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15 Tips for the General Exam

Apr 2011 | Michelle No Comment

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

This piece follows up on my pre-general exam ruminations from last quarter. We’re posting it in this issue because although you second years may feel like the general exam is far, far away (you likely haven’t even had your first committee meeting yet), it’s really not. It will be here before you know it. Give it some thought and prep well, and you’ll be just fine.

Although I avoided nightmares prior to the exam, I did have a few daytime premonitions of babbling like an idiot in front of my committee, leading the chair to check the “you suck and need to leave the program immediately” box on the exam warrant. I tried my best to channel this nervousness into motivation to study, prepped and practiced as much as I could, and January 10 arrived before I knew it.

And it was fine. Giving the first presentation uninterrupted helped me relax. I fielded some easy questions and some tougher ones. There were some completely unexpected questions, and those were actually really fun to answer. Of course there were questions I could have answered better, but I kept fairly calm and managed to avoid stuttering, rambling and generally freaking out.

After an hour and 40 minutes, I was shaking my committee members’ hands and cleaning up coffee cups and half-eaten muffins. They had checked off the “ok, you’re decent enough to keep around” box on the warrant, and life was beautiful.

Every committee is different, every student is different, and so every general exam will be different. Rather than dish out advice based on my general exam experience, I sent out a survey to current MCBers to see what they had to say. Following are some general exam pointers; some are mine and some are from other students.

1. Know the format. Exam guidelines are on the MCB website (https://depts.washington.edu/mcb/backup/forms/MCB-GeneralExamFormat.pdf). For the written proposal, some students opt to follow the format of an NIH grant application instead (just make sure this is ok with your committee ahead of time). As for the exam itself, remember that your committee members each sit on lots of committees from many different programs. Don’t expect that they’ve memorized the MCB format. Send it to them and have your chair explain the format at the beginning of the exam.

2. Sign up online for the exam through the Graduate School. This is not the same as telling the MCB office your exam date. Do it at least three weeks before the exam.

3. Meet with everyone in your committee at least once before the exam. Yes, it’s more work on your part, but it will only help you. Ask them what they want you to know (in general and specifically for your work). If you do this early, you can also use these meetings to discuss specific aims and experiments—which is a great way to get feedback before writing your proposal.

4. Ask your committee to send you questions based on your written proposal. Why do this? They’ll probably ask you the same questions in the exam. Several of my committee members asked me, word for word, the exact questions they’d sent me a week prior. Get them to send you questions by writing it into your email when you submit the proposal. Give them a deadline to work with (e.g. “Please send me the first question that comes to mind by the end of this week”), otherwise they likely won’t do it. They’re busy people too.

5. Choose the chair of your committee wisely. Your PI can’t chair your general exam (in fact, your PI shouldn’t speak at all). Pick the committee member known to be the most straightforward and business-like in meetings. You can find this out from other students whose committees they sit on, but it should also be pretty evident from your one-on-one meetings. Meet with or email your chair and discuss what you’d like him or her to do. At the very least, make sure the chair knows what kinds of questions are permissible during your presentations.

6. Don’t let committee members ask questions while you are speaking! Only let them ask questions for clarification during your presentation (again, establish this with your chair ahead of time) and save in-depth questions for the designated times.

7. Make a plan based on how you study. Sounds obvious, but for some of us, it’s been a while since we studied in depth for something. Think back to what works for you and what doesn’t, and make a plan. For example, if you need structure, force yourself to study up by setting meetings with your PI, postdocs or fellow students to discuss your reading on specific topics.

8. During crunch time (one month prior to the exam), make sure you do some work every day as well as something else to take your mind off the work. This way, you’ll feel productive each day without getting so wrapped up in the preparation that you become miserable.

9. Read a good breadth of the literature related to your proposal, and not just in the specialized organism/topic. Know the big open questions in the field, not just in your lab and in your project. One student wrote, “I got asked all kinds of things relating to subjects I had considered irrelevant.  And my committee didn’t catch what I considered the big weak point of my proposed project that I spent so much time getting ready to defend against.”

10. Know the ins and outs of every experiment you propose. What are your controls? What caveats/considerations do you need to keep in mind? What do you expect the data to look like, and how will you interpret data that’s unexpected? What are alternative techniques and approaches, and why are you choosing the strategy you are?

11. Aim high but be realistic with the research plan you propose to your committee. Know the difficulty associated with your proposed experiments. Be able to say how you’ll know if experiments work and at what point you’ll move to an alternative strategy if necessary. This tells your committee that while you’re ambitious, you’re aware of the risks and have a plan.

12. Get out of the lab. At some point before the exam, you’ll probably want to dial back or completely stop experiments. Figure out the balance you need and don’t feel guilty. After the exam, you’ll be more than ready to push your work forward. It’s worth taking advantage of your pre-general time to be thorough with your studying.

13. Practice. A lot. Practice your talk alone, with your lab, with MCB (sign up to present at a Hutch or UW student meeting!), and with anyone else you can. If you can get a few students of your committee members to meet up for a practice, they’ll be great at asking questions similar to what your committee members will ask.

14. During your presentation, don’t let it rattle you if your committee probes a topic until they find what you don’t know. If you don’t know something, say so. Then offer some reasoning to back what you think might be the answer, or (even better) think of an experiment to test it. You don’t have to know everything (you won’t), but you should be able to show how you’d tackle questions you don’t know. Whatever you do, don’t make things up (as my PI says, committee members have great BS detectors), and wherever you can, find a way to show off what you do know.

15. Be concise. The less you say, the less your committee can lead you down avenues that you’re not sure about. This goes for the proposal too.

And finally, some additional tidbits of advice from current students:
Read, practice, and don’t fret.
Confidence is essential!
Take it soon—there’s no reason to wait.  You don’t need data.  Get it done.
Relax.  Almost everyone passes and you will not be the exception.
You’re probably worrying too much.  You know more about your project than anyone else.
Your committee members want you to pass.  Really.

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