Graduate student hurdles

When our advisers set up this section, we were told it was an opportunity for us to share our thoughts, experiences, and research as graduate students. For the most part we have focused on experiences we have had at conferences and our research. I thought I would share some of my experiences as a graduate student.

I almost always thought I would continue my college education and get a master’s degree. I enjoy school (for the most part) and I knew that a master’s degree would be beneficial in this field. However, I never thought I would go on for a PhD because it just seemed so much bigger and complex. I also didn’t want to over-educate myself since it seemed like people with PhD’s only ever did research and I doubted I wanted to do that full-time. Of course I still can’t say what I would like to do even today and I am working on a PhD.

I finished my master’s degree and in my searching for a full-time job I was directed to a position announcement to work on a PhD with Dr. Brian Mealor at the University of Wyoming. Even though I was hesitant about the actual degree (and it sure didn’t help that it is titled Agronomy and in my mind that is just and only crops and I am more about rangeland-type systems), the project was very enticing. I have been working on a reclamation focused project for the past two years. It has an emphasis on weed control through herbicides and establishment of desirable species. Eventually I will get more details and data into another post.

What I wanted to discuss was more of my experiences as a graduate student. Going from an undergraduate to a graduate student it is intimidating because you move from an area where you are told which classes to take with only a few electives you get to choose, to one that is much more open. As an undergraduate, many of the classes are pure memorization with what seems only the rare class which encourages synthesis and application. As a graduate student there are very few classes you have to take and much more freedom as well as expectations in what you do. Graduate classes are (hopefully) more focused on the ‘why’ and application rather than on facts and busy work. We work on our projects and gain experience and exposure in experimental design, data collection, and the scary part, analyzing data and writing. At the end of a master’s program we have a thesis and just one thing in our way to the degree and that is the defense.

In a graduate defense, master’s or PhD, the student gives a presentation (typically one hour which is rough when you are trying to summarize your entire project) to an open-invitation audience. After the presentation, in a closed room, the committee asks the student questions about their project or anything they should have learned. This is one of the scariest and most intimidating situations because the degree is on the line and while we think we know and understand what we should, it is always possible that we really just don’t have a clue. It usually isn’t that way, but that is definitely what runs through my mind. Of course usually any problems would have been worked out before the student ever got to that point and everything turns out fine, but it is still an intense situation.

As a beginning master’s student, I felt intimidated by this “higher class” situation, I was no longer just a normal college student, I was a graduate student. Of course I settled down quickly even if I still had (and have) moments of panic that I am an imposter. I got through my master’s defense and it was much less traumatic than I imagined and feared.
Then I came here as a PhD student. Talk about a situation where sometimes I felt like I was caught in the headlights and a pretender. I have been able to do, experience, and learn so much here. However, I also knew that not only did I have a defense to get through at the end, I had preliminary exams to pass as well.

A PhD student has one additional hurdle to get over that a master’s student doesn’t have. The purpose of preliminary exams (prelims) is to determine if a student has the background knowledge to equal the degree they will get. I knew that I would eventually have to get through my prelims but they were something I really didn’t want to even think about. In prelims the student’s committee can ask any question, on any subject they like. The idea of anything that open was daunting. I had also heard about people preparing for months as they would study, read papers, and cram as much information as they could. I had a hard time with that because what do you study when this is a test of what you know. It helped when I was told that it really doesn’t help to study because the exams are more about what you know and how you think than about things that you would get tested on like facts (although those can come up). Part of the process is also to determine how the student thinks and works through questions and problems and how they handle the pressures inherent in the circumstances.

My prelims were organized such that I had a week of written questions and then a few hours of oral questioning a week or so later. Because PhD students have five committee members I answered questions from one person each day throughout the week. They decided how many questions to ask, how long I had to answer, and if it was open or closed book. I have heard stories of other people’s prelims where they may not have known when they would get their questions. They could have come at 8 am or 1 am with a 24 hours to answer.

I was very glad that I have a marvelous adviser because I always started at 8 am. I had a good schedule because I knew what time I would start. It was something I could rely and plan on. I was never sure when I would end because that would depend on the day and the committee member. My time limits ranged from 9, 12, or 24 hours. I never took 24 hours, preferring to use just the time I needed to write and review and then turn in my answers that evening rather than returning to the questions from the previous day before starting the next set. For the shorter time limits I had to focus and be as efficient as possible in my use of time. The first day of written questions I had a 12 hour time limit and I was wiped out by the end. I couldn’t think, I was shaky, and I had no idea how I would get through the rest of the week. The next morning I started back up and just pushed through. That really is how to get through anything, just keep doing it. I took each day as it came and tried to focus on the problems at hand. That is also how I handled the 24 hour time limit days. I could have stayed working on my answers until early morning hours or I could have left and returned to them early the next morning to finish up. However, I wanted to start each day without worrying about anything else. So I worked on my answers with the intention of finishing that day and still going home before midnight so I could get rest for the next day.

My written prelims formed a long, exhausting week where I was constantly trying to keep my brain focused and my writing correct. I know that by the end of the week my editing skills were lacking and my ability to focus was decreasing. It was a long week full of difficult questions. Some questions I was able to answer fine, some I just struggled to understand what was being asked and others I struggled with answering the question. It was definitely an experience that would be difficult to replicate and to do again.

I had about a week and a half between my written and oral exams. It gave me enough time to catch up on my only class that semester and get through finals. I was more nervous about the orals because I have a slight tendency to freeze and of course there is always the concern that I will not know how to answer a question. In oral prelims all members of the committee are in the room and have the ability to ask questions. It is organized such that one member will start asking questions, but if there are points that offer opportunity or need for clarification all other individuals can insert questions.

My oral prelims were intimidating even though I knew the people and what would happen. What made it hard was the unknown. I really had no idea how long it would last, what type of questions they would ask, and if there would be anything I should know and would just have to respond with an “I don’t know.” It also didn’t help that once we were all there, I was asked to step out into the hallway for a bit while they talked. That threw me because even though I should have expected that they would want to make sure they were all on the same page, I was not expecting to have that happen. So I stood in the hallway and got more and more nervous. Once I was in there and we had started, the time actually went much quicker than I was expecting it to. It still felt like we were spending time, but it did not feel painfully long. I definitely messed up a few times before I was straightened out and there were some things I could not answer, but the majority of the questions I was able to adequately work through. At the end I was asked to wait in the hall, which I was always expecting. Again a wait that seemed interminable. Then I was invited back in and was congratulated for passing. That moment of intense worry converted to profound relief that it was all over is almost overpowering. A feeling that left me shaky and emotional, until I was finally able to calm down and relax.

Preliminary examinations are an experience that is good to have gone through because it really showed that I could get through it. Sometimes it seems like while the purpose of preliminary examinations is to determine to the satisfaction of the committee that the student knows enough, it is equally important for the student to understand what they know and what they are capable of. Preliminary examinations are stressful and hard, but they are something that is necessary and shows what is possible. I am thrilled I have them done. Now I just have the defense to get through along with all of the writing before that, but I am one step closer to the end.

To Do List:
– Collect third year field data
– Analyze data from field and greenhouse projects
– Write papers on projects for publication/dissertation
– Defend project and dissertation
– Figure out: What do I want to do next? What job do I want?