Writing Quals

I thought pretty carefully about how I wanted my quals to go and what I thought I needed to make it through. Akin to reading for quals, writing quals takes a lot of perseverance. I mean, you need to know a lot, need to have thought a lot about the greater picture behind your readings, but by the time you get to the start of your quals, you’ll probably have a good feel for what the greater picture is from your readings. For example, I posted the following just before my quals:

Anyways, here’s a short list of things that I did in preparation for quals:

  • Prepped some food: in the week leading up to quals I made a few meals that I knew I could freeze and defrost quickly for a meal
  • Stocked my kitchen with essentials: I had multiple kinds of breakfast foods, snacks, fruits, teas, coffee, chocolate(!!!), and picked up some ice cream mid-quals
  • Fixed my sleep schedule: I normally sleep weird hours, but I managed to get myself on a sleep @ 1, wake @ 8:30 schedule in the days leading up to my quals
  • Prepped for sound situations: sometimes I need to work in silence, sometimes I need music I can tune out, sometimes I need 90s R&B pump up jams – in prep, I made some playlists, stocked up on ear plugs, brought home my stereo headphones, and informed my neighbors of what I was up to (they offered to try to keep the noise to a minimum over the weekend, which was really, really nice of them)
  • Cleaned my house: I don’t think I could express the extent to which I appreciated my decision to do this in the hour leading up to the start of quals. My desk was completely empty, my living room / office was clutter free, my dishes washed and put away, my floors vacuumed, laundry neatly tucked away, and bathroom cleaned. This might not apply to everyone, but the lack of clutter really made it easier for me to not get distracted during my exam. I was careful to clean up my dishes in my first 5 minute break after a meal / coffee, and straightened the sheets on my bed every morning.
  • Went to yoga: while this isn’t for everyone, I started going to yoga in the winter of 2015 because I realized that I was really stressed out by work, and the hour I spent wondering how I could be so inflexible / focusing on my breath really helped me learn to relax. I felt pretty zen going into quals, and given how stressed I felt about it 2 hours earlier, and how well I slept that night, it was well worth it.

I recommend picking a time to start writing that works well for you. I chose to start my exam at 9:30 pm on a Thursday. When I told my advisors this, they both looked at me like I was crazy and mentioned that I must have had a good reason for this, which I did:

  1. I know for a fact that I have two good work times per day: in the morning right after my coffee, and after dinner until about 11
  2. I didn’t want to have a morning deadline – you get exactly 24 hours, and if I asked to start at like 10 am, that means that the last 8 hours of my writing time would be when I’d normally be sleeping or, worse, my least good working hours (I can work then, but my work is slow, and less good than any other time of the day)
  3. I knew I wanted to go to yoga before I started, because I knew it would relax me, and I love the yoga & meditation class at Tru Yoga on thursday nights

Writing quals itself wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I got the questions at 9:30 pm, as I had requested, and was sent a set of questions from which I had to pick 6. I read through the list once, trying to think of which questions I knew I could answer, got to the end and (momentarily) panicked. It looked like a lot of work, and I really wasn’t sure that I felt certain enough in my knowledge to answer 6 of them. But fortunately I’m not one to be frozen with stress (I was once asked in an interview what I do when I get stressed, my answer was that I list the things I need to do, their priority, and then I deal with the smaller things – checking things off a list is a great motivator – until I get into a groove and the panic subsides. Fortunately, still true).

Another great choice in starting at 9:30 pm is that I picked 4/6 of my questions and immediately wrote out a single document outline for each topic. This outline document included the structure of my paper, and listed a bunch of citations and thoughts I had for the subsections. In some cases it even included an intro paragraph, and a lengthy bit of discussion for the end. Say what you will about late night working, but knowing it wouldn’t be the final draft, I felt free to write super informal thoughts. That night I went to bed feeling much better, and with a plan. Since I had 4 outlines, I figured that I could easily write 2-3 answers on my first full day (I was also using a browser countdown clock – 4 days is 96 hours, but I barely ever looked at it). That would then leave me with nearly 2 days to answer the two remaining questions. My first piece of advice for quals writing is set reasonable goals, and work to achieve them.

Before going to bed on the first night I actually wrote my submission email. I did this because there were some thoughts on my mind I wanted to write down (such as the fact that I was surprised in my own ability to focus and appreciation for the decisions I made leading up to my quals), but it also included some thoughts on how nice it felt to be supported by my lab mates, and the fact that I managed to have time to unwind (on Friday some lab mates swung by with some food and we went for ice cream, on Saturday between Q#3 and Q#4 I went to meet with lab mates for coffee, and started Sunday with a yoga class, and went for dinner with a friend). It also included a description of why I struggled to pick my last 2 questions: there were a few I had to pick from that I felt a little apprehensive about my knowledge, and then there were a few that I had to pick from that all posed different problems for me (one was easy but boring, one was interesting and I had posed myself but I didn’t think I had the answer and neither did the literature, and the last was the most challenging but the most interesting – in case you’re wondering, that’s the one I went with, and I couldn’t be happier). So, for a second piece of advice, start with what you know, and give yourself enough time to deal with the more difficult questions.

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Perhaps a little known fact, but I track a not insignificant amount of information about myself. Above you can see my sleep patterns for the duration of quals. The best nights are definitely the night I started, and after I was done. Unrelatedly, I also realized a few days in that my strategy of backing up my work by running Time Machine was not giving me enough comfort, so I started regularly committing drafts of my answers to a private repository on git. For peace of mind, I recommend coming up with a strategy that works for you.

Quals are definitely hard, but they don’t have to be the worst. Sure, I was stressed during quals, but it wasn’t because I didn’t think I could do it. Keturah had told me beforehand that I would be surprised with how much I knew, and she was right, I knew or could reconstruct all the things I needed to make it through. The hardest part was convincing myself to keep writing (one of my least favourite things) for 4 straight days.

I tried to deal with this by taking reasonable breaks when I knew I couldn’t write any more (this included 3 hours I took to eat dinner and browse the internet one day), on the third full day I recognized I was far enough ahead that I could afford to go to yoga to help me unwind, and because I’m extremely extroverted I took some time to see friends. So, the third piece of advice is, you don’t need to write non-stop for 4 days, recognize that you need breaks and take them. 

Things went as I planned. I finished 4 questions by the end of the second full day. I decided which question I would work on in the morning, and told myself that I needed to pick a final question the next day. I did. The last question took me the longest, in part because it was challenging and in part because I was so close to finishing, I just couldn’t take it any more. I had to restart it 3 times before I finally got into the swing of things, and just free wrote ideas (see: Sunday night in my sleep charts). I woke up Monday and finished it with my late-night notes. I really appreciated writing that question, though, as I felt like it tied together many things that I started to see come together throughout my quals. It was interesting and I had never really thought of my work in the greater picture of things so much. It really made me want to engage more in other areas of cognitive science. While it wasn’t the greatest of times, and I’ll agree with Dave, I don’t think I’ve ever been so crazy as in the month leading up to it, or in the days I was writing (I apologize if I was terrible company in that time), but it was definitely eye-opening and I’m glad I did it.

If I were to offer one last, super important piece of advice, it’s really to know yourself and know your limits. It sounds cheesy, but I’ve always been a bit introspective, and as previously mentioned I track a lot of information about myself, and I think it was to my benefit to know what would and would not work for me going into the exam. I knew how much coffee or tea I needed and when to stop, I knew I needed to take breaks and that I couldn’t keep listening to the same music, I knew I needed to get out of the house and that I needed the yoga to unwind, and I knew when I was done that I had done some good work. Here’s hoping my committee feels the same.