The PhD qualifying exam for biomedical engineering at Wayne State is a five week long crucible of pain. You are asked to write a grant proposal on a topic you are not familiar in four weeks without getting feedback from your peers or faculty, you are however allowed to interview experts in the field. In short they are asking for the impossible: it is nearly impossible to write a grant in four weeks, practically impossible to write a grant on a topic you aren’t intimately familiar with, and completely impossible to write a good grant without having it reviewed by colleagues. Putting all three together is a recipe for mediocrity. It is extremely frustrating to know that something isn’t right but not having the time or expertise to do it right. It is by far the hardest thing I have had to do so far and I would rather write another Master’s thesis than have to retake the qualifier.
Because of this it was with great relief that I recently found out I passed the qualifier. I didn’t pass initially, I was asked to do a 10 page follow up report which took another week extending my time invested in this monster to six weeks. This was followed by three weeks of nervous waiting as the slowest grading process in the history of the world took place. The good news finally came through late Thursday night.
My emotions have run the gamut during this, from disappointment and anger when I found out I didn’t pass initially to elation on Thursday night. Most of my friends have had to listen patiently on the phone while I railed about how the test was written, designed, and graded. The reason I didn’t pass initially was simply that I thought I had clearly stated an idea in the proposal that was actually entirely absent. Unfortunately the solution to this type of problem is to have colleagues read and comment on your grants which I was not allowed to do.
Most of what I have said over the last few weeks about the exam has been venting over my frustration and anger due to my inflated sense of entitlement and the possible wasted effort. Now that I have calmed down my largest criticism of the test this year is also what I thought was good about it, the question was open ended. This was great as it allowed us to choose a topic that is in our field of interest so the 200+ hours we spent on the exam won’t be completely wasted. This was also terrible for two reasons, it allowed some of us to misinterpret the question (causing myself and others to almost or actually fail) and it setup a situation where members of the committee didn’t know much about a student’s chosen topic. If the student misses a key technical concept in a paper they are relying on no one will catch it as they are not experts in that field.
It is over and I passed, what a relief.