A week ago today I passed my Qualifying Exam. It felt surreal: it seemed only yesterday that I came across blog posts here and there about the grilling quals at Berkeley, but that was over two years ago when I was still an undergrad!
Looking back, I truly appreciate this experience–like everyone would tell you, it was a transformative journey. In the beginning, I naïvely wondered how one could possibly remember all the experiments, models, findings, theories, etc. from what looks like about a hundred papers. Although it seems obvious now, I wish I realized sooner that quals are not at all a memory test or a trivia competition. I used to represent each paper I read as its own “island”: I sort of knew where the question came from, how sound the experiment design was, what evidential support the hypothesis received, etc.. Quals pushed me to look beyond the “archipelago” of specific studies: I thought more deeply about the fundamental questions in the fields that I’m interested in (active learning, social learning, probabilistic models of cognition…), learned to take a stand based on available evidence, and practiced articulating my opinions in a consice, persuasive manner. Passing quals boosts my confidence to be a qualified researcher in my chosen field.
Surely people love to paint a rosy picture on hindsight–I wouldn’t be honest if I said I didn’t worry during nearly two months’ preparation. If you’re reading this paragraph and share the same feeling, I want to assure you that quals are not as terrifying as it looks like. Of course, it’s not easy, but no examiner will try to catch you by surprise. The questions that I received for each topic are the most common and fundamental ones in their corresponding field. For instance, I was asked how the progress made by probabilistic models of cognition flows naturally from key features of these models, what critiques probabilistic models received and which ones result from misunderstanding and which ones are really worrisome, etc.. Anyone who wishes to apply probabilistic models to their research simply cannot bypass these questions. I didn’t encounter any questions that made me think “Shoot, why didn’t I think of that?” The oral exam was a lovely conversation where your committee members genuinely wanted to hear your takes on important issues. I love it when I was unsure (e.g., Is social information just another source of data or does it enjoy a privileged epistemic status?), the four professors in the room were happy to work with me towards a promising speculation.
- Treat quals as a priceless opportunity to think about the fundamentals in your field and learn to use specific studies to argue for/against grand theories.
- Before compiling your reading lists, think about the major questions and issues in each topic, select papers around these questions/issues, and write down some answers while reading, and gradually build upon these answers along the way.
- Enjoy every exchange with your committee members during preparation and while taking the exam–after all, how often can you chat with the smartest people on earth about topics not necessarily related to specific projects?