I may have talked about this before but I have a new opinion of the process now. As part of earning a PhD in this country, each student goes through a qualifying exam. The completion of this exam makes that person a “PhD candidate.” This is a very significant step in the completion of the degree and is the most likely point for a person to drop out of the program. However, completion of the qualifier is an implicit agreement between the student and the department that he/she will finish (there is no timeline here) the degree. Typically the exam is an intensive writing component followed by a public defense and a more private oral exam in front of an examining committee. At WPI and elsewhere this takes the form of a hypothetical grant which is supposed to show both the breadth of the students knowledge (they can’t write about what they research) and also about their ability to design novel scientific work. It tests rational thinking, factual knowledge, scientific principles, and skills in rhetoric, public speaking and so forth.
Typically a student will be given two attempts to successfully write and defend their proposal in front of the committee. They may pass after the first go ‘round but often they will be asked to repeat. If they do not pass on the second attempt, they are usually asked to leave the program (sometimes with a masters…sometimes with nothing). Having already completed mine and now having read, revised, and experienced a number of others, I can confidently say that this system works. I might not have said this after my own but I think that the qualifiers process is a crucial component to the education and certification of a PhD student. I have written quite a bit about my belief that modern academic too often cheats the students out of an education in favor of training. It has become an extension of highschool. This trend actually continues a bit into masters and PhD programs in which the first years are often very similar to the undergraduate curricula. The defining point is the qualifier which is truly unlike anything the student has experienced previously…unless they’ve already completed a thesis based masters degree (which is probably close but still not quite the same). I’m still a firm believer that there is no amount of education that can teach a person to think. Furthermore, I believe (I say this because I have NO factual basis for any of this) that there are verifiably and possibly measurably different ways in which people think. This may be genetic or it might be environmentally initiated…I don’t know but it doesn’t really matter. In that vein, there are some people who make good scientists and some that just don’t. Sometimes I think I know what category I’m in and sometimes I don’t. Regardless of that idea, the undergraduate education is not designed to put people into categories and it is quite possible with enough work to skirt through most any degree program not dependant on your particular mode of cognition. Furthermore, I think that most undergraduate programs make it a special point to ensure that this is the case and be the most accepting. All well and good but when those people who don’t “think like scientists” try to go for another degree or into the job force they might be met with an unfortunately rude awakening to discover that perhaps a life of rational thought is not their forte. The qualifier however, is a fairly effective measure of one’s ability to think critically and is a generally solid reflection of the individual. For certain there are individuals who pass their quals who perhaps shouldn’t have and of course the opposite is also true. The fact doesn’t change that there are few exams that I think could ever effectively differentiate the two groups but if I had to design a test then perhaps the qualifier would be it. Maybe we in the academic environment approach this problem too late. Would it not be a better system if the exam was given after maybe two years of undergraduate work rather than after 6 or 7 years of higher education. Certainly a student failing after the second year would have ample time to explore perhaps more fulfilling career paths. I guess I feel pretty lucky ( I mean this in the grandest sense) to be where I am but I never suffered from the career wise self-doubt of choice that I think many people do. I think this will probably all need to be filled under Patrick’s academic idealism and that’s where it will likely stay. Patrick OUT!!!
What I’m listening too: Squeeze Me – Dinah Washington