Sugar Daddy: Do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect $200

Mar 27, 2019
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Posted on behalf of Sugar Daddy

The qualifying exam.

If there is ever a moment in graduate school that usually receives about 100 times more preparation and 100,000 times more anxiety than necessary, it is the qualifying exam. For those of you who are not in grad school (or those that have been through it and somehow, shockingly, blocked the thing from your memory), here’s a primer. Of course, it depends on the school, but the basic scenario is that as a second- or third-year student, you have to stand up in front of three or four professors and defend your research. Or so you think. It actually, I think, usually goes something more like this:

Student: “I’ve been interested in studying the mechanistic details of how [some enzyme that is inexplicably fascinating to you, your advisor, and maybe four other people on the face of the earth] is involved in the biosynthesis of [some natural product that sounds like a really nasty infection and always looks misspelled]. The locus for the gene was identified in—”

Professor 1: “Draw the structure of cytosine.”

Student: [Starts to draw structure of cytosine correctly]

Professor 2: [Interrupting] “Which is higher, the intracellular or extracellular concentrations of potassium in the central nervous system?”

Student: [Begins to answer, but stumbles]

Professor 2: “Why don’t you draw a neuron. What is the action potential? How do ion channels function in its propagation? What different types of ion channels exist? Which ions are the principal players, and what are their functions? What structural information exists on ion channels and what is the functional significance of the structural studies? What are the major classes of ion channel-blocking compounds? What are their relative affinities for different classes of ion channels?”

Student: “The action potential is—”

Professor 3: “Draw the mechanism for the Horner-Wadsworth-Emmons reaction.”

And so it goes… I guess what I can say is that you don’t really know what the professors will ask, and they will probably form an opinion of your ability in the first five minutes (if they hadn’t already by reading or hearing what your advisor had to say about you prior to your exam). So much for a blind audition…

Today, we will conclude with a haiku, in the poetic style that seems to be all the rage on the Sceptical Chymist:

Study as you wish

but predict the questions you

won’t. Good luck, sucker!


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