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Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Comprehensive Exam: Grad School’s Gatekeeper

“walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough”.
-Randy Pausch, the late great Carnegie Mellon University Professor
~
The comprehensive exam for graduate students is dreaded notoriously. After completing your academic coursework, you have to pass an exam prepared by select professors.

My comprehensive exam took three days. An exam meant to measure my competencies after completing my academic requirements that took me more than 2 years to finish.

Weeks before the exam, I was shaking. Days before it, I was trembling. And hours before that, tremors in my stomach and chest can be felt by my wife two feet away.

But why should I feel that way? It came to mind that the harder the exam is, and I still pass, then the more deserving I am. It adds more to my competence as a scholar. Then it just means that I truly deserve it.

That is the reason why guards are posted in high walled gates: to keep others from coming in. I mean if you really belong inside the premises then you would be let in.

I would surely love to come inside that gate, whatever is inside of it.

Earning a PhD is tough. One reason is the comprehensive exam. You have to review all the concepts and principles you learned from your coursework. You then have to figure out how this would be used in the real world. Some professors gave hints that the exam was really all about applications of these concepts.

I have to learn and relearn the Keynes models and such theories by Rostow, Smith, Ricardo, and Lewis coupled with some modern theories by Stiglitz and Lipton. Then I have to figure out some multivariate data analysis techniques such as multiple linear regression, logistic regression, factor analysis, cluster analysis and the likes. But that’s not enough; I’ll have to think of ways how these will be used in the realistic sense. Then I have to study some concepts I have never been really able to figure out yet: log frame analysis, benefit cost analysis, financial analysis, the list is growing as the exam comes closer.

The problem with taking the exam is exactly what “Forrest Gump” usually says: It’s like a box of chocolates; you’ll never know what you’re gonna get. So you’ll have to be prepared in every angle. Leave no stone unturned. And how did I do that? Honestly I can’t recall.

I realized that it will only take me 3 days to topple down what I have built for more than 2 years. I have to strive harder because this is my dream and what lies between me and my dream is the gatekeeper that let’s only the deserving one’s enter.

Now I believe why Randy Pausch said those words. Only the one’s who deserves it can enter and the most deserving are also the most determined. Fear is just an illusion, a mirage to make you think you don’t deserve it. But it’s not really there. Sometimes our own motivation and determination can put that ghostly figure away so that the gatekeeper can open that door.

And so I passed.

(photo from: www.home-finish.com)

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