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Changing of the Seasons

Well, the weather finally decided it was time to act like January. After a remarkably warm December (seriously, coats weren’t necessary some days over the winter holidays), the new term has begun and the temperature has gotten a bit frosty.

But despite that, other things are definitely beginning to heat up. Smoker season has begun, with rehearsals starting last week as we gear up for our two performances on March 4 and 5. Now, the actual content of the Smoker is a closely guarded secret, replete with its own Smoker-HIPAA, but I can assure you that the actors, singers, and dancers are having a blast learning the new script. (That’s actually about as much as I can assure anyone at this point).

The MSTP held our annual winter party (and dessert competition) yesterday at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. We had so much fun, even those who had never ice skated before. It was good to see everyone again; with my classmates all in different labs in different departments, I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like.

Although the college football season is now over, many other Michigan sports are just beginning their season. I love watching Michigan basketball; the men picked off then-#3 Maryland last week in an electric game. The picture below was taken during the player intros. The women’s gymnastics team is also doing wonderful this year – last week they were tied for #1 in the country.

Time is starting to move along quickly; it seems like it was just the end of term, and now we’re already a couple of weeks in. Prelims are only a few weeks away (bites nails) but soon that too will be over. Fingers crossed!

But First, Prelims

Now that the holidays are approaching, I begin to look ahead to what the next term will bring. In addition to my classwork (which will consist of a bioinformatics programming class and second-semester Chinese) and the Smoker (yay!), the biggest hurdle for me will be taking the preliminary exam.

Also called a qualifying exam by some departments, prelims mark the transition from being a pre-candidate to a PhD candidate. At this point, the student is considered to have the knowledge necessary to successfully complete a PhD. Formats for this exam vary between departments, but the general impression among hopeful PhDs is that this is a slightly terrifying experience that might just be the hardest part of getting a PhD.

In the biological sciences, the preliminary exam is not an actual paper-based exam. Instead, the pre-candidate writes a grant proposal on their thesis topic or an unrelated topic (most departments require one or the other) and presents this to their prelims committee members. The role of the committee is to determine the extent of the candidate’s knowledge, probing for weak areas. At the end of this meeting, the candidate is given a pass, conditional pass, or fail. Thankfully, despite the skyrocketing stress levels, most people do manage to pass, at least conditionally.

The purpose of prelims is to prove that a student is capable of designing research and identifying potential problems without the assistance of others. For much of the PhD, one’s mentor is involved in discussing and analyzing the research. However, for prelims, assistance is limited to minor technical points; the main assistance can only come from other PhD students and post-docs in the lab.

I’m planning on taking the prelim exam at the end of January and have recently begun writing the actual proposal. I vacillate between thinking that this shouldn’t be too hard and freaking out that there’s no way I can read enough papers to garner the knowledge to pass. So, basically, it’s like being back in Step 1 mode. Sigh, I thought I left that behind.

Just like with Step 1, I just have to remind myself that pretty much everyone passes.  So, chill.

Actually, don’t chill. Winter is coming in Michigan; it hailed a couple of times last week (although in Ann Arbor that was taken as a sign of Michigan’s victory yesterday) and winter coats are becoming a necessity. My flip flops have sadly been relegated to the back of the closet until next year. However, it will still be a while before this is the view from my window…