for the written portion, but for the orals I had my faculty mentor give me a practice run that was incredibly helpful (especially since I got asked many of the same questions in the actual exam).
We do have something called a qualifying exam; it’s a two-hour oral exam set up on an individual basis, and meant to be taken after two years in research. The first hour is a presentation by the student of a proposed topic for the dissertation, and the second hour is an exam on the subfield relevant to this research. As it happens, I will be taking the qual “soon”. Some of you may note that I have been doing research for four years, and have been about to take the qual for two years now. Indeed, it is quite common for students to put off the qual until just before writing the dissertation, where the “proposal” actually becomes a presentation of results. Most departments call this the “thesis defense”.
On the other hand, we don’t have a thesis defense, so it all evens out in the end.

4 thoughts on ““Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!” “Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!”

  1. Wren

    And over in Earth & Planetary, we have no written exams, the orals exam is at the end of two years, and there is no defense. There is a not-required-to-get-the-degree exit seminar, which very few people escape giving.

  2. Mason

    Rabbit season! Duck season!
    We were talking about qualifying exams in math earlier today. Thankfully, my graduate program didn’t have any—though in my case, my committee made up for that with an especially painful thesis defense.
    There is a tradition in math of challenging (by which I mean anally raping) the students on the quals. At Georgia Tech a couple years ago, only something like 2 out of 20 passed the qualifying exam in an analysis because of a question or two from harmonic analysis was on there. (In principle, only questions appropriate to the core graduate curriculum — as opposed to something from a special topics course/specific research area! — are supposed to make it on these exams.) This caused a lot of strife among the faculty (in addition to the pain it caused the students). There are also stories from many schools—Princeton math often gets mentioned here—of professors who brag about nobody passing particular qualifying sections when its their turn to right them. (As you can see, these exams are serving the purpose they’re supposed to…)
    By the way, my initial comment in the last paragraph is a good deal milder than one of my comments from earlier today (from the same conversation), in which I inadvertantly equated teaching a class in French to raping someone. I’m awesome that way.
    “Excuse me, but I think you’re more or less full of crap” is another line from that conversation. All in all, it was a nice way to avoid work for 20 minutes.

  3. sya

    Arg. Please don’t remind me. I have to take the qualifying exam next semester and typically about half the people fail it.

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