A few weeks ago, on January 25th 2016, I passed my qualifying exams! This means that I am now qualified to write my thesis and get my PhD. Passing quals involved a lot of reading; during January I was reading pretty much 5 papers per day:
Different people prepare for quals in different ways. One of my labmates prepared by writing hand-written notes in many small notebooks and then scanning them. Another labmate made a handful of slides per paper. For me, I decided to write blog posts on each paper. This approach worked well for me because it forced me to digest each paper by writing a summary, and then to critically think about each paper by writing a “takeaways” section. For some of the papers, I even wrote a quick demo in the Jupyter notebook to help me understand the model or algorithm better.
Quals was a really transformative experience for me. I got a ton out of reading all the papers on my reading lists even if it did mean I did nothing else for a month! During the course of preparing for quals I came up with several concrete project ideas that I’m really excited to implement, and I feel like I have a much deeper and nuanced understanding of the research areas that I’m interested in (i.e., mental simulation and how it relates to the rest of cognition and to algorithms in computer science and artificial intelligence).
If there are any other grad students reading this in the future, my advice is to really try to treat quals as an experience for you. It is not just a requirement you need to fulfill, but an opportunity for you to read deeply about the topics you are interested in. Reading so many papers in such a short amount of time will allow you to make connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t, simply because you will remember more details when there has only been a few hours in between reading two papers rather than a few days or weeks! I won’t lie: it is really tough to find the time to prepare for quals. I am very guilty of procrastinating on my own quals; students in my program are supposed to take them at the end of their 2nd year or 3rd year at the latest, but I am in my 4th year! However, I think the experience is really worth it, and I do wish that I had just bitten the bullet and gotten mine done sooner.
Next up: actually writing my thesis!