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This is how I did it… Prepared for Prelims

By Erika Foster

Erika Foster is a PhD. candidate in Soil and Crop Sciences and the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University, with Dr. Francesca Cotrufo. Her work focuses on adapting Colorado agricultural systems to drought, specifically through organic soil biochar amendments.

Preparing for preliminary exams, qualifying exams, or, most accurately for ecology students candidacy exams, may seem like a hoop to jump through, a giant hurdle before your final defense. But if you look at the exam as an opportunity to learn, this challenge may actually turn into an enjoyable experience.

Hard at work writing on complex ecological topics, with sufficient coffee close at hand

Although they vary by program, all prelims aim to test whether a student is ready to continue their studies at a higher level—that is, whether they are qualified to continue their work as a PhD. candidate. Often prelims are emotionally and mentally stressful, and understandably so, this event is a rite of passage that determines your future! But with the right mindset, prelims can seem like a mini sabbatical: a chance to simply sit and read, to fill in any knowledge gaps, and solidify your background from basic ecological concepts to specific nuances of your field. This is a time for deeper thinking, forming connections between concepts in different ecological disciplines and your research ideas. Focus on learning as much as possible, but don’t make it about your committee, this is your time to shine. (And after all, only you and your committee will ever know what goes down in the exam, so try not to fret over the couple of questions you will not know how to answer and the awkward redirect that follows.

Though I’m no expert, I can happily say I passed my exams last fall and thought I would share a few pieces of advice that served me well.

  1. Make a plan. Decide on a specific time of day and hours per day you intent to study. Over the course of 3 months I read 1-2 papers per day and three textbooks – though I only read one cover to cover.
  2. Talk to your committee. Make a reading list with subject ideas you expect your committee will ask you about. Clarify the format of the exam, for yourself and for your committee in case they are not familiar with your program. (In my program, the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, we are typically required to have one day dedicated to answering essay questions from each committee member—mine lasted 6-8 hours, followed by about 2 hours of orals) and whether it will be closed or open book.
  3. Schedule your prelims early. Talk to other students about timing the written and oral exams. For me, I scheduled the hardest essays for Monday and Tuesday, gave myself a break on Wednesday, and finished the easier essays on Thursday and Friday, with orals the following Tuesday. This provided me the opportunity to review and clarify concepts I know I missed on my written exam.
  4. Gather information. Ask previous students for materials and questions to get an idea of what your committee member may ask you. I found out that my advisor once asked a student for citation of key references from memory, so I prepared accordingly. Using a WordDoc with citations and one sentence summaries of the article was helpful too, either organized by author, or subject matter.
  5. Establish a study space. Find a place to study, especially just before you exam to practice sitting and focusing for several hours straight at a time. Bring all your materials here and establish this as a “no disruption zone” (put your phone AWAY… or better yet, do not even bring it to the desk). If you need to a break, get up from the desk and move somewhere else.
  6. Stop studying a week or two before. Try not to read anything new in the final two weeks, instead write practice questions (if you haven’t already), and outline possible answers. This solidifies knowledge and cements it in your framework. Play around with diagrams and concept mapping with more difficult ideas.
  7. Know when to memorize. Really this is not the goal of prelims, but some committee members require it. I studied and restudied certain ideas to recall: significant researcher contributions and the history of specific concepts. For example, I studied the development of theory on soil organic matter dynamics and fractionation method.
  8. Taking the test. Bring snacks. Listen to ‘pump up’ tunes that you listened to while studying. Take the first 20 to 60 minutes to outline all your answers at the beginning, when your brain is fresh. Have friends ready to bring you emergency coffee, supplies, and, snacks. Set yourself up for any thing, have extra pens, paper, and colored pencils for diagrams, as well as the right textbooks and notes (if taking open book). Oh, and did I mention snacks?
  9. Crush your oral exams. Practice sessions are super helpful about 2-3 weeks before your exam. Get some colleagues together, meet out for drinks and snacks, and have run a mock oral exam. This helps filling in the gaps and gives you the confidence that you need. Remember that the oral is a discussion of your favorite topics: your work and ecology, so go into that room relaxed to share what you know. If in doubt, have your response prepared for when you do NOT know the answer. “I do not know if I can answer this exactly, but what I do know is…” This should help you relax. The idea of prelims is to test the limits of your knowledge, so you shouldn’t know all of the answers – sometimes your committee may not even know – but they do want to see how you think critically about ecology, if not your incredible ability to recall facts. If all else fails, bring in gooey snacks and offer them to any committee member who is giving you trouble.
  10. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. If there is one thing that you do to prepare for your exams, it is get a full 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, or however many hours you actually need. This will boost your memory, increase brain power, and keep you healthy and relaxed. Exercise helps too, if you’re into that.

Hopefully this advice is as useful to you as it was for me, at the very least it should help you know where to start your studies and how to prepare. Perhaps you may even look forward to your exams as a healthy break from “real” research, a chance to relax and read to put yourself at the top of your game. Who knows, you may even enjoy the challenge.

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