The past few days (and the next few weeks) will be spent prepping for the first of our department’s cumulative exams. It’s one of the 5 requirements for getting our PhDs:

1.) Cumulative Exams
2.) Prospectus Exam (commonly the “Second Year Exam” in lots of programs)
3.) Independent Research Proposal
4.) Thesis and defense
5.) Pretend you know what’s going on

I think most sciencey PhD programs have cumulative exams of some sort or another. Each does them slightly differently, but they all amount to the same thing. That thing being ‘Let’s ask the about anything and everything they’ve ever learned!” The exams here have their own quirks, of course, some more archaic than others.

– There are 10 of them, one every other month. To complete Step 1 above (and by proxy, Step 5), we need to pass either 4 in a row, or 5 total. If that doesn’t happen, we get the official order to pack up our glassware and head home.

– Each one has 6 questions, with one professor each writing 2 questions. You don’t know beforehand which professors are writing them, and they refuse to tell you afterward who did. That doesn’t stop some students from guessing or being able to figure it out. Some of the profs have very distinct styles. So distinct, in fact, one has admitted to imitating the styles of other professors because he thinks students refuse to answer his questions. True story. He gets snarky about it.

– After each, you find out if you pass or fail. Period. No corrections, no answer key, no comments. A lot of profs will even refuse to talk with you about it after the results come back. This is probably the most archaic of the set of rules. It’s also the cause of the most conspiracy theories, ranging from “They’ll fail you if you turn it in too quickly, even if you know all the answers” to “Answer every other question and you’ll pass every time.” I wish I was making those theories up.

And that’s step 1 of your PhD! One of the older students around here calls it The Department Hazing. Understandably, we first years are going through our panic rituals about now. I’ve got a stash of Crunch bars and lucky underpants stashed in my desk. They may or may not be in the same drawer.


2 thoughts on “

  1. I'm so sorry you have cumes. At Berkeley we have no cumes – we do have a first year report to submit which is supposed to be just like a publication, and the dreaded 2nd year exam. Then we're clear through to the thesis, which we write – no defense! – and have three professors read and sign off. (Two of them usually don't even bother. It's awesome.)

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