Last week I turned a corner in my graduate schooling. The Ocean Sciences Department structures the hoops that a student must jump through as follows: In your first year you take four required courses on various aspects of oceanography, chemical, physical, geological and biological. Then, at the beginning of your second year, a bunch of really smart people get together in a small room and grill you on all of the things that you feel, vaguely, like you've heard before but, after a whole summer, you just can't seem to dredge up. As far as I can tell, nobody ever truly fails (like get kicked out of school fails). But people are made to re-take classes, which is apparently threat enough to make this an incredibly anxiety-provoking exam for most students. I've spoken with students who have left campus and essentially taken a study retreat for a few weeks before the exam. One fellow student re-wrote and summarized, BY HAND, her entire collection of notes from all four classes. TWICE. As has been a pattern in this academic adventure, I felt much like Lane Meyer in the classic class scene from Better Off Dead, peeling last year's notes out of my back pocket, pulling the pieces of old gum from between the pages and trying to make sense of my nearly unintelligible scribbles.
In retrospect, the experience was worthy of the attention paid to it by my fellow students. The smart people asked me questions, I did a lot of staring blankly at them, and they would lead me on with little hints until eventually I crafted an answer. Afterwards, I felt like I had spent two hours being metaphorically kicked in the head by some really smart people. But in the end I passed. It wasn't elegant, and I certainly didn't impress anyone, but according to my peers, passing is all that matters.
Now I get to start thinking about this spring's hoop - the qualifying exam. This is where you present your research plans, again in front of a room of really smart people. This time I am going to where a helmet.