Prelim Exam Reflections

Well, here I am after last Friday’s prelim exam, having emerged victorious (?) against the forces of pseudoscientific bullshit. Apparently, what I’m doing here can adequately be judged as “science” according to a panel of four experts on the subject. Hooray! The preliminary exam (or whatever your institution of choice may call it) is the gateway to Ph.D. candidacy—a demonstration of graduate work to date and a plan for completing a thesis project. It’s more or less the grad school version of a job performance evaluation.

Here is, in a nutshell, the mental process I went through while preparing for prelim (in soliloquy form):

“Wow, prelim is coming up soon. I wonder if I’ve done enough work to satisfy my committee? I’d better work my ass off.”
“Right, wouldn’t want them to suggest something you haven’t done, but thought about.”
“Hmm, you know, I think I’m the only person in the world who does what I do.”
“O rly?”
“Yeah…so that means, all I have to do is present my work in a well supported, rational fashion, and convince the committee that my stuff is actually an advance over previous stuff.”
“Nice! So you don’t have to know everything about everything?”
“Right!”

Presenting work to a committee of professors in a well-supported, rational manner is much less frightening than the typical prelim image of being locked in a room with the academic equivalent of four ravenous dogs. Fortunately, it’s also much closer to reality. Are they going to make you sweat? Sure, because you’re the only person who does what you do and you have to convince the committee that what you do is worthwhile. Are you going to fail because your committee just plain doesn’t like you? Nooooo…that’s a little thing called illegal. What I learned from prelim is this: do things well supported by theoretical and/or literature precedent, and passing is assured. Those who screw around and half-ass stuff more or less know they won’t pass going in; somehow, it’s the impressions of these squeaky wheels that have determined the mainstream mythos. To adapt a saying hanging over one of my labmates’ desks, to pass prelim:

“Do epic shit (and epic shit isn’t that tough to do).”

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