“PREP-TO Qualify” – Tips for Qualification/ Re-class examination


Ma was elated as he looked at the temple from a distance.

As he came close, the edges of the stone stairs welcomed him back into his familiar world.

“These stones are surprisingly uniform”, thought Ma as he took the steps back into the temple.

“Am I learning anything in these journeys?”

Ah! Here is the world I learn a lot from! thought Ma

“What did you learn in this trip?” asked the Zen Master.

Ma looked puzzled and couldn’t hide his frustrations.

“Why do I have to do this?”

“Why do you make me do it every year?”

“You make me travel to my village. I walk the same road, cross the same fields and valleys. I travel the same bridges every year. I anticipate change and gape at even the subtle ones. Without a thought I wave at the children who happily cross by.

Familiarity is breeding boredom, so I am lost in my thoughts! I start to think what would have changed in my village, who would have ceased to dream or even worst whom I know would have ceased to breathe. This is a journey I forebode every year and return back thinking about all this in reverse all over again.”

“What do you expect me to learn? Don’t I learn what I should here in this sacred temple?” blurted out Ma

The journey to Qualify

Do we not learn what we should by doing research? Don’t we all learn in the space between lab and desk? Why should we have to go through this so called “Qualification or reclassification” in order to get a PhD? Didn’t we get admission through selection? Why is that not enough to qualify?

As we prepare for our qualification exam, probably these are some of the question that go through (most of) our minds.

Well, everyone of us know the answer to these questions if we give into the process. I guess, it is within each individual to perceive the potential as we see fit!

Qualification exam is a journey, a passage that we take in the process of getting a PhD. As we prepare to take this exam, the preparation itself becomes a journey and the exam is an experience that aims to mold us as “independent researchers”. “The more we are prepared for this journey the better and richer our experience”.

This article aims to be an aid/tool in this preparation process. It is more general and comes out of my experience. I would urge you to go through this tool and take away things that may resonate with you. Take things that you think may help you. Leave the others. Your journey is unique and if this blog helps, it has met its purpose.

I would like to encompass the complete preparation as

“PREP TO Qualify”

P-R-E-P (Proposal, Review, Examiners, Practice)


Proposal is an important document (to describe the project) to the examiners and a lot will depend on its preparation. Nothing new, I know! but it is important to keep in mind as we prepare the document, that this document will give away the plan for the next couple of years and how well you are prepared for the journey.

It is no secret, but a gentle reminder that, “a well defined project will define your qualifying exam”.

  1. Follow instructions:
    Stick to rules, prepare as per required format, do not go overboard.
  1. Preliminary data helps, definitely helps!!
  2. Ask yourself! Does the proposal have the potential to say a story? A story is better received!
  3. Take care in designing the experiments. Know the time it will take to perform and complete the experiments. It is important!
  4. Take the comments from committee members seriously as you prepare the document.


Review the “area of research” and the subject background. It is what you are tested on! It is important to prepare well by reviewing the material at hand.

  1. Start early to prepare
  2. “Plan your preparation”. Have a strategy to cover extensively the research area and subject background.
  3. Take time to read previous work done in the lab (related and unrelated)
  4. Give enough time for subject background (specialization area)
  5. Cover recent development in the field of research.
  6. Don’t forget to learn about the recent developments in experimental techniques pertaining to the field


  1. Know your examiners.
  2. Learn about their research and techniques in their lab
  3. If they take any courses in the area of your research. Cover the bases
  4. Their focus on research (strengths) and interests.

It is easy to ignore this, but don’t.


  1. Give your proposal to peers in the lab. Get their feedback. A good peer will not be judgmental. It is better to “fine tune” your proposal before submitting to the examiners. It never hurts in getting some advice.
  2. Welcome questions from your peers from the lab or outside. Field their questions from the subject and project. It will definitely help on the day of exam.
  3. Practice fielding hypothetical questions, including experimental design ones!
  4. Practice your presentation talk in advance.
  5. Revisit your plan at regular intervals and re-strategize your preparation accordingly.

With PREP under control, it is before the exam and on the day that you have “T-O” (Taking control, On that day) qualify.

Taking Control:

  1. Reduce your stress before your exam
  2. Plan for the day
  3. Practice your talk prior and be comfortable with the slides.
  4. Keep it simple. Remember, the examiners have already read the proposal. So go easy with the presentation.
  5. Remember to relax. Read non subject articles or books.

On the day:

  1. Eat well on the day of exam.
  2. Dress comfortably and know that you are prepared and planned for this day.
  3. Keep a bottle of water during your exam.
  4. Take time (if you need) to answer the questions.
  5. Remember, it is alright to say “I don’t know”. It is better to say “I don’t know” than half guess the answer, because it will avoid further questions from that half guess.
  6. Be prepared to draw figures and be willing to use the chalk board to explain (You may be made to draw on purpose!).
  7. It may be hard, but try to enjoy the process of the exam. After all, you are the expert fielding the questions!

All the best to all who PREP-TO Qualify!


After hearing patiently Ma’s frustration, the Zen Master turned back to retire to his room.

“Don’t you want to know what I learnt?” asked Ma

“I have!” said the Master

-Author: Martin P. Alphonse

Integrative learning at the lab bench: An approach with Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning


It was supposed to be that moment of Zen. It usually is never a problem for Ma. But today was different!

With his eyes closed and legs crossed, he started to wander in his thoughts.

“Why is this difficult? I am following what I am used to everyday! ”Why is my meditation not fruitful?”

Despondency at the bench:

“The student” is a pivotal cog in the wheel of basic science research. The inevitable pressure of publication and the “result oriented approach” of many principal investigators percolates to their students at the bench. This ever increasing pressure of performance is perhaps one of the many reasons that underpins the increasing despondency for students in basic research. It is here (at the bench) that the students have to balance the ropes of learning and produce publishable results within a limited time. This pressure creates an imbalance for many budding research aspiring students. At the bench, this breach distances the students from learning the skills for a given experiment; Instead, it elbows them to narrowly execute the protocol at hand. Following a protocol without understanding an experiment has far reaching repercussions than mere unproductivity. It tramples on the students learning quotient and converts them into result pursuing engines. So when an experiment fails, the disconnect is further intensified creating an overall negative effect towards basic research. As a result, many students even those with keen aptitude to scientific research get disoriented and lost. Often, it takes valuable time to get back on track.

Can this issue be addressed from the student’s plane? Can students bridge the distance between learning and “result oriented approach” at the bench?

Integrative learning at the lab bench: An approach with Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning is an attempt to answer these questions by taking a leaf from the pedagogical tree. It is an effort seeking to restore a balance at the bench from a student’s learning perspective.

Taxonomy of learning:

Pedagogically, taxonomy of learning serves as a pointer for designing courses. In higher education, depending on the year of study, level of understanding, strength of the students and course’s objectives, taxonomy of learning provides a framework for course designers. One of the well established taxonomy of learning is “Bloom’s taxonomy or Revised Bloom’s taxonomy”. It follows a hierarchical pyramid structure. Starting at the lower end is Knowledge, moving higher up through Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.

Instead of a hierarchical system, L. Dee Fink proposed a taxonomy of significant learning that has an integrative approach for learning.

I assume from a student’s perspective; this integrative approach may fit well for learning at the bench.

Significant learning at the lab bench:

Taxonomy of Significant Learning (Adapted from Fink, 2003)

I reason that protocols are guidelines that depend on human skills and intervention for its effective execution at the bench. The student’s challenge is to develop the skills and intervention techniques. With that outlook, I attempt to impart Fink’s taxonomy in a lab setting, and the following topics are integrative in nature.

Foundational knowledge:

Prior to starting anything at the bench, learning the rationale and the principle of the experiment is not only important but it forms the foundational knowledge. It enhances the understanding of the protocol and further aids in remembering key steps in the experiment.


Remembering the key steps improves the skill that is required to perform the experiment. As we apply the skill in performing the experiment, thinking critically and adapting practically enhances intervention techniques that is key to the success of the given experiment.


Upon completion of the experiment, most of the time we tend to focus on the results. We try to analyze the data and miss some of the important connections that are critical for developing intervention skills. Making connections with the results and the experimental question, its rationale and experimental setup are key aspects of integrative learning at the bench. Importantly, one has to remember that results obtained from one experiment (either positive or negative) is a subset of information that must be connected with its collective sets of data that fits within the larger picture of the project. This integrative learning at the bench is an essential component that aids us in becoming self directed learners. Perhaps this is the most significant learning step at the bench! because as we learn to fit results in the larger picture, we get new direction. If need arises, it helps in designing new experiments to change course or move forward with the project.

Human dimension:

One of the interesting taxonomy of Fink’s significant learning model that differentiates from others, is the human dimension. At bench, the way we perform the experiment provides a window to learn about ourselves and others. For example, our interest in performing the experiment, our commitment to the procedure and most importantly the attitude and perseverance upon failures are few characters of the person that gets personified in this exercise. In bearing a reflective experience and a positive approach to the experiment, we learn about our self and others!


Fink adds caring in the taxonomy to include new values and interests that we could develop in the process of learning. At the bench, it could be interests developed in the process of performing an experiment or even after completion that stems from our integrative connections. In this process we develop new interests and take care to learn more, it could be a new technique or a new concept or altogether a new area of study. With interest and care we don’t get intimidated by the task at hand. Essentially, one experiment will lead to another. If we care enough about our experiments, it will never fail to lead us to new paths!

Learning how to learn (LHTL):

LHTL is the ultimate goal for this whole exercise. In this process, the objective is to become self directed learners. At the bench, self directed learning enriches the experience of performing experiments. If we enjoy the experience, it brings us back to the bench with new vigor and enthusiasm either for a failed or a new experiment.  In essence, LHTL trains our perseverance!  that will sustain us in basic science research for long. As we pursue our goals, LHTL will help us to direct and design future experiments within the scope of our project and beyond.

Conscious practice of integrative approach at the bench has the potential to effectively bridge the gap between a student’s learning quotient and productivity. Most importantly, principal investigators should take cognizance and try to create a sustaining environment that encourages and teaches integrative learning at the bench.

Perhaps in the process it will bring down the disconnect and the despondency at the bench. Perhaps students with an aptitude to scientific research will be encouraged to sustain longer in basic research.


The Zen Master came close to Ma and whispered

“Like life, it is a balance. Find your balance!”

Slowly Ma opened his eyes.

Disturbed yet not disrupted, he closed his eyes again. And after few deep breaths, there it was. The moment he was waiting for. The moment of Zen!

Later that day, Curiosity pushed Ma to the Zen Master

How did you find it? he asked

“Your eyes showed!” said the Zen Master

“But, it is not possible! It was closed, wasn’t it? inquired Ma

“Your eyes were closed, but your anxious eyeballs were not!” said the master.


  1. Creating significant learning experiences (Revised and updated) – L. Dee Fink