Monday, February 15, 2010

Abstract Reveiws

I agreed to review conference abstracts for a conference I’m not going to as a way to stay current with what’s new and hot in my field.  When I signed up, they said that there would be maybe two dozen abstracts each person would have to review, which is a lot, but doable.  When I got the assignment, however, there were more than 40 abstracts to review!  Even worse, I listed one of my areas of expertise as (roughly) “combining two or more techniques,”  which is a good description of my primary research interests, but I didn’t consider in terms of abstracts that means the topics I’m assigned are “combining ANY two or more techniques for ANY reason.”  I have yet to come across an abstract that I feel completely unqualified to review, but some have been in fields I only know through coursework.  I feel like I am learning more from reviewing these abstracts than I would by going to the conference.

After reading several abstracts, it’s clear what impresses me: statistics or quantitative data, figures, and references (though the references are mostly a proxy for placing the work in a larger context).  Some people didn’t take the abstract submission very seriously and they say almost verbatim: “we took some data, analyzed it, and found a result.”  I haven’t decided if those are in the reject pile yet: they are certainly “not even wrong,” so is the reject line at being wrong or being too vague to tell if they are wrong?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Failing

Qualifying exams at my school are three consecutive half-hour oral exams on topics you’ve taken graduate courses in.  My background:

Topic 1:
1 undergrad course
1 grad course
1 audited grad course on a subtopic
years of research experience between undergrad and grad school
final exam for this class was an oral mini-qual
many friends who could quiz me on this topic

Topic 2:
2 undergrad courses
1 grad course
TAing 1 grad course including extensive discussions with the prof
generally intuitive subject for me
1 expert friend who gave me a few practice quals

Topic 3:
1 grad class, that I did alright in but not awesome
extremely busy prof who is known for failing students on quals
a few acquaintances that could spend a few minutes quizzing me

 I bet you can already guess where this is going.

When I took quals a few months ago I passed topics 1 & 2 easily but failed topic 3.  Although at my school, no one really said that I “failed,” just that I had to “retake” topic 3.  The way the qual structure works is here that if you don’t outright pass or fail (i.e., you are deficient in just one area), they make you retake the exam only in that area within a few months.  If you don’t pass that time you must transfer to the master’s program.

There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t want to transfer to the master’s program.  I’ve wanted to get a PhD for as long as I can remember, and due to some geographical constraints it would be difficult for me to do a PhD after an MS.  Plus, I transferred schools to attend my current institution, and I already passed the hard PhD qual at my first school.  Being in MS/PhD limbo for several months made me incredibly grumpy.  Despite the fact that everyone told me they were sure I’d pass, I didn’t want to jinx it and had a hard time thinking ahead to any time past my qual retake.  I didn’t want to think about going to conferences.  I didn’t want to think about what I’d do for my PhD project.  I didn’t want to have any big ideas, or buy books related to my field because I might have had to leave it.  And I was spending all my time and mental energy desperately studying a a topic that I don’t like very much.  Perhaps saying I was incredibly grumpy is an understatement.

Last week I retook the exam on topic 3, and I’m very pleased to say that I passed!  It was clear the examining prof was very impressed with my knowledge.  For the first time I’m a real PhD student, and it feels awesome.  Almost immediately after passing the qual I got a ton of new ideas on how to advance my current project and things I could do for my thesis.

As for failing the first time around, I’m still not sure whether I’m happy it happened or not.  I certainly know topic 3 much better than I did the first time, and could confidently teach a course on it now though I don’t think I could have after the first time I took it.  I don’t mind failing things every once in a while either- I think that if you never fail you’re not trying hard enough.  On the other hand, restudying for the qual took a huge amount of mental effort that I could have used to make actual progress on my project instead of listlessly poking at it for a few months.

On the third hand, sometimes you just have to jump through hoops and all that matters is that you got through, not how graceful the jump was.