Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Memories of Grad School: The Quals

You can blame it on this story in The Chronicle about taking the Comprehensive Exam in a history department.

During my early months at grad school, the PhD qualifying exam -- The Quals -- used to fill us newbies with dread and fear. At our department, we used to call it the 'Valentine's Day Massacre.' In one of the previous Quals, the results were announced on Valentine's Day, and they were really, really bloody; out of a dozen or so who took the exam that year, I think just one or two passed it.

Though the results were not so awful for my cohort, we still stuck to calling the Quals by that colourful name. It gave those of us who passed it an inflated sense of achievement -- surviving The Massacre sounds so much more cool than passing The Quals, no?

[The Quals-as-massacre frame seems quite popular -- a recent play by our students has a hilarious scene that uses precisely this frame.]

After passing the exam, our seniors (who had been there and done that) greeted us by saying we had just reached the peak; from here on, it was all downhill all the way!

In The Chronicle story, a friend tells the author something similar as he was getting ready to face the last of his exams: "This is as smart as you'll ever be."

Different times, different schools, different disciplines.

But The Quals and the grim humor that goes with it are the same ...


  1. parseval said...

    Happily, I recently passed my PhD qualifier exam and oral test. And yes, I can completely relate to the experience described in the link!