- My second year of grad school was a roller coaster of emotion.
- Your second year of grad school can be defined by its comprehensive exam. If you fail this exam two times than you get KICKED OUT of school.
- I passed the written part of my comprehensive exam but failed the oral defense part!
- I began to HATE myself for failing. I literally would cry myself to sleep.
- When I was at my lowest emotional point, I decided to give school EVERYTHING I had to prevent them from kicking me out.
- I became a studying machine! I FINALLY was very organized in my studying so I began to remember papers I was reading and why I was performing every experiment. Organization is key!
- I also saw a tutor every week for 2 or 3 months to help me with my ability to talk about my research.
- I eventually retook my oral exam and passed it! Thank goodness!!
- Sometimes we will fail. But failure is only permanent if we give up.
PhD me… Please? part 3
My second year of graduate school was a roller-coaster of emotion. I started to feel better about myself. I was happy about my research project. I hated working in lab because my co-workers intimidated me. I enjoyed running again but I hated how slow I became with the year off. I enjoyed classes but feared tests. I had friends but I felt alone. I took my comprehensive exam (if you fail it twice you get kicked out of the program). I failed my comprehensive exam! I had a horrible 3 months of studying/writing/experimenting that included so much self-doubt that I literally would cry myself to sleep. I took it again… and passed it. Those 3 months were some of the worst months of my life, and I wouldn’t change anything about them even if I could.
At the end of our second year, everyone in my program takes a comprehensive exam. This ‘exam’ is broken into 2 parts: a written proposal and an oral defense of that proposal. The proposal is a pseudo-thesis proposal of the work/experiments that you plan to do over the next 4 or 5 years. The main goal is to justify why you want to perform various experiments and how they will help answer a specific question. The written proposal is administered on a pass/fail system by your thesis committee (3 faculty members). If you pass your written then you orally defend it to the same committee.
I started working on my written proposal months before it was due because I AM TERRIBLE AT WRITING. I worked on this proposal everyday for months. I’d make a draft or an outline and I’d send it to people in my lab. They’d mark ALL OVER IT and send it back. I remember someone telling to use grammar! One person in my lab was particularly helpful. She helped me out with the grammar, spelling, sentence structure and most importantly the experiments. It really helps if you find that 1 person that doesn’t mind taking time out of their schedule to help you. Anyway, after months of document-tag, I finally was finished. I turned it in. To my surprise I passed!
Terrible study habits
I then started studying for my oral. In the oral exam almost anything related to your topic is fair game. So, the professors can ask you anything from general background questions about how virus’ replicate to how you’d interpret hypothetical results. Since my project focuses on HIV and M. tuberculosis (the bacteria that causes TB) co-infection immunology I was freaking out. I was told to know “everything” about both pathogens. This was terrible advice. It’s hard enough to know 1 pathogen ‘inside and out,’ knowing 2 was horrible. Any graduate students out there should know this: you do NOT have to know everything! You need to focus on details surrounding your project. You have to know a lot, but make sure it is relevant to your plan. I spent hours learning how M. tuberculosis secretes proteins, how its cell membrane is formed and how a specific protein in HIV binds to a host cell protein to prevent various cellular functions. These have nothing to do with my project! Time wasted!
The majority of time studying for this exam was spent on current literature that isn’t found in books. Papers are current and books are not! Learning how to read papers is a task for everyone in grad school, let alone someone who reads at a 6th to 9th grade level. So, I just started to read… a lot! I thought that I had to know the authors on each paper that I read. I thought that my committee wouldn’t believe me if I quoted a study without saying who performed those experiments! Since names are so hard for me to remember, this wasted a significant amount of time. Ugh! I probably printed out hundreds of papers with the noble intention to read each one. I read a bunch, don’t get me wrong. I’d highlight them and I’d write notes on the side of the paper. This became an issue when I amassed hundreds of papers in different piles scattered around my room, living room and desk at work. The problem was that when I put the paper down I didn’t remember ANYTHING about it. So, all that time studying was wasted because I didn’t study at the best of my abilities. Study smart, not long! It took me failing to really learn how to study.
The day I failed
I may have had the worst oral defense in the history of the University of Pittsburgh. My committee was fair, asked reasonable questions and was polite the entire time. I stuttered through all of my answers like I was stuck in a deep freezer without a down jacket for hours. I tried so hard to recall the author’s of papers that I was citing. To give you an example, someone would ask me a question and I’d say, “so… um… a group… um… in… okay… so… a group in Brazil did a study… who was that author… okay… I’m sorry, I can’t think of the author… but the study showed this [insert too many details about the paper]… Wait, I got it, the author is Bezuidenhou (I pronounced his name, Bez-a-who).” This stammering made my committee think that I didn’t know the literature (they told me this after I failed). I also talked WAY TOO MUCH. I have a habit of going off on tangents when I talk (and type… sorry). But when I did this during my exam, I ended up answering questions that were not even asked and ignoring what my committee just said. I also didn’t know how to answer basic questions about potential results and why certain experiments were performed. Saying, “because that’s what we do in our lab” and “because my boss said that X-Y and Z are going to happen, they will happen” are NOT OKAY! Ugh! So between the stuttering, the intense focus on authors, not knowing everything about my experiment, the many tangents and saying, “Because my boss says so,” I failed. I deserved to fail.
After I failed I was convinced that I was going to get kicked out of school. There was NO DOUBT in my mind (at least, at first). I was miserable. I studied so hard and I just wasn’t good enough. When I talked to my friends and family members they’d tell me, “people fail these, it’s okay. You’ll pass! I know it!” I HATED hearing that. I know they were trying to be helpful but they were the same people that told me I’d pass the first time. I’d tell them that I LITERALLY could fail out of school. That was a very real possibility! I even went to the learning center at Pitt and talked to the head administrator there. As she was going through my LD assessment she said, “So you have a reading disorder, a learning disorder and a significant processing deficiency. Wow, what made you want to go into science?”
I responded, “I love science. I love asking a question that no one else knows the answer to and developing an experiment to answer it.”
She told me, “Well, you may need to think about another career option.”
“What?! I wanted to know if I can get accommodations for my next oral! Not whether I’m cut out to be a scientist!”
“You can get accommodations on your next oral exam. You just need to meet with all of your professors and talk to them about it.”
I don’t fault her for saying that to me. She really wasn’t trying to be mean. She was being very literally, and I appreciated it. She has been extremely helpful to me through out my career here. I’m going into a career that requires a tremendous amount of reading, remembering, writing and processing. So I knew it was going to be tough (I just wasn’t prepared for how tough it was going to be).
That comment actually lit the fire that I needed to kick-start my new motto: “f**k ‘em, I got this.” I thought to myself: I’m not going to roll over and let school kick me out. I’m going to give them everything I have and if I get kicked out, I’ll know that I did everything in my power to stop them. I’m going to do this my way. “F**k ‘em. I got this.”
Failure is only permanent if you give up
I stopped listening to people telling me to know everything about everything. I studied what I wanted to study, what was important to me, what I LOVED about my project. If my committee was going to ask me some peripheral question, I made up my mind to not care. I decided to know the important stuff and screw the other crap. I stopped caring about authors of papers and all of those minor details.
I first met with all of the committee members that failed me. I wanted to know exactly how I could improve. They helped me out a lot! It was hard hearing how terrible I was. I had to keep telling myself, “Collin, you can only go up from here!” They gave me the basics that I needed to help me study. They told me to: ignore authors, take a breath between questions, focus on experimental design, etc.
I studied like a champ. I made a binder full of notes. If I read a paper about a specific topic, then I’d write a one-sentence summary about it in a specific section of my folder that it pertained too. That way, all the information was finally organized. TB immunology: all there; HIV drugs: in their own section; Co-infection microbiology: yup, it got it’s own section! I got to the point were I could summarize all the information and papers of a single topic I needed to know on a single sheet of paper. This meant that those hundreds of papers were condensed into 6 or 7 sheets of paper! I reviewed these papers every night. I used those same papers as an outline to a review article I wrote last year!
I also wrote each group of experiments that I was planning on doing to answer a specific question on a sheet of paper. I’d write why each experiment was performed, what all possible experimental outcomes were and how I’d interpret them, I also wrote what studies guided me to doing each experiment, I wrote what I’d do if the experiments didn’t work on this paper too. This allowed me to see all the information about each experiment all at once (I need to do this when I study).
I also got tutored every week for 2 or 3 months! I was in my PhD program and I was getting tutored! This tutoring was different from your traditional tutoring session. I found a post doc in the immunology department that I was friends with and ask him if I could just talk to him about my experiments and general knowledge for 1 hour a week. My main focus was practicing answering questions. I told him if I went on a tangent just STOP me from talking. I also, started a method (suggested by the administrator of the LD center) of answering where I repeated the question I was asked out loud, paused, jotted a note or two down a piece of paper if I needed it, and then answered the question. This definitely was really hard for me to learn how to do, but the post doc really helped me perfect this. When I started doing this technique I actually met with all of my committee members and told them that I had LDs and that I was going to do this during the test so they should expect it. They were totally fine with it!
I also started talking to a life coach. My life coach is a family friend that really helped me through the darkest times in my academic career. She helped me stay focused on my work. She also helped me set short-term and long-term goals and kept me accountable. She also gave me plenty of new study techniques that I began to use to help me conquer this test. It was also really nice to talk to someone who wasn’t judgmental.
After months of worrying, I scheduled my new exam date and finally took the test. Those 2 hours were incredibly intense. But I knew I walked in there knowing as much as I possibly could. I kept telling myself, “F**k ‘em, I got this.” When I was finally finished with the exam and the head of my committee told me I passed I asked him to repeat himself because I didn’t believe him.
I said, “Wait, I’m going to be a PhD?”
He replied with a smile, “Yes, congratulations.”