“You’re about to take your writtens? This is the smartest you’ll ever be!” – Jason
Since I just took my written exams, I’m expound on what I know (or didn’t).
Writtens encompass the major topics relevant to your preliminary research proposal and tend to be taken during the second year of the Ph.D. program, so that you have the necessary background classes to use as a springboard for ideas.
Before we can do our writtens, we have to assemble a committee of 4-5 professors (including your PI). These people are signing up to mentor you in their areas of expertise, as it pertains to your research area. Since Notre Dame has a relatively small department and I have a very specific research topic, it was fairly clear who should be on my committee, but make sure to ask other grad students about how professors actually are on committees. Some are very involved and give great feedback, and others don’t bother to write a new test for you or even look at you during committee meetings.
Once you’ve picked your group, herd your professor-cats into one room (somehow) and present your potential research ideas for them to poke full of holes. Since my committee all knew me but didn’t necessarily know my post Ph.D. goals, I also spent some time telling them about my background (I like gibbons), why I want a Ph.D. (more letters for this BadAss BullShitter), and what I want to do (play with gibbons in the US). After about an hour of (hopefully constructive) criticism, you’ll have finished your first committee meeting!
Post committee meeting, you then go visit each professor’s lair individually and ask them what they think you should know, based on what you presented at the meeting. As I met with each of them individually, I also told them why I had chosen them and what specifically I was looking to learn from them, which helped most of them guide my writtens material. This need not be one-way either, having a continuing dialogue with your committee members while you are studying can be a great way to bounce ideas around. Ask if you can see copies of exam questions given to other graduate students and clarify early on whether the exam is open book or not. With a stack of papers in hand and a bunch of textbooks in your bag, you now get to embark on a lovely month long journey of despair and discovery, depending on the textbooks.
The exams themselves are almost a relief, since they signal that you can stop breathing in nothing but science for a few days (it’s all spent on expulsion!). Ours are three hours a professor and parceled out over two to three days with two professors a day. Your PI sets the order of the exams, so she asked if I had a preference for order – ask about that so you know exactly what’s coming when! All of mine were due by electronic submission, so that was 12 hours (!!) of furious essay question typing. I didn’t study on the evening between the exams because I was honestly too burnt out after the first 6 hours. Have a beer and lay in the grass, because exam fatigue is very real. My last exam was my PI’s, and exam fatigue made the very last question all but impossible to do in a timely manner. Luckily, since it was her exam, it was the most well defined in my head as well as the one I could autopilot answer the best.
That feeling of being done though…that was amazing. The euphoria lasted for at least a day. 10/10 but would not do again. It was strange to know that at that moment right before the exam, you really are the most knowledgeable about all the things, and then you just deflate into a pile of euphoric mush, i.e. the dumbest you’ll ever be.