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Stress! August 23, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in Uncategorized.

CIMG8401Walking around the halls of the UW physics department you can tell it is that time of the year again… time for the Qualifying Exam!

This is the big exam we give to all of our physics graduate students. They all have to pass this exam. The exam is two days long. See that strip of paper on the right hand side of the picture there? That is a list of all the topics they can be tested on. A full year of physics graduate courses and all of their undergraduate courses. Our department will administer the next round of this test mid September of this year. Four students from our particle experiment group will be taking the exam. Good luck!

The common saying is “You’ll never know more physics than you do for this test.” It is totally correct. Henry, Toby, and I tried to help two students working on a qual problem from several years ago. Toby and Henry are senior professors. I’m getting up there. None of us (except maybe Toby) could look at the problem and solve it right off.

I took my qual 15 years ago or so, at the University of Rochester. The thing that motivated me to study was knowing that if I didn’t do so well I’d get an oral exam. I’ve never done well on oral exams, so I studied like heck to make sure I wouldn’t get one!

I remember sitting down to take the test. I looked through all the problems than thought “Holy ****, there is no way!” It felt like I didn’t recognize a thing. I was just about ready to get up and walk out of the room — I think I’d already starting thinking about other career paths. I looked around the room at the other students. Mark Johnson, probably the best student in our class, was right across from me. He’d also just finished looking through the test. His hands were shaking so bad that he could barely write his name on the test. That, I thought, means I have a chance. I managed to pass — without an oral. Later I found out that the shaking in Mark’s had was most likely due to the excessive number of chocolate covered espresso beans he had consumed…

Good luck everyone!


1. anon - August 23, 2006

You may be interested or amused by this blog post by a computer scientist who failed the exams at Stanford several times and so received a pep talk from Don Knuth himself.


2. Dave Bacon - August 23, 2006

At Berkeley they made us take two days of written tests and then on top of that two days of oral tests as well. Ack! All I remember about the written exam was the guy sitting across from me who was constantly grinding his teeth during the Classical Physics portion of the exam. All I remember about the oral exam was that we started at one end of the spectrum and worked the other way and covered pretty much every physical process along the way.

3. andy.s - August 26, 2006

Christ, who needs that?

Is that really necessary for physics or is it more of rite of passage thing?

4. gordonwatts - August 26, 2006

Dave — this is why I was so scared of the oral!!

Andy — there is a debate within the community about that! Some would favor eliminating the qual and some would like to keep the quals. I dont’ know how it will play out in the next few years.

5. andy.s - August 27, 2006

Well, it’s a rather odd fact about human psychology that the frats with the hardest hazing rituals have the most loyal members.

Maybe it works the same in physics.

6. gordonwatts - August 28, 2006

Andy — it wouldn’t suprise me! And we are loyal, sometimes beyond reason…

7. Aaron Denney. - August 28, 2006

The quals have been replaced with prelims here at UNM, with my class the first to take them. Supposed to cover undergrad physics knowledge, and serve some of the same role as quals, and also let students know what areas they were lacking in. They were quite broad, but I didn’t think they were that hard. Of course, there were only two (in my class) to pass all four sections. The classes above mine that hadn’t yet passed quals also got to take these, and I’m not at all sure what the breakdown there was. The next year’s test was apparently harder, but since I didn’t take it, I have no idea by how much.

8. Gordon Watts - August 29, 2006

Aron — how many people in your class? That pass rate — 2 out of say 30(??) — sounds a bit worse thant he # of peopel that pass our quals here at UW. If you don’t pass all four sections what happens? Do you have to take over the sections you missed? If so, how is it different from a qual (or is it just the material covered)? Do you know if they changed how they assigned grades when they switched from qual to prelim?

9. Aaron Denney. - September 2, 2006

Hmm. I think there were 17 people my year, in physics, and a few more in optics, which might have slightly different requirements. We need to pass each section, but once one passes a given section one need not retake it. There are five chances to take the exam, so if one can get a couple out of the way, focusing on the others should not be difficult.

We’re also allowed to bring in one 8.5×11 sheet of paper as a crib sheet for each section.

It is pretty much just the material covered, but it’s also supposed to be used as a diagnostic to help students select classes. I’m not yet aware of anyone being forced out of the program for not passing, but I suppose I could be overlooking someone.

Only two people passing on the very first test doesn’t seem that ridiculous, especially as it was the first one, and not so well calibrated. A better statistic would be after two sittings, I think.

10. Qual Results Out! « Life as a Physicist - September 27, 2006

[…] Well, a good portion of the newly-minted second years are out drinking right now in high spirits. The others, well, perhaps they are still drinking. The Qual results were made public! How did I know? I walked out of my office and one graduate student was yelling into the hallway (he’d passed every section). I got another email from a student titled, simply, “Wow!” (he’d also passed everything). To those of you that passed — fantastic! Enjoy being on top of the  mountain while it lasts. You’ll never again know this much physics in your life! To the rest, bummer. The nice thing about the UW qual is you don’t have to take all of it the next time; you need only repeat the sections you missed. So next time will be simpler, I hope! And, finally, to all, congratulations on making it through! […]

11. Helen - January 21, 2007

Having had to take a good few big exams in my life, and being prone to panicking at the very thought of another exam looming on the horizon, I decided recently to deal with this debilitating problem. One thing I always do prior to an exam is to take regular doses of ‘Rescue Remedy’ which is one of the Bach Flower Remedies available in most health shops. This has a wonderful calming effect on the nerves and manly people have found this to be of enormous help in any stressful or traumatic situation.

The other trick I now use is to listen frequently to a particularly helpful audio book called “The Secret Guide to Relaxing And Banishing Stress for Ever” by Maggie Lawrie, a top success coach and relaxation therapist. This audio book gives you simple techniques as well as taking you into a deep relaxation experience. You can get this here if you would like to sample it. http://www.audiobooksbonanza.com/Title.aspx?titleId=8923&srch=stress
I hope this will help you.

12. gordonwatts - January 23, 2007

Helen — thanks! There are about as many ways to deal with stress as there are people! 😉

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