I failed my qualifying exam

My exam was scheduled for twelve noon. I remember first stopping by my girlfriend’s apartment before then going to my windowless basement lab to run through the presentation one last time. I was unshaven and dressed like a typical PhD student: dirty sneakers, blue jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt. Ultimately, the effort I had put into my grooming and attire would reflect the effort I had put into preparing for this exam.

I had been a PhD candidate in physics for just under two years. Now it was time for the university to decide whether I was worthy of continuing on this path toward my PhD in quantum optics. This would be determined by the result of my qualifying exam — or what we all called The Qualifier. It sounds like some sort of sick initiation, and for all intents and purposes it might as well be. It’s a two-hour assessment that consists of a research presentation followed by intense questioning from a committee of professors. It’s the worst thing any PhD student has to go through. Some don’t come out alive. (Ok, everyone probably has, but not everyone is always sure they’re going to.)

When my girlfriend opened the door to greet me, she looked surprised. The first thing she said was in question of my appearance: “Is that what you’re going to wear?” I pretended her inquiry didn’t bother me and said, “Yes.” She told me I should go home to change. And shave.

Hearing that from her hurt, but she’s always right – I know that now. So I took her advice: I cycled back home, shaved and changed into black dress pants and dress shoes, a white shirt and a black skinny tie. At the time, I didn’t know how bad my style was. I looked like a banquet server who had lost his matching black vest. But feeling instead like a million bucks, I hopped back on my rusted bicycle and made my way to the lab.

The lab was a shared space, and everyone else was there when I arrived: other PhD students, masters students, and a couple exchange students from Germany. Someone asked if I felt prepared. I said yes, but I knew I wasn’t.

One week prior to this day, I did a mock run of my presentation for the two senior-most PhD students in my program. They tore me apart. It seems I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize I was being defensive by not willingly accepting their feedback, and so Howard gave me a life lesson on how to take criticism with humility. I wasn’t interested in his words of wisdom. But he was right — the week before my qualifying exam, I was not prepared. And now, just hours before the exam, I still was not ready.

I arrived at boardroom 222A ten minutes before noon to hook up my laptop and to make sure all of the tech worked. As I stood at the front of the room gently bouncing up and down to shake off the nerves, two of the professors on my committee strolled in. They were talking about their research and acknowledged me with a quick glance and head nod as they continued their conversation. Antisocial physicists, I thought to myself. They took their seats at the big mahogany table, where I had sat for weekly team meetings over the past two years. Two other committee members arrived, followed by my supervisor, Nils, who sat in the chair closest to me. Nils and I made eye contact. He grabbed at his neck so as to mimic holding the knot of the tie he was not wearing, adjusted it and nodded his head. That was his way of complimenting my outfit. I smiled.

The conversation diminished and Nils kicked things off. I gave my presentation, and as I went on, I felt like an imposter sharing my research-to-date. I had no idea how bad this feeling would get within the hour. Finished with the presentation, the real exam began: relentless, rapid-fire questioning by the superintelligent committee.

One after the other the physicists grilled me. I could tell it wasn’t going great, but I was sure I was answering most of their questions correctly. Then everything changed – one question came to which I didn’t know the answer. Being asked to work through the problem using equations on the blackboard, I started, but quickly realized I couldn’t do it. I was asked to take a step back in the process and demonstrate some esoteric quantum mechanical proof; I couldn’t do that either. More questions came, and I realized that now I was no longer answering the majority of the questions correctly – the process became increasingly difficult, and my lack of preparation was obvious. Sweating and trembling before the committee, I thought I was going to cry. Luckily I kept it together. But in my mind, they had realized I was a fraud.

Nils thanked me for my work and asked me to step outside so the committee could deliberate — and by deliberate, I was sure he meant they were going to laugh at just how poorly I performed. So I stepped into the hall and stood back against the cold concrete wall. I thought to myself, “What was all that for? Do I really want this PhD? Am I giving up when things are getting tough? What am I going to do with this PhD anyway? There are so many smart people in this program – do I have what it takes to find a great job in the field? Am I even smart enough to finish the program?” Whatever the answers to those questions, the reason I hadn’t prepared was because I didn’t care anymore. I had given up.

And the funny thing is that, in that moment, I remembered a question I was asked by my ninth grade gym teacher when I was 15 years old. He went around the class asking what everyone wanted to be when she or he grew up. I said I wanted to be a professor. I had only a vague idea of what that meant, but I ran with it. And really, did the people who said they wanted to be doctors or engineers or professional hockey players know what that all meant? I don’t think they did.

And now, eight years later, I had to rethink that question as I stood alone in the cold, dark hallway. The truth was that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I only ever wanted to be a professor because it sounded prestigious. Professors were smart; they had status. That’s really what I wanted.

The other funny thing was that I knew I was supposed to be good at this. I had crushed my undergrad in physics and had given oral presentations followed by gruelling questioning many times. In one instance I was given the grade of 100% in an advanced optics class for my work on gravitational waves. I had won the Best Student Research Talk award at a national undergraduate physics conference just two years prior for my work on superconductivity. That research even led to two publications. The qualifying exam wasn’t so different; I knew what was needed to succeed. But on this day, my performance was pathetic.

The committee was ready to tell me the result: I had failed. Not so bad that I would be kicked out of the program, but bad enough that they thought I needed to brush up and do it all over again in two months. On top of that, I had to submit a hand-written report in six weeks to prove that I understood the material. If after a second attempt I couldn’t pass, then I would be forced to leave the program.

Nils and I went back to his office. He pulled out the most well respected textbook on the subject, one that I had been studying from for the past several months. He and the other professors decided there were a few specific topics I needed to know better, so he spent the time identifying the chapters I should work on. I visualized punching him in the nose, but instead of doing that I pretended to care about what he was saying by taking notes on the sections he told me to study. Then he assured me it wouldn’t be so bad, and that I could ask him for help anytime.

And that was it. I gathered my notes and left his office, walking back through the maze of concrete hallways to the lab where everyone was waiting to hear my result. I knew there was beer waiting in the mini-fridge, cooled and ready to drink in celebration of my success.

I thought about walking off of campus and never coming back. I couldn’t bear the thought of telling everyone I had failed. But without thinking, I walked confidently through the old metallic doorway of the lab. Everyone perked up from their computer screens and swiveled in their chairs to look my way. Not knowing what else to do, I smiled and gave a thumbs-up. They burst into applause and we opened the beers.

“I’m such a fool,” I thought to myself over and over again. But there was no going back now. I had to live with my decision that led to the open bottle in my hand.

How was anyone going to find out I had failed anyway? I would just write the paper, redo the presentation and only my committee would ever know, right? That thought made me feel better. Looking around the room, I appreciated that only a group of graduate students could drink beer in their office at 3pm on a Wednesday. This wasn’t so bad after all, and for a moment I felt a surge of excitement run through my body. I was ready to prepare properly this time. I couldn’t have this celebration be for nothing. I had to pass on the second run.

The celebration lasted about an hour. When everyone was back staring at their spreadsheet full of data, I left the room to call my girlfriend. She answered and asked how everything went. I told her I had to redo the exam, but didn’t make it sound as bad as it was. She seemed unfazed. Only the five professors on my committee and I knew how badly the qualifier really went.

Two weeks later I emailed Nils while he was visiting his shiny new lab in Germany. I told him I was taking a leave of absence. He was surprised. He thought I maybe needed a change in environment and offered to fly me to Germany to join the new lab. All I could think about was how much more difficult that would be — alone and depressed in a foreign country where I knew nobody. I didn’t even consider it. I left the program that day. I never redid the exam…

Now I’m not writing about all this to glorify my actions. Failing the most important exam of my life at the time and not having the courage to tell the truth about it is one of the things I’m most ashamed of today. If I could go back in time, I would do only one thing differently: I would tell my lab-mates I had failed. By having everyone believe I had passed, I missed an opportunity to receive guidance and feedback from people who were and are smarter than me.

I’m reminded of a classmate I had in high school who said he could have the best grade in every class if he wanted to. He was probably right — I’m sure he had the intelligence to do so. He was well spoken and quickly picked up math. He read faster than anyone I knew and had a bigger vocabulary than our English teacher. But he never applied himself.

I can’t say that if I could go back in time I would study harder and pass the exam. Like my high school classmate, I didn’t have the motivation to apply myself. The truth is, I didn’t want to pass the qualifier. I didn’t want what came with passing. I wanted a way out of the PhD program, but I was too scared to leave on my own accord. Failing was my way out. I was young and I needed to learn the lesson that taking the easy way out is a cowardly thing to do. Better to learn that sooner rather than later.

I think it’s impossible for people to live with no regrets. We can always look back and say that we couldn’t have done it differently based on the information we had at the time. And that’s fair. But the truth is, lying about the result of my qualifying exam is one of the biggest regrets of my life. If I could do it over, I would. Sure, I didn’t have the information or the experience I have now, but I always had the choice to do the right thing.

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