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Failing My Ph.D. Qualifier

Just the first time

When I went to grad school, I didn’t realize they would have an exam to qualify you to do a Ph.D. I thought getting into the program would have been enough. The trouble for me was that I was already burned out, and even though I put forth my best effort, I did not pass the first time.

This is a story of success after failure

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The Qualifier

When I arrived at Notre Dame, the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department had recently replaced their qualifier exam with a different setup. Previously their exam consisted of three exam parts on operating systems, algorithms, and computer architecture. All three of those classes are part of the core curriculums so they decided you had to get a cumulative GPA of 3.5 in those three classes to qualify for the Ph.D. program. So A-, A-, and B+ was the lowest you could go. If you got a B, you needed an A to rebalance.

The difficulty for me is that I came from an electrical engineering background, and I had never taken a computer science course. The only programming course I ever took was for engineers taught by a civil engineer, where we didn’t learn much. My programming experience was based on being self-taught to use Matlab, which I used for the last two years before graduate school for all of my projects and my senior design project.

Additionally, because my prior experience with skipping prerequisites, I did not bother to take the undergraduate level classes for these core curriculum classes. I didn’t realize that a good chunk of these classes was memorization. I was used to classes that were math-based, and I was really good at that type of problem-solving.

The Cushing Engineering Building

Burn Out

I just completed my bachelors and Masters in four years, and I had taken 102 credit hours in the past two years. I had just come off of six straight semesters of either full load or more than a full load and some paying jobs. With only a four day break between the end of that program and the start of this new program, I was primed to crash and burn.

If grad school isn’t challenging, then it isn’t doing its job

.On further reflection, I think of burning out during grad school as part of the grad school process. I think grad school is supposed to push you to the breaking point. If grad school isn’t challenging, then it isn’t doing its job. The point of grad school is not to have great publications or get a great job afterwards. The purpose of grad school is the train you to do research, and if that purpose succeeds then the end result will be publications and jobs.

I also think burning out was important for me because I had so much success at my previous school, and it was not difficult for me to accomplish great things. My natural abilities plus showing up to class and doing homework proved to be enough. This does not hold true post-graduation though; I had to evolve.

Round One: Fight

The first class of the qualifier was Graduate Operating Systems. The class involved reading exciting papers like MULTIX and the Duality of Memory and Communication. However, I’m not so good at reading papers on topics I’m not interested in. I can be super focused for areas of my choosing, but outside of that, there is a lot of difficult.

Grade: B, or just barely passing for Grad School.

That put a lot of pressure on me for the spring semester. I had Graduate Computer Architecture and Graduate Algorithms. I thought I would have done better in the architecture class considering I had taken it as an electrical engineering course, but alas, the material was dry and not pertaining to computer vision.

Grade: B+

For the algorithms course, the professor told me I should drop. People didn’t take the class without the prerequisite. I had taken 14 classes without the prerequisites before, so it wasn’t anything new to me. The material was so much fun though!

The class was all about problem solving the most efficient way, and I was so enthralled, so I didn’t do so bad. I’m pretty sure I surprised the professor.

Grade: A-

Qualifier Result: FAILED!

Failing was soul crushing as I had dreamed of getting a PhD for so many years because my father also has a PhD. I knew I could retake the classes, and I felt embarrassed and a failure if I could not make it even though I was outside of my comfort zone.

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Try Harder

I finally had a break during the summer, doing research only. I was able to regroup, and while I was disappointed about the qualifier, I finally got out of feeling burned out. I also ate the extra helping of humble pie and resolved to pass my qualifier. All I had to do was get an A- in the Operating System class.

I read each paper thoroughly, and for each one, I made a list of potential questions. Some were from prior exams the year before. I ended up with about 100 questions for the mid-term and 100 for the final.

I went over that question list everyday, writing out the answers every time. I went swimming two or three times a week, and while I was doing laps, I got into the habit of mentally reviewing the questions in my head. It became a regular list of things I was mulling over.

I wasn’t aiming for just a pass; I wanted an A

I got an A on the mid-term, and I prepared the class project. My previous project wasn’t so great, but I poured myself in a mess of a file system (called MessFS). I partnered with someone, and we wrote a good paper. Combining that with a good presentation, I was on-track for an A.

For the final exam, I was over-confident, and I didn’t check over my answers enough. I got a B on the exam, but all my other grades were so high that I ended up with the A.

Grade: A

Qualifier Result: PASSED!

I was filled with relief and joy even though the work had just started.

The End of Classes

After that, I didn’t have anymore required courses, and I was in the scarier realm of trying to become a Ph.D. Candidate. However, I was successful, and I’m grateful to have failed the qualifier the first time. I built a ton of character especially in the realm of being willing to adapt.

A Ph.D. without failure is a Ph.D. without learning.

My Ph.D. defined my career, not so much in what field I am in, but in terms of my work character. I’m still in the general field, and I’ve worked a lot in face recognition, but more importantly, I developed a deep willingness to trudge forward in the face of failure. This willingness can be attributed, in part, to failing my Ph.D. examine the first time.

So I hope you too have failed, and I hope you have recognized your failure as an opportunity for future success because for each success, there are many failures.

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