It's tough to choose a time to write a blog about qualifying exams (aka "comps" or "quals") since every school has a different schedule. Some departments have one big exam, other have several spaced throughout the first or second year. My qualifying exam was in January, so I started to get a little worried just around this time of the year. My department had two exams within one week, so I studied during every free minute I had during the prior two months. About two weeks before my exam, I had lunch with a friend of mine names Stella (not her real name). Stella was in a different department, but I knew her well and had lunch with her on most days. Stella was a wonderful listener. She nodded with empathy as I recounted my struggles with the qualifying exams, and how I would be dreading the next two weeks. At the end of the lunch I asked whether we could eat together the next day. She replied:" No, I cannot meet you for lunch tomorrow, because I'll have my qualifying exam then."
After a moment of silence I stuttered: "Your exam is tomorrow? And you didn't tell me?" She smiled and said: "It's really no big deal. I just studied for it a little everyday, so that's the best I can do right?"
Stella's department had a reputation for having very challenging qualifying exams, but she passed on her first try without worrying. What a different way of looking at the same situation. I passed too, but broke quite a sweat.
Stella was just one of those people who stayed calm despite her demanding workload, and she always made time for exercising and her personal life as well. Was she a genius who was able to enjoy life and still do well academically? She might have been, I don't know her IQ, but I do know that she did spend a lot of time studying for exams, and working in the lab like the rest of us.
Ever since that day, I look at big assignments differently. If a big presentation comes my way, I try to put on Stella's relaxed attitude and look at the presentation as an opportunity to learn rather than a burden. I exercise regularly, because I know in the long run it will help me more efficient, even if it does take up an hour now and then. And finally, I make time to have lunch with friends. Besides taking my mind off work, lunch gives me the opportunity to have personal interactions (with inspiring people like Stella), and to build my support network. Having a few supportive and inspiring friends in graduate school can go a long way to help you stay motivated.
Wishing you the best,
Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet