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On prepping for the general exam

Dec 2010 | Michelle 2,207 Comments
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

As I write this, my general exam looms ahead, a little over a month into my future.

I’m really nervous.

I’m worried I’ll freeze up, that my mind will go blank when I’m asked simple questions. I’m worried I’ll babble nonsense instead of explaining concisely. Basically, I’m worried I’ll make an idiot of myself in front of some very smart people.

I’m nervous about how the two (three? ten?) hours of the exam will go, but I think, deep down, the nerves come from a more constant worry of mine: can I be any good, in the long run? The skills the general exam tests—synthesizing information effectively, communicating clearly, making insightful and intelligent predictions, and more—are many of the skills one needs for success in science. I know we don’t have to be perfect in all areas at this stage of our training, but still…

One thing that has helped the nerves is reading. It’s actually been really fun. What’s been the most eye-opening, while I’m reading all of the new stuff, is rereading papers I first read when starting out in my lab. I pick up on things I didn’t before. New connections and ideas take form. This shouldn’t be a surprise; gaining perspective and getting new ideas is the point of reading. Plus, we spend our days in grad school thinking about, listening to, and talking about science, so you’d hope we pick up a few things here and there.

What I mean is that, even with the nerves, I’m really excited about the science. It’s fun to think about new directions, new questions, new ideas. It makes me forget the “can I be any good?” worries, reminding me that science is pretty damn cool and that what we get to do for “work” is pretty special.

So maybe preparing for the general exam has actually been a good thing. It’s forced me to step things up, to bring my work into focus in a way that I hadn’t before. I’m not saying the knot in my stomach doesn’t grow daily. (My current concept of time is divided into pre- and post-general exam, and in the latter period I am skipping carefree through sunny meadows of pink flowers. Or something like that.) But the nerves are motivation to start early and practice a lot, maybe reducing the chances of making a complete and utter fool of myself in front of my committee. But best of all, the thrill of new ideas has left me enamored with science all over again.

I wish the best of luck to all my classmates about to take their exams. And huge congrats to everyone who has already passed!

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