One of the first milestones in the career of a PhD student is completion of the comprehensive exams. Getting through these exams (also referred to as "qualifying" or "preliminary" exams in other departments or fields) can often be nerve-wracking. The structure of the process itself can be quite intimidating, and even the most stoic of students can show signs of feeling overwhelmed at times.
In our department, there are two phases to the exams: the written and the oral. The written exams involve the student composing an average of four essays for each of four faculty members on the student's committee. Once these are completed (which, in all honesty, is as exhaustive as a marathon), the faculty are given a few days to read and review the student's written work. During the oral examinations, the faculty subject the student to two rounds of questioning. The first round often involves each faculty member asking follow-up questions to the student, perhaps probing the student in areas in which he may not have covered adequately in the written exams. The second round goes a bit quicker, as the faculty attempt to assess the full breadth of the student's knowledge and capability to think critically. This oral examination can last up to three hours, and often involves a lot of gear-shifting and mental acrobatics on the student's part.
My experience in this process was quite fortunate. My committee was composed of Bruce Lyon, John Thompson, Pete Raimondi, and of course my advisor, Rita Mehta. I honestly could not have picked a better group for this process. The material that each of them assigned me presented a few challenges, in both the level of complexity of a few papers as well as in the sheer volume of the readings overall. I dedicated a number of months to studying, becoming increasingly reclusive in the process (much to my housemates' chagrin). By the time the exams rolled around, I felt quite comfortable with most of the material. Completing the written exams took me quite some time, as I am a slow and meticulous writer. My dedication to the task seems to have paid off, as the oral exam went quite smoothly...and, dare I say, was even fun at times!
Through this process, I think I've gained a better appreciation for the study of biology, especially in regards to subjects such as optimal foraging theory or metapopulation theory. Each of the faculty on my committee was extraordinarily nice and encouraging throughout the process, making this experience far less intimidating as I'd originally imagined it would be. I'm quite fortunate to be in an academic environment wherein the faculty take a strong interest in fostering their students' growth. They've encouraged me to continue thinking critically and, perhaps more importantly, to keep asking questions.