Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Few events are worthy of a blog post.  I felt I should share my notes on my most recent traumatic incident (MRTI {Pronounced "mur-tee" }), my oral comprehensive exam.

Allow me to preface this post by incorporating a word coined by my favorite president of all time, George W. Bush.  I misunderestimated comps. There it is. I went into my MRTI thinking I'd actually get to talk about my projects, what I've done, and what I had planned to do. Instead it was a three hour long examination in how much I didn't know about things that I wasn't working on, all orchestrated by [Redacted] and [Redacted], the devious tag-team dishing out academic retribution (DTTDoAR {Pronounced "Pain Train" because I can}.
I know it's nothing personal, and I admit I have certain deficiencies, but the fact of the matter is that out of three hours, 80% of the presentation was spent on superflous asides that were not directly relevant to what I had done or what I was planning to do. You could ask each of my committee members what I did and what I was going to do (things that were in my presentation) and they would have no idea because of the 30 minute presentation I had prepared, we only got through 1/3rd of my presentation in three hours.

Allow me to tell you about my first slide that we spent 15 minutes on.

Here it is, for example:

Oh, you were expecting some actual content in the first slide were you? You might have been expecting something like, I don't know... words that were worthy of criticism?

The DTTDoAR initiated my MRTI by immediately jumping on this slide. Personally, I thought it was pretty and was a nice model of a Holliday junction which is recombination related and (most importantly) had a blue hue to it and fit into my slideshow.  I did not know that this would be the worst point in my day, heretofore, and simultaneously the best point in the exam. To be honest, it was all down hill from here.

It just got worse. We skipped the first half of the presentation, then went back to it. I'm an evolutionary biologist and the only time the committee was quiet was during the time I was presenting the evolutionary background. 

I guess my project suffers from an identity crisis. It involves a little population genetics, molecular genetics, evolution, and bioinformatics. As such, it's easy to see that I'm a jack of all trades, master of none. If I learned anything from comps, it's this:

1.) Be focused.
If your project spans a lot of directions, pick one and call it your home base. Present everything from that mindset and direction. Don't try to play up the other parts of your project in order to relate it to your committee members or try and pretend that you're a geneticist when you're obviously not. 

2.) Know everything about your slides.
Have a pretty picture on the first slide? Know everything about it, and predict secondary and tertiary questions that could come from it. (e.g. how could this be resolved to form a gene conversion. What ratios would this create in neurospora? What is different about the ratios in neurospora than in yeast.)

3.) Skip the background.
Seriously. If I could re-do this, I'd stick with a little bit of evolutionary background and go directly into my projects, avoiding the secondary and tertiary questions on things that I don't know anything about. If you want your comps to be helpful, go directly into your project and force them as the major topics.

4.) It's an exam, not anything designed to be remotely helpful.
Don't convince yourself that you are presenting your project or talking among friends. Your committee is a ravenous set of pitbulls that haven't been fed in weeks, and you're an injured rabbit that smells like bacon. It's not going to be fair. If you chose your committee to be helpful by incorporating expertise that you don't have, you made a poor decision: they can now quiz you about things that you don't have expertise in. 

All in all, it was definitely my MRTI. Somehow I managed to pass. I think it might have even been a pity-pass because they think I can be chained to a -80 freezer for a few more years and produce something to keep them getting grants. If I wasn't cynical before, this did it. 


Ph.D. Candidate 

No comments: