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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…

Sara is a fourth-year medical student at UMMS. When not in the hospital, she can usually be found on the golf course or at a Michigan sporting event cheering on the Wolverines.