“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

Looking at a research article through the lens of the last author!


It was the time of the day to light the candles for prayer. Ma’s trained hands arranged the votive with usual nonchalance. As he was immersed in his mission, he came near the bright red one that he had a soft spot for.

Looking at it, he mused on

“How painstakingly I had scrapped you from bits and pieces in and around this temple. Melted you to shape and here you are! I have crafted and created you.”

As he turned

“Wonderful work” said Zen Master looking over the shoulders of Ma.

He looked at the arrangement of the candles. With a warm smile the Zen Master lit all of them, including the bright red one.

As the light threw away the surrounding darkness, the bright red candle glowed with radiance.

Invited by its beauty, Ma pondered

“Even though I had created, the flame does bring it to life!”

The first and the last:

lens of the last author“Publication is the flame that brings a research work to life!” It is an indispensable ingredient in research. From graduate students to senior research scientists, publication is conventional. When a body of research work is set to publish, the authors take place within the gamut of their contributions. The first author(s) takes away the credit for the work, publication and citations in literature. Rightly so! for the author labors and toils with the research question on bench or at the bedside. Controlled experiments in the lab and or surveys, data collection, analysis and interpretations become the author’s vision and mission for many a year. Often overcoming fear, anxiety and failures; the first author yearns to find joy and enthusiasm until a logical conclusion is established. And in many cases, that logical conclusion is a publication.

Seasoned minds with trained eyes do not fail to recognize an all important author who comes along the list at the end, “The last author”. The content of research, expertise, funding are key contributions the author provides and in many cases even the research question is designed by the last author. For these obvious reasons, the author’s imprint in the publication of the research work is indelible. Indeed! The last author does light the flame that brings the research work to life.

Finding the perspective

We pick up a research article for various reasons (that are relevant to our work or otherwise). General interests, breakthrough research articles, titles or for journal club presentations, the list could be endless. In any given situation, it is important to look through the lens of the last author to get a perspective of the article in hand.

This will serve us two main purpose:

  1. Understanding the complete story behind the research article.
  2. Learning and applying the ideas and concepts to our own work.
Conception and theory (body of research):

Theoretical concepts, experimental approach and contribution towards existing body of literature build on to contrast a seminal work from others. Foundation of ideas and the approach taken by authors to answer a research question becomes vital. To understand the conception of ideas, it becomes critical to study the last author’s previous publications. Many would argue that it is unnecessary, as the article we read provides the necessary background and discuss the implication of the research work. I would have to disagree, because seldom it furnishes the complete picture. When publishing their work the authors are limited by space and style. Therefore, summarizing the complete body of research leading to the conception of ideas are often ignored and more focus is given to explaining the results. Thus, research on the previous publications by the last author in essence will shed light into the rationale and objectives a priori of the work done.

Cohorts and experimental design:

In objective, the peer review process weighs the strength of the data. Furthermore, the last author’s previous publication and collaborations will provide insights to assess the strengths of the experimental design and the cohorts involved (in case of human studies) in the study. This information will aid in the characterization of the study and may provide foresight in understanding the authors subsequent experimental designs.

Funding sources and future directions:

One of the advantages of knowing the funding source is that it can trace us back to the outline of the grant. It can provide information on the projects and concepts the last author is working on and what to expect in the future.

Learning about the content of the research is why we read an scientific article. However, for an unabridged understanding of the article one should find the content’s theory, conception of the idea, experimental design and literature argument. These are key perspectives that could be acquired through the lens of the last author. These perspectives will help us in our own field of research.


It was the next day and the time for prayer was upon them.

After arranging the candles Ma came near the bright red one, with little thought he lit the candle saying

“Let me bring you to life today!”

Yet again the radiance filled the room and Ma was pleased.

As Zen Master entered the prayer hall he saw the candles lit. He smiled at Ma and signaled him to wait.

He disappeared into a small room across the hall and after a few minutes returned with verve.

He came close to the bright red one and covered the candle with a glass chimney and raised the candle to the pedestal above. Ma and Zen Master saw the bright red one’s radiance grow even more and witnessed the new glow filling the entire room.

Both were immersed in the aura of the bright red one. And after a few seconds, collecting his thoughts Zen Master broke the silence and remarked

“It is full of life”