grad skool rulz #5 – passing the tests
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This week’s “grad skool rulz” topic is the graduate exam. Every PhD program has tests you have to pass. There are two questions that naturally arise: How do I pass the exams? and What should I take away from the exams?
On the first count, it is important to remember that social science graduate programs usually have two sorts of exams: sit down tests of memory and skill & take home essays. The sit down tests are probably the trickiest ones but luckily there’s a simple piece of advice you should follow. Most graduate programs have old test. Get as many of them as you can and then sit down and do every single exam. Then redo them with the time constraints. Of course, check your sample answers with samples from the department (if they offer them) or with faculty and/or advanced graduate students. Like anything, you will find that practice leads to mastery. You will be more confident and relaxed during the tests if you have seen similar tests before and are ready to answer them in the time allowed. Also, practice with previous tests means that you won’t be surprised.
The take home tests are a bit different. It’s hard to take a week off just to practice test taking, but you can still prepare. Departments often keep old qualifying exams so you can read these and sketch out answers before hand. You can also write extensive summaries of articles and books, which is a way of practicing the craft of writing. In these exams, it’s also important to be succinct – don’t write 100 page qual exams! – and show you have a well founded opinion on a topic. It’s about synthesizing and expanding ideas.
What should you take away from these exams? My opinion is that sit down exams are really best for making students learn technical skills (like regression) but these exams also tend to have lots of idiosyncratic topics thrown into them. In field like economics, there is a lot of “cramming” for the test and forgetting all the weird & useless stuff once you pass. Thus in the long term, they may not be as important as the take home essays because in that case you have to really learn a literature. The take home essays simulate the actual work of the academic much more than a timed three hour exam on French.
Also, and this is very important, graduate exams are the classic case of “not much credit if you pass, but a disaster if you fail.” That is, the test is a hoop and jumping through it won’t get you published or get you a job. But failing the test can easily end a budding academic career. Not only do programs eject students who don’t pass after a few tries, but your confidence and esteem can take a serious hit, which makes it harder to carry on. So treat these exams seriously. There is a technique that will maximize your chances of passing. If you do it, you will probably be ok. Then immediately move on to the next stage of your career.
Let me conclude with a few words on failure. If you don’t pass an exam, you should ask why you didn’t do well. Get an explanation from the graduate chair or exam committee chair. It’s their job to explain the exam. In some cases, it may be a case of knowledge. You simply didn’t know what was on the test, or maybe you were nervous. In that case, just take a break and then follow the regimen described above and you’ll be ok. It’s not the end of the world.
It might also be the case that you were thrown a curveball – maybe there was a truly unusual or hard question that caught people off guard, or maybe there was unusually harsh or arbitrary grading on the exam. It happens. Maybe you can appeal, but you will probably just have to retake the test and you will be fine. In either case, don’t panic. Lots of stellar academic careers started with not so great exams! Hang in there!
But once in a while, a student realizes that they didn’t take the test seriously enough to invest the time and effort needed to pass. If this describes you, then you have to ask yourself a serious question: why don’t you care? Is it that you think academia is boring or silly? This is the time to really think hard about you career goals. My view is that most graduate students have the ability to pass most exams. But if you can’t muster the energy to read a bunch of articles and write a 5 page essay in exam, then how will you write a Master’s paper, or a dissertation, or a 400 page book? The purpose of raising this issue is not to discourage students, but to encourage people to follow careers that they actually like. Exams can be an opportunity to think about what matters to you the most.