And I come bearing a title: PhD Candidate!! Did you miss me? 🙂

I apologize for the extended absence. Life was put on hold while I studied for my PhD qualifying/preliminary exam (aka prelims). Prelims determine whether students have the necessary background knowledge, research logic, and communication skills to be a scientist (didn’t I do that when you accepted me in the first place??? #imjustsaying). They usually consist of some written exam (a grant or objective test) and an oral exam (defending a project you designed). Prelims are the brutal hurdle that all students must jump to advance from PhD STUDENTS to PhD CANDIDATES.




I am nowhere near the first to complete this process, but I also know I am not the last. This process was difficult and I didn’t have much support. I started this process way behind my peers: I was a whole year late; the semester prior, I was actively seeking a different lab; that didn’t pan out so I had to stay and work it out; the semester of, I was diligently generating data, but I couldn’t reasonably catch up to my peers; my position seemed impossible and some people had no problem reminding me of that.

At times, I found it very difficult to be motivated. I found myself taking comfort in the idea that if I sabotage myself and just don’t study enough, then I’ll know exactly why I failed; as opposed to studying my tail off and still failing because my committee collectively decided I didn’t know enough.

But then I realized, “If I sabotaged myself and go home with my master’s, so what? So what if I know the reason. . .they still won!” And THAT just could not happen. So I prepared to fight. What little support I did have, I used them as much as I could. And with their help, I passed my prelims on the first round with ONE data slide! #ButGod #wontHedoit

For those interested in pursuing a PhD or currently moving towards prelims, don’t be daunted. Believe me when I say, YOU CAN DO IT. To help encourage you, I am leaving you with the 5 things that were crucial for me.

1. Give yourself time. Select your committee early. Start organizing your best data as soon as possible. Give yourself 2-3 months to write, review, rewrite and rewrite your proposal as well as study background and tangential materials.

2. Know your committee. Identify their area of expertise. Try to anticipate the questions they are likely to ask. My first committee meeting to approve my proposal shed A LOT of light on the focal points of each committee member.

3. Know what is expected of you. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of HOW MUCH you “should” know to pass. Meet with each committee member to start an open dialogue about what you’re expected to cover. The best advice I received was, “If you can’t trace back to your project while you’re reading and studying related topics (i.e. how did I get here?), then you’ve gone too far.”

4. Practice the process. 4 weeks prior to my exam, I had mock exams where I stood in front of various lab members, collaborating mentors, or anyone who would listen and answered questions. This was brutal because I left each mock exam feeling defeated and near tears. But when the tears retreated, I set out on a path of redemption (and possibly vengeance because I know my stuff!). The mock exams toughened my skin, prepared me for criticisms, and offered teaching moments on how to better address curveball questions.

5. R.A.I.N. Recognize. Acknowledge. Investigate. Non-identify. When the actual exam is proceeding, it is easy to feel like you’re under attack. RAIN is a mindfulness meditation technique to help keep your brain clear and operating at its maximum while under pressure. When you start to feel the meltdown:

  • Recognize it. Be aware that you’re feeling emotional. This allows you to pause and check in with yourself to see what’s going on.
  • Acknowledge it. This doesn’t mean you have to give in or react to it. It’s simply accepting that the feeling is there; it’s happening; you’re experiencing it.  This allows you the potential to change course.
  • Investigate it. Pay close attention to your physical reactions and what they may mean, as well as your thoughts/interpretations. Tight chest = deep sadness = He’s saying I’m dumb. Ears hot = grief or tears = She’s saying she doesn’t like my project. Jaws clenched = anger = They don’t believe in me. (of course these are just suggestions)
  • Non-identify with it. This could be strictly mental or even physical. These feelings don’t reflect YOU. They merely reflect whatever is there. Sometimes taking a step back or grabbing a sip of water can help detach from the trigger. This frees you from the attachment and opens up space to let the triggers and feelings pass without incident.

I hope these tips are helpful and encouraging to those interested in taking this road. This road is less traveled, especially if you are a Black Woman. But it’s difficult for everyone. These 5 things saved my grad school career and I can proudly say I am a. . .

PhD Candidate

©2013 by Ayana Martin