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  • Writer's picturetaylor


Updated: Nov 11, 2019

I'M BACK. I had my nose buried in my notes so long, I almost forgot what my blog looked like. Phew, it has been a month, and I've missed writing, I've missed getting creative, I've missed interacting with you all. If you didn't notice, I took a hiatus from posting and Instagram. This post is all about the what/why I took time off.

The short answer: to study.

The longer answer: A BIG EXAM. After working full-time before heading back to school, I found that studying is an all-or-nothing activity for me. I'm usually good at juggling responsibilities, but this past month was one of those times where multitasking wasn't really an option. I needed to do an energy shift, to focus all of my efforts into re-absorbing information that fell out of my head the day after every exam.

*This is my experience as a member of the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Not every field, school, or program is the same.*


Studying for what, you ask?

My Graduate Board Oral Exam (GBO), more commonly referred to as "Qualifying Exam", "Quals", or "Orals". I tried to update you all on what I was actually doing when I did post to Instagram, but the exam is a hard concept to explain fully on an Instagram story. I also would've felt guilty taking 30 minutes to explain it when I had a full, 4in binder worth of notes to study.

IMPORTANT: Passing your Qualifying Exam is required to remain in the program and a benchmark in a PhD journey. It is also the exam that marks the distinction between a PhD Student and a PhD Candidate.

What is it?

Your Qualifying Exam comes at the end of your required coursework, usually between 2nd and 3rd year of your PhD depending on the school and the program. The exam is designed to test the limits of your knowledge and ability to reason through your coursework, scientific logic, and your thesis proposal.

How do you prepare?

To prepare for the exam, I compiled a 4in binder of condensed notes from all lectures of my classes. I rewatched lectures that were confusing or those I simply forgot about. I worked with a small group of my classmates. We have studied together in the past and work well together. Finding friends with the patience to explain concepts when you're feeling lost is key. We reviewed topics, made connections between classes, and asked each other questions to get comfortable answering random questions on the fly with only a whiteboard to explain our answers.

Eligible coursework to be covered: Molecular Biology and Genomics, Genetics, Cell Structures and Dynamics, Cellular Pathways, and Immunology.

How does it work?

The exam is an oral exam (hence why one of the exam nicknames is 'Orals'), but you can use a white board for assistance in drawing/explaining concepts. It lasts ~1.5h. You are questioned and assessed by 5 faculty members.

Two weeks before the exam, you 1) submit a research proposal to your committee (mine was 10 pages with citations) 2) find out the 7 potential faculty members on your committee.

On exam day, you begin by giving a 5-10min talk on your proposed thesis project. The faculty are allowed to ask questions regarding your proposed project - methods, reasoning, curiosities, etc. Upon finishing your talk and fielding questions about your project, each faculty member has ~10min to ask you miscellaneous questions.

In theory, these questions should be within the scope of your coursework and/or related to your project/field of study. The lines of questioning are somewhat random and tend to start off very broad with narrowing focus. The trick is knowing how to answer a question. Once you begin to answer a question, any information brought up to answer that question can be subjected to further questioning. This process continues until the faculty members can get you to say "I don't know", hence pushing you to the limit of your knowledge.

It's always a good tactic to speculate. I used this one frequently during my exam.

"I don't know for sure, but based upon my knowledge, I would guess..." - Me, 4x during my exam

The ability to reason is an important quality in a scientist. If you don't KNOW something, you should let the faculty see your ability to REASON an answer. This was actually one of the qualities I got complemented on at the end of my exam -- taking time to think and reason through a question. Plus, it kills time on clock.

Time's Up. Now what?

When the chair (oldest faculty member) of your committee calls 'TIME' on the exam, you are asked to step out of the exam room. In our program, the committee discusses your performance and determines if you've unconditionally passed, conditionally passed, or failed.

How did you do??

When I saw the door re-open after ~45sec of deliberation, I was ecstatic. I was pretty sure that meant I passed. My chair came welcomed me back in with a handshake and a "Congratulations! Thanks for making our job easy!"

Wooo, you can call me a PhD Candidate!!

Most of my questions were related to my project or could be tied back to my project. I'm not sure if that's normal, but my familiarity with my project made me more comfortable with the questions being asked of me. In some instances, the faculty had to 'lead' me to an answer and/or I had a hard time understanding what they were asking of me. Nonetheless, I took my time to clarify, think, answer. If I had to say "I don't know", I followed up their correct answer with reasoning as "ah, yeah that makes sense..." explaining why that is the correct answer so they knew I understood the reasoning even if I couldn't come up with a certain word/term.

How do you feel??

I didn't process it at first, and I still don't know if I have. It's a surreal feeling to say that I've passed an exam that was a constant source of stress for over a month. To pass the exam that made me question my abilities, intelligence. Honestly, I'm still struggling to OWN and ACCEPT that I passed. My immediate reaction was to default to the Imposter Syndrome justifications of 'They could've asked harder questions' or 'They passed me because they had better things to do.'

These feelings are compounded by unfamiliarity. I am a first generation college student, and the first in my extended family to pursue a professional degree. My mom and dad don't understand much about what I'm doing -- but they are proud of me nonetheless. Sometimes I wish I saw myself through their eyes. Immersed in academia for the majority of my adulthood, my gaze continually looks up to the summit instead of enjoying the view from one of my many overlooks. Sigh, I'm working on it.

If you're looking for more posts about my PhD journey, read my posts on 6 Month U-PhD-ate and why I chose to pursue a PhD. Be sure you're following along with my style, science, and social adventures over on Instagram.

Until next time,



Kristi Stevens
Kristi Stevens

Holy smokes that test sounds extremely intense! Congratulations on a huge accomplishment and way to realize what you needed to do to succeed and actually do it!


Colleen Shenk
Colleen Shenk

Congratulations Taylor! What an exciting accomplishment. You should be beyond proud of yourself! And I’m sure that’s a ton of weight off your shoulders.


Vanessa Ulrich

So happy for you Taylor!! This is a truly amazing accomplishment. And I love what you are doing with your platform to show women can have brains, looks, and style - and rock them all simultaneously 💜


Laleh Aslani
Laleh Aslani

Congratulations Taylor!! I'm so so so proud of you!!!

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