Lab Life

Meet Four Ph.D. Students Who Passed Their Candidacy Exams in Quarantine

Brianna Barbu

On May 1, I got a text from a friend who was preparing for her Ph.D. candidacy exam. She’d just received edits for her research document from her adviser, and she was feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by the sheer volume of feedback.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day. We lived just two miles from each other at the time. I could have hopped on my bike and been at her apartment in less than fifteen minutes to give her a hug and talk her through her concerns face-to-face. However, I had some slight nasal congestion, and although I was pretty sure it was just seasonal allergies, the last thing I wanted was to be wrong about that and infect my friend with COVID-19 on top of her candidacy stress. So we just texted until she felt better.

Even at the best of times, Ph.D. candidacy exams (sometimes called qualifiers or prelims) can be an ordeal. Students are typically asked to prepare a detailed overview of the background, motivation, preliminary results, and proposed objectives of their thesis projects and then defend their proposals and knowledge of the subject matter in front of their committees.

Spring and summer 2020 have been anything but the best of times for graduate students and the world at large.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic upended nearly every aspect of grad student life in 2020, the changes to candidacy exams were comparatively subtle. As long as everyone had a stable internet connection, the exam format translated pretty well from a conference room to a video call (although there was a sad lack of cake in the lab break room afterward). Some people even said the unusual circumstances helped them focus.

The handful of students whom I talked to for this story were each the first person in the research group to pass qualifying exams during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stories I collected share significant common ground, but even before the pandemic, the process varied somewhat among different institutions and departments. My goal is not to describe a universal 2020 candidacy experience; it is to highlight some of the unintentional pioneers of what may become the “new normal” for Ph.D. candidacy, at least in the near future.

Kristine Smith headshot
Kristine Smith

Kristine Smith

Hsiao Lab, North Carolina State University
Passed candidacy April 8, 2020

On Monday, March 16, with a little more than three weeks to go before her prelims, Kristine Smith felt like she had nearly enough data to shift from mostly focusing on lab work to centering her attention on her document and presentation. Then she found out that Friday would be the last day she would be able to work in the lab for a while, possibly for up to two months, according to her adviser.

“I put away all of the writing and got back in the lab,” Smith said. “I think all of us in the group were just data collecting machines for a week.” She wanted to make sure she had enough data to keep her occupied if it really did take two months to get back to the lab—which of course it did.

The timeline for Smith to write and put together her presentation was compressed accordingly, going from three weeks down to two.

Smith says that for those two weeks, she was “so focused that the world could have been exploding around me, which apparently it was.”

On top of the usual stress of preparing for a major program milestone, Smith experienced the strain of worrying about her family in New Jersey, which at the time was much harder hit by the pandemic than North Carolina. Luckily, she says her group was very supportive. One co-worker gave her masks to send to her mother, who works in healthcare and was facing PPE shortages.

In NC State’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering the oral part of Ph.D. prelims is a public seminar. Anyone from the department can watch and ask questions afterward, not just the presenters’ thesis committees, although the committees do ask plenty of questions to gauge whether presenters understand the fundamentals of their projects. With the exams being moved to Zoom, Smith had a little more control over who would be given a link and invited to attend. Plus, many people who would casually attend talks in person did so because they knew there would be snacks provided, and without being bribed with food, they had little incentive to show up. Ultimately, about eight peers joined the call.

Smith mentions that she often gets nervous about public speaking, so delivering the presentation over Zoom was easier than it would have been if she’d had to do it to a room full of people. “You can just minimize all of the videos and pretend you’re just talking to yourself.” It was also possible to keep her notes handy. One slight downside was that she would sometimes fall into reading from the slides. Smith had to remind herself that even if she hid peoples’ faces to focus on the presentation, she was still speaking to an audience.

Once the exam was over, Smith says it felt “a little anticlimactic” because there wasn’t really a celebration the way there would have been before the pandemic. Instead of a gathering with friends and colleagues, she popped open a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate by herself. However, Smith shares that she loves being with other people and misses celebrating things with them. “We’ll celebrate when this is all over, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be over for a while.”

Isaac Blythe headshot
Isaac Blythe
Sanford Group website

Isaac Blythe

Sanford Lab, University of Michigan
Passed candidacy April 29, 2020

Isaac Blythe thought there was plenty of time to get crucial experiments run before candidacy. However, in early March, as the inevitability of COVID-19 sweeping the United States became undeniable, Blythe (who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns) found themself in a “four-day, last-minute scramble to get a ton of data” in case the university closed for research. The university shut down within days.

Blythe recalls “way overbooking” their glovebox time, trying any and every experiment they thought they could cram in, including some that colleagues had told them probably wouldn’t work. To their surprise, the experiments did work, but there was no time to follow up on the unexpected results before shutdown.

In the weeks that followed, Blythe frequently wished they had more data to go on for their candidacy and for papers that they had been preparing to write. On the bright side, they had plenty of time to read the literature for background on their project and to prepare for their oral exam, far more time than they would have had if not for the pandemic. They noted, “I had a ton of time to study for the exam, so I felt really confident going into it.”

Blythe also had lots of time to polish their presentation by giving practice talks. Ordinarily, in their group, people did two—one with the whole group and another with postdocs and senior lab members. However, since people didn’t have much else to do, Blythe fit in some extra practices and a couple of one-on-one prep sessions with their PI. By the time the exam date rolled around, they were sick of giving the same talk over and over again.

Overall, Blythe says the exam “went a lot better than it potentially could have.”

Doing the candidacy virtually had its share of quirks, of course. Some were annoying—the slide advancer wasn’t working properly, the screen share defaulted to “Presenter View,” and there was a bit of irritating audio feedback—but Blythe found others helpful. They set up their screen so that the slides were maximized and the committee members’ faces were minimized, which helped Blythe’s focus. “I was a little less nervous about getting questions because I didn’t have to see my committee,” which helped them not to feel overwhelmed.

Afterward, Blythe’s adviser sent them a link to a private meeting. They expected a one-on-one chat to debrief how the exam went and plan the immediate next research steps, but instead, they found their whole lab on a group call. In lieu of the usual break–room party with champagne the group would have held if not for the pandemic, people consumed whatever snacks and beverages they had at home. Then the relieved and celebrated new candidate took a nap.

The debrief, when it happened later on, focused on Blythe’s presentation skills and professional language as well as long-term goal setting. “At that point, we didn’t know when we were going to get back into lab,” they said. They developed a plan for the computational aspect of their research, but discussions of specific experiments were necessarily abstract.

Overall, Blythe said that going through candidacy in quarantine, although certainly a setback in terms of finishing data collection for their papers, enabled them to take a step back and consider their project from some new angles. They feel like it has made them more deliberate about planning lab work. “My brain finally clicked into a space of ‘Okay, I’m going to run these experiments for this exact reason, and this is what I expect to learn,’” they said. “It’s a nice marker of growth in how and why I’m doing things.”

Kathleen Lauser headshot
Kathleen Lauser
Calabrese Group website

Kathleen Lauser

Calabrese Lab, University of Minnesota
Passed candidacy April 20, 2020

Kathleen Lauser had the double honor of being not only the first Ph.D. candidate in her research group to pass her oral qualifiers virtually, but also the first Ph.D. candidate in her research group, period. Every grad student in the Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science goes through the qualifying process in the spring of the second year in the program, spanning a window between late April and early June. Lauser’s oral exam was on the very first possible day.

“Everything felt so new, so that was a little bit extra stressful for me,” Lauser recalled. “But you know, we got through it.”

Ordinarily, Lauser’s department’s qualifiers involve two separate oral exams back-to-back, a research talk followed by a coursework-related Q&A session, with a short break in the middle for the committee to deliberate. This year, the two sections were combined into a longer research talk with more background for the committee to ask questions about in place of the coursework component, which Lauser thought worked out well. “It was more relevant,” she said. “I still had to derive an equation, but it was directly related to my research area, whereas before, it could have been anything.”

Like many others, Lauser said preparing for the exam from home with fewer distractions was mostly a good thing. There was an element of camaraderie that she missed out on, though, since usually all of the second-years study and practice their presentations together. She practiced with her group, of course, including the two other students in her lab who were also preparing for their exams, but it was still a more isolated process than she had anticipated when she started the semester.

Lauser found the virtual exam format “sort of nice” because she could do it from the comfort of her own home and not have to wear shoes, but she also felt it was strangely impersonal. Some of the faculty had their cameras off, so “it kind of felt like I was presenting to no one.”

Some of the questions Lauser received, in particular any involving math, were more difficult to answer on Zoom than they would have been in person. She did her best with her Microsoft Surface and Zoom’s whiteboard feature. At a certain point in a lengthy derivation, the professor who’d asked her to do it told her it was clear she was on the right track, so she didn’t have to finish. The questions shifted slightly after that to be easier to answer verbally without relying too heavily on the whiteboard.

Unsurprisingly, a Zoom party took the place of the customary group get-together and trip to a bar to celebrate with friends. One of Lauser’s co-workers baked a pie and delivered it to her apartment.

The month-long delay between passing qualifiers and returning to the lab helped Lauser get organized to work more efficiently on a reduced schedule. Her experiments aren’t usually time-intensive, but she says it feels like mistakes are “a little bit more costly in some ways because you just don’t have as much time” to make corrections if things don’t work. So it’s crucial to plan everything in advance.

Jessica Tami headshot
Jessica Tami
McNeil Group website

Jessica Tami

McNeil Lab, University of Michigan
Passed candidacy May 4, 2020

Jessica Tami almost liked that the university was shut down in the weeks leading to her candidacy exam. She could devote all of her time to reading papers and working on exam materials, rather than having to balance candidacy preparation with lab work. Since her labmates didn’t have as much going on, they were able to quickly get back to her with edits on four drafts of her written proposal and to linger over her practice talks.

“The quarantine made me very focused,” said Tami. This was mostly good, but being confined to her apartment also meant that she couldn’t escape thinking about the exam. “I felt like I kind of had to sit with it,” she commented about the stress she felt over practice talks where her colleagues questioned every aspect of her presentation’s content and layout. That was the whole point of the practice talks, but it didn’t make them any less nerve-wracking in the moment. Ordinarily, she would have tried to leave that stress at work, but having her professional life take place completely at home made that extremely difficult.

Tami recalls dealing with impostor syndrome prior to and during the oral exam. She explains, “The negative voices in my head were saying, ‘If you pass online candidacy, it’s because they’re giving you a free pass; this is unprecedented, so they’re probably going easy on you.’ And I was really struggling with that.”

During her debrief a few days after the exam, Tami’s adviser put that voice in its place. The committee hadn’t been any easier or harder on her than if the exam had taken place in person. They conducted it exactly as they would for anyone else, with the exception that they did it online.

Because the internet connection in her apartment wasn’t great, Tami did her exam from her boyfriend’s research group’s private conference room in the Chemistry building. When someone called the conference room landline in the middle of the exam, she simply picked up the phone, hung it up, and continued without stopping. Other than that, she didn’t experience any technical difficulties.

After the exam, Tami was greeted by her boyfriend and one of her close friends, who waited with her in the hallway while the committee deliberated on her results, just as they would have if the exam had been held in person. Ten minutes later, her adviser sent her a message saying she’d passed, and she felt like she could breathe again.

Tami’s adviser had dropped off a bottle of rosé the day before the exam for her to open in celebration. Her labmates congregated on a Zoom call to congratulate her. Next year, they plan to have a joint celebration for Tami and the other lab member who passed candidacy in May.

Without her candidacy to focus on, Tami liked being in quarantine a lot less. “After candidacy, your job is to go back to lab and actually start doing experiments, and I couldn’t,” she said. “Not having any data to interpret or experiments to plan or things to do with my hands, I was going a little bit stir crazy.” There was always more literature to catch up on, but reading papers all day, every day, got old quickly.

Tami took to Twitter to share her feelings of being unproductive and received many supportive messages assuring her that what she was going though was totally normal. It was not only because of the pandemic, but also because after focusing on one thing for so long, it’s simply hard to switch gears. She concluded, “It was really helpful to hear other people’s experiences letting me know that I’m not alone.”

The Virtual Future

With COVID-19 already affecting the fall semester of 2020 and possibly poised to continue for many months beyond, it’s unlikely that in-person candidacy exams will resume for quite a while. It’s not hard to imagine that virtual candidacy could become the norm even after the virus is brought to heel.

Some of the most stressful parts of these stories, such as the mad scramble to collect data before shutdown, not knowing quite what to do afterward, and trying to answer questions with a limited ability to write things down, are somewhat unique to the early days of the pandemic. Many institutions have safely reopened labs so students can get back to work at least to some extent, and people are learning to adapt to the limitations of technology in meetings.

Many of the changes in how candidacy is completed are almost positive. Most of the students I talked to said they felt more focused writing from home and more at ease presenting in a video conference, where they could minimize their committee members’ faces if looking at them made them nervous. The difficulty of the exam did not seem to be affected.

Who knows when the ability to share cake in the break room after the candidacy meeting will be restored? Once it is, I imagine every lab in the country will hold an enormous celebration of every program milestone its members achieved during quarantine.