Cheers to those Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

Dear super stressed out Mechanical Engineering PhD students preparing for the upcoming Monday’s comprehensive exam, a.k.a. the General Knowledge Exam (GKE),

Earlier today, I wrote a rather long post for you thinking that sharing the details of my experience of having gone through the GKE process will help you feel better. But  then, I remembered that no matter what other people said to me, I heard it, and nodded, but didn’t believe what they said.

Before having written the exam last year, I felt that everyone else is smarter than me, so even if they say it’s “easy”, it’s not going to be easy for me. Same went with a lot of other things people had to say to me too. Everyone seemed to be just saying things because it’s really not their problem, and they just want to say stuff to make you feel better.

Hence, I know that even if I were to post the very long essay I’ve written for you, you’re probably gonna be like me and not take it seriously.

So here goes my attempt to help you, regardless of whether you take it seriously or not, and to let you know everything you need to know about the exam apart from all that you’ve studies already:

1. Everyone wants you to pass. It’s true. Numerous people have told me this, and I didn’t take this seriously, but it’s true. If you don’t pass, then that’s more of your time wasted, and none of the professors want to see you do that. They want to see you spend time doing research and contributing to the research world, because that’s what really matters in academia. So it’s not the pass/fail that they (your supervisors as well as the department) care about. It’s your productivity that matters to them more. So seriously, EVERYONE wants you to pass, so that we can all move on to doing things that we are here to do in the first place — change the world with awesome research work!

2. No one wants you to go through the oral exam. Professors who will be conducting the oral exam are the ones marking your exams. These professors are really busy individuals who have a lot better things to do than to spend the time to schedule an oral exam with you, and to sit with you to discuss the basics of things that they are already an expert of. These exams don’t produce publications. Conducting these exams mean less sleep or less time spent with the family for the professors. So when they are marking the exam with the very ambiguous “pass / marginally pass / fail” system, they have very good reasons to want to pass you the first round.

3. Even if you end up having to go through the oral exam, you’ll be fine. This goes back to my point #1, but let me give it a different light. People who will be conducting the oral exam are department colleagues of your supervisor(s). If you go through the oral exam, your supervisor will know who will be conducting the oral exam and making the pass/fail decision. And as close colleagues, the examining professors inevitably want to avoid creating the uncomfortable situation with your supervisor by failing you — thereby wasting more of your time, and hence, draining your supervisor’s one of the most important research resources.

4. Even if you fail the written and oral exam, you’ll still be fine. Again, no one wants you to fail, nor get kicked out of the program. Here’s why. Your supervisor has already invested at least half a year’s worth of research fund on you. In academia where funding can be tricky to secure, no one wants to see that much money go to waste, which would be the case if you were to fail and be asked to leave the program. No one really gets kicked out of the program (a very very very few gets kicked out). What happens if you fail the oral exam is that they ask you to take certain courses in the upcoming term to make sure you have basic knowledge in a particular topic. So they want you all to be here, all passed and headed towards candidacy.

5. And this too shall pass. When I was stressed out of my guts during the GKE period, a very wise professor told me that “This too shall pass”. It felt like it never would. But it did. This is just a temporary, despite probably unpleasant, period in your academic career that will soon be forgotten. And you, my dear, will be fine.

Just remember to breathe, and take it from someone with experience that stressing out really doesn’t help. If it helps, MEGA has planned a party for you to celebrate your end of GKE for Jan. 31st. So you know you already have something to look forward to.

Best of luck, and see you all on the other side.

To Candidacy!! 😀

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