I would like to talk about the challenge of taking qualifying exams at MIT. I’m a Mechanical Engineering graduate student. And I came to MIT in 2015 with my master’s degree. So I knew coming in that I needed to take qualifying exams after three semesters of being here. And qualifying exams are pretty much the highest stake thing that you do as a doctoral student.
Defining the challenge was easy. I knew what the expectations were. I knew what the coursework I would need to take was. But honestly, I came into MIT not really feeling like I was sure if I could cut it. I think I remember telling myself, well, at least if I have to drop out of my PhD program, I can drop out of MIT, and there’s like a certain cachet in having dropped out of MIT rather than just your standard university.
So I knew that I needed to study these three topics. I needed to know them well enough that I could stand in front of professors whose field it is and solve problems, have these equations just at my beck and call, a lot of memorization that I’m not comfortable with. I do consider myself to be a person with a disability because I have PTSD and anxiety disorder. And those do impact my learning and, in some ways, have impacted my memory abilities.
With the PTSD especially, I noticed that I was having a harder time learning in my master’s program than I did in my undergrad before I had PTSD. So I was very concerned that maybe I didn’t have the capability of doing this anymore. Facing the quals challenge really made me feel like I was not necessarily going to be competent enough to do it. I might not even be capable of doing it.
It made me question whether I really wanted to pursue this path of a PhD. I was comparing myself to other people a lot in ways that I have somewhat learned not to do in other aspects of my life. But qualifiers are a direct comparison to your peers, and that can be really hard.
Embarking on it was somewhat like staring up a mountain and knowing you have to climate and not knowing if you really have the tools to get up there. So I took the classes. They were not easy. I did not get A’s in most of them. And my advisor told me that because I hadn’t gotten A’s in my quals classes that I would need to do better on the actual qualifiers to show that I was good in that area, whereas if I had gotten A’s, those grades would have contributed and they would have said, oh, you were just nervous in the exams.
I’m a list person, so that’s really where I started, is I made a list of the topics that I needed to cover for each of the classes. I made a list of who I could use for resources for the different issues that I saw coming up. And then I sort of figured I needed to get my life in order. And I searched online to find like, what are the best academic planners?
And I landed on this particular planner, the brand that I use, which is Passion Planner. And what it really asked me to do is to make a roadmap of everything that I needed to do in order to succeed at a task. Just laying out the challenge in front of me was very reassuring. Because part of the issue is, you look at this and you say, this is an impossible task. I can’t possibly learn everything they expect me to know. But when you break it down, then it starts to become like, OK, I can chip away at those little bits and get to where I need to be.
Another thing I read when I was doing this Google search of like, how do people do hard things in academia, is the tomato timer method. So I got an app that uses the Pomodoro method called Forest. And I used that to set myself time periods of work, and then give myself periods of rest. And even just breaking down my time to work into chunks is very powerful, because it’s like, look, there is an end to this. And it’s based on time, not how far you get, not how much you learn, which if you’re like, you have to learn all of these things, you can just be there forever and getting worse and worse returns on your time.
I also used my location to try to get my motivation levels higher. So I would meet with friends at coffee shops in the area that I wouldn’t normally go to, as both a reward that like, you get to have a lavender latte if you go and work on quals for four hours. And also just as a change of scenery, get more sunlight, get a walk in, helped me to work with a friend who wasn’t working on the same stuff, that we would just be co-located and going through the drudge together.
And we made study guides for ourselves. And we passed them on. But honestly, I feel like the people who didn’t make the study guides are not going to benefit from them as much as we did because we spent so much energy looking through all of our notes and looking through the textbook to make sure that we had a really concise distillation of the material. It felt like I was doing this with other people and it wasn’t just me against the material.
Incredibly, it was working. I was starting to feel like, when we were doing practice problems, that I had maybe seen this before. Or when we looked at a new article with the group, I kind of knew what the other person was going to say even if I hadn’t totally read up on the particular topic. Eventually, it didn’t start to feel like I was comparing myself to them, because we all came in with different levels.
The week before qualifying exams, almost like you do when you’re training for a marathon or a half marathon, you slow down on how much you’re studying and what you’re forcing yourself to do. Because you know that there’s only so much more you can shove into your head and what you really need to be is well-rested. And I actually booked myself a day-long yoga retreat the Saturday before qualifying exams started.
I gave myself a lot of space to be really mentally healthy and to do something that I enjoyed and that I wanted, even though I hadn’t yet accomplished it. So I was very glad that I didn’t say like, self, when you’re done, then you can have the nice things. I was like, you can have these nice things now because you deserve them and they will make you healthier and happier next week. And that was great. I think I had so much stress. I feel like I probably went in like the most tightly coiled person, and then I got to loosen up a little bit.
And quals were hard. So I came out of it being like, well, I know I didn’t do so well on this one, but I did OK on that one and I did OK on that one. And you just have no idea if you’ve done well enough. And so like, probably the worst part of quals was after you finish, before you find out whether you’ve passed or not.
Because the whole time, even though I was starting– like looking back, I’m like, oh, look, you were starting to master this material, I never really felt like it. The imposter syndrome was strong. And honestly, I don’t know if I had not passed quals, if I had not put myself through the gauntlet, kind of, if I would ever have felt the level of assurance that I feel that I do deserve to be here and that I am a competent enough scientist and researcher to go to MIT.
And also, other times when I have had failures or setbacks in classes or if I’m not getting– I got like a very disappointing B in one of my other classes. And I remember being like, oh, maybe it’s really not a place where I can succeed. And then I remind myself that, well, there was this way harder thing than this one class that you just did that you did manage to succeed in. And because of that, everyone is on board with you continuing to be here, sort of arguing against my own negative inner voice.