Tuesday, August 12, 2008

qual early?

The default procedure in my department is to take the qualifying exam after finishing a master's thesis in the January of one's third year. For someone with an undergrad degree in a different field that may make sense. They need time to get used to the new terminology and concepts. It may even make sense for someone who doesn't take a full load of classes through all of his/her first year because s/he hasn't taken enough electives for the choose-four-questions-to-answer-of-more-than-four-options section. However, my undergrad degree is in the same field I am in now, and I took a full load of classes both semesters last year.

In short, I want to take the qual this coming January rather than wait until 2010.

I am working on a convincing argument for my advisor, which will include all my reasons for taking it early, rebuttals or admissions of the reasons to wait, and a plan of how to study for it.

The pros of taking it early include:
  1. the foundation classes from this department will be fresher in my mind
  2. The electives from this department will be fresher in my mind.
  3. I'm only attending one meeting this fall, so I won't need a lot of prep time for posters.
  4. If I fail the first time, my second try will only be one semester after I hope to finish the master's thesis. If I take the traditional route, I may be working on PhD research for a year without knowing if I can even complete a PhD. Talk about motivation issues...
  5. #4 also provides a benefit to my advisor: he will know sooner if he needs to fund me for PhD work. It's less time and money wasted for everyone.
  6. I can study with the only other person in my research group because she's taking the qual in 2009.
  7. It'll be over before I have to write the bulk of my thesis or prepare for my seminar.
  8. The stress of anticipation kills me more than the stress of doing things.

Pros of waiting include:
  1. Studying won't slow down my master's research because most or all of it will be done, so I might finish that a bit quicker. (How much will this really affect my progress? Also, see #4 above. If I'll be here for a PhD anyhow, what does it matter if I take an extra semester but already have the qual done?)
  2. I'd be able to take another couple of electives to widen my pool of optional questions on the qual. (I took classes in undergrad that are analogous to several of the classes here, so I'd have a good chance at answering questions from classes I haven't taken here.)
  3. I'll be taking it with more people from my year? (I don't think this makes a difference, but advisor might. I want to be prepared for any rebuttal he has.)

What do you think? Are there any flaws in my reasoning or anything I should add to either side?

Any tips for studying--how much time it takes, how to go about it, etc.? I know that may vary by department, but there has to be some commonality.

One possible major snag is that the curriculum here has been in flux due to a new undergrad program. I don't know how this will affect the qual.

I think this is a pretty convincing argument. I'm probably being over-prepared for the advisor's unlikely denial of my request, but that's the way I am. Better that than get blind-sided by things all the time.


  1. I've already given you my feedback on this, but I can say it again. For your case, you already have a background in the qual material, and you've recently done the work for the courses you want to test on. I think you should take it early. I do not think everyone should take it early.

    Let's take a look at some plans:
    Plan A: Pass qual in Spring '09.
    Plan B: Pass qual in Spring '10.
    Plan C: Pass qual in Spring '11 (if you do Plan B and fail it)

    You have enough courses to make Plan A work, and they're all fresh. If you fail Plan A, you go to Plan B, where you have a little extra leeway. Plan C gives you waaaay too many courses to study, and your required courses will have had up to 4 years to cool off. Lousy plan.

    My opinion is: Plan A with Plan B backup is much better for you than Plan B with Plan C backup. Some people don't have enough background and/or courses to do Plan A. You do.

  2. Mike: Hehe, you're reading my blog :D.

    Another pro for plan A: my (only) research groupmate brought it to my attention that we've taken the same number of classes. If she deposits her thesis by December, I think she's required to take the qual in 2009.

    I thought of another disadvantage to plan A tonight. It would leave me less time to work on fellowship proposals. I don't know how much weight that should carry.