Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ten years ago

One hurdle facing almost all graduate students is the dreaded qualifying exam. For me, there were three required qualifying exams. Two of them were six hours long, one of them was three hours long. I had to pass them all by September of my first year, or I would be thrown out. The exams were only given in June and in September. I tried to pass one when coming into the program -- I worked hard all of the summer before, and learned more material than I thought possible. But in the end, I failed. I entered my program with a failure, and three qualifying exams still to go.

By the end of April in the year 2000, I was studying nonstop, at least 12 hours each day. I had copies of all the old exams going back years. Exams were supposed to take only six hours. I spent much more time than that on the old exams, hunting down and thinking up solutions, taking careful, detailed notes, and storing them away in a binder. I labeled the problems according to topic or trick used. I memorized everything I could memorize. Unfortunately, I knew that in the end, each year's problems were invented anew, and pure memorization would be little help. It would be me and my pencils and the blue book, and whatever I could pull out of my overflowing brain.

Tim and I had been married less than a year, and he was a graduate student as well. He was studying for comprehensive exams at the same time, but in a different department. Newly wed and deeply in love, we spent evenings gazing into each others' eyes... and then back to our notes. Studying.

We were living in a 600 square foot apartment on the eighth floor of a student housing complex to the east of the main campus. We were up above the tops of the eucalyptus trees, with a great view of sunsets over the famous campus tower. Tourists paid money for a view like ours. I guess we paid money, too. Our rent was more than twice what I had been paying for a similar sized apartment in Ann Arbor the year before. And we were lucky to be in student housing, where rents were significantly less than in the yuppie neighborhoods surrounding campus. We had entered and won a lottery to win that eighth floor apartment. The floors were gray tile and the ceilings were asbestos, but with a nice rug and the windows open, blowing the eucalyptus scent in with the sunlight, we were in heaven. No better place in the world to spend 12 - 16 hours per day studying.

There were nine of us starting my program that year. Two of them were on a different track, taking a different set of qualifying exams. One of them had passed that exam I failed in September. The rest of us met regularly in basement classrooms to review problems we had tried. We put our collective brains together to try to solve the worst of them. We dug up solutions from binders of more senior grad students when all else failed.

Did I feel stressed out and anxious? Yes. But the anxiety has faded, and I remember more the sunlight and the eucalyptus, and the fact that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing exactly where I wanted to be doing it. I might fail, and then the dream would be over. Meanwhile, I would do what I could to pack my brain as full as possible.

Would I go back to those days? The sunlight? The eucalyptus? The view of the famous campus tower?

Never. Life is much better ten years later.


Soul-Fusion said...

I know how you feel. I would never go back to studying for finals - or, even worse, the bar exam! Yet, there are definitely pleasant memories surrounding that time which can make me nostalgic. Thanks for the memories.

Tiffany said...

I had post-traumatic stress reading this post...and I was merely the wife of the student!

But I agree, there were some good times during all that stress. Not that I ever want to go back.

Great post!

Letterpress said...


Glad I didn't have exams. I was happy to write the novel instead, and hopefully that's buried somewhere deep in the library's steam tunnels, never to see the light of day.

Of course, you had to write a dissertation AND do exams. Another reason I didn't choose math.

Still--a lovely, lovely piece of writing.