Prelim Post-Failure Advice

The GSAs have put together advice from a number of second and third-time prelims takers who went on to pass prelims.  We hope that students who are working on taking the prelims again can use this advice and hopefully avoid spending a bunch of time on stress and feeling like you shouldn't be in the department.  If these tips aren't enough, there are lots of people here willing to help.  Please reach out!  Talk to a grad advisor (Shirley, Audrey or Heather), or one of the EECS Peers, and they can connect you to more resources.

Question 1: What was/were the biggest change(s) in how you prepared that helped you eventually pass?(17 responses)

“Other” Responses:

Change in Perspective

  • Be humble and change your attitude about the knowledge

  • Had a reference point for what it would feel like--couldn't surprise me anymore, so I was slightly less nervous.

Change in Prelim Area

  • Took prelim in different area

Additional Preparation Methods

  • GSI’d a class

  • Memorization

  • Going over materials that I had missed the first time around.

  • Practice Presentation

Question 2: How did you balance studying for another prelim vs research and coursework during the following term(s)?(15 responses)

Most students recommended spending more time studying and less time doing research.  The amount of studying varied from setting aside a few hours each day, to spending the 1-2 months ahead of the prelims studying full-time.  For students who failed the prelims in the fall, many spent their winter breaks studying (since there were fewer distractions on campus).  Other students spent more time practicing presenting in front of their peers, attending related courses, or became a GSI for the fundamental course for their prelim.

Key Points:

Practice, GSI, extra courses

  • For the whole semester, I have one extra meeting with student/professor from other group to practice my presentation and question answering skills.

  • More than studying for another prelim, what I really needed was to solidify all the theory I had studied and get a lot more practice solving problems in front of peers. I also took a related course that was recommended to me.

  • I was a GSI for EE140, and I was also taking additional circuits classes, so studying circuits was a given

Less Research, More Studying

  • Difficult but actually I tried to study as many hours as I could. It is tough though.

  • Spent the month before prelims just doing prelims and nothing else

  • Have a set schedule of a few hours, ideally at the same time every single day no matter what - having a routine was super important for me

  • Only did prelim studying for one month before (not really a balance).

  • Study more!

  • I focused fully on prelim study at the beginning of the semester.

  • The percentage of time varied inversely with the time remaining until the prelim. Initially around 5% of work time devoted to prelims, culminating at 100% of time towards prelims during the last two weeks.

Studying Over Break

  • I did a little less research than I would have done otherwise, but did most of my studying during winter break.

  • I crammed over winter break.

  • Nothing changes except two months before the prelim.

  • My second attempt was in January, so I only studied over the winter holiday break. So, I didn't balance them?

  • I stayed on campus over winter break. Not many people were around so I had plenty of time to study without distractions.

Question 3: How did the department and your advisor react when you didn't pass? Did they provide support/resources?(17 responses)

About half of the students who responded said that their advisor and the department had very little reaction to the news; they didn’t provide negative feedback but also didn’t provide much help in terms of support and resources.  The other half of students said that their advisors and/or the department were both supportive and provided helpful advice.  This advice ranged from having the students write problem sets, taking courses that are relevant, encouraging being a GSI, and practice explaining ideas on the whiteboard.  One professor told their student that they had also failed the first time around and is now one of the foremost experts in their field!

Key Points:

Not a big deal / This is Normal

  • They were supportive and did not think it was a big deal.

  • No significant reaction

  • Nothing special. Just waiting for the next round.

  • Only an email from department saying I didn't pass, then soon after received my student review saying I'm below departmental expectations because I haven't passed yet, then received words of support from my advisor the night before my second attempt, so mostly not much of a response.

  • Barely acknowledged other than suggesting other courses to take.

  • No resources were provided.

  • Peers were sympathetic, my advisor didn't mind or he didn't react much at all... more than half of the older students in my group had to take their prelim twice as well

  • No one seemed to mind. This is normal.

Active Support / Advice

  • My advisor told me it was not the end of the world. He suggested me to improve the ability of explaining my ideas.

  • They thought I need to take a class that is highly related to the prelim subject.

  • Not hostile, but more like, "what happened?" Supportive; gave me additional practice whenever he could. Had me write solutions for EE140 problem sets, meaning everything I did had to be perfect.

  • Very supportive

  • Advisor said I should take the prelim in the area I'm most likely to pass

  • My advisor provided support and was very encouraging.

  • My advisor didn't really make a big deal about it other than encouraging me to GSI the following semester. Being a GSI apparently helps students answer questions in front of a group of people. I didn't end up being a GSI though so I don't know if it would have helped or not. The department... wasn't bad, but they are always a little harsher than I think they should be.

  • My advisor told me that, while disappointing, it wasn't a big deal. He had failed his prelim the first time and now is one of the foremost experts in that field.

  • My advisor was part of the prelim committee the first time around. He and the department were supportive and recommended ways to improve for the second round.

Question 4: How did you manage your mental state/stress levels? Did you experience imposter syndrome and/or a change in how your peers treated you?(17 responses)

Students were overall incredibly stressed after failing the prelims.  Nearly all of them struggled with imposter syndrome, which lasted anywhere from 24 hours to indefinitely (even past graduation).  Most said that this feeling of imposter syndrome was totally self-inflicted, and that their peers did not treat them differently and were very supportive.  Some said they felt the department added to this stress due to the nature and structure of the prelim process.  Very few people believe that they managed their stress levels in a positive way after the failure.

Key Points:

Managing Stress, Impostor Syndrome

  • I didn’t do much

  • I was constantly stressed, and I probably didn't manage it well.

  • Much imposter syndrome but it was all self imposed, no one else cared much

  • I was super stressed. Also I felt that my classmates viewed me as the silly person around. It took me weeks to fully recover.

  • I did feel like an imposter, but my labmates didn't treat me any different.

  • I was super stressed

  • Definitely experienced imposter syndrome, but was mostly indifferent the second time around. Figured I would either pass this time and things would be fine or I would not pass and things would be fine but look a little differently than I had hoped.

  • I did experience higher levels of stress.

  • Definitely experienced imposter syndrome. Especially because the department made me petition to take the prelim in the first place. And I got a B- in a class my first semester. How I managed the stress was mostly just to stay focused on studying. Flash cards really helped actually. Something about the feeling of knowing things concretely was comforting. Friends are also wonderful for keeping spirits up.

  • I was frustrated with myself for not being more prepared and confused with why I hadn't been able to prepare. I gave myself a little bit of time to be depressed about that before I moved on and started studying again. My feedback from the first exam specifically included something like, "definitely has the intellectual ability, just needs to..." so, that helped me avoid overwhelming imposter syndrome and focus on doing the work.

  • Mostly stewed in anger at what I perceived as an arbitrary hazing ritual, and drinking.

  • Definitely imposter syndrome felt before and even more so after. Felt like a failure. Had PTSD when doing any work on whiteboards in front of people for a while and still do when giving a practice prelim. Impacted the rest of my grad school career negatively until I finally started to care less. The whole prelim experience was very traumatic for me.

  • Yes, it had negative impact on my stress and I felt imposter syndrome.

  • I struggled with imposter syndrome more for about 24 hours.

  • It was a stressful period. In some ways, my first real setback. To some extent I'm still experiencing imposter syndrome from this, even though I've graduated a few years back.

Treatment of Peers

  • Not really. People were shocked, but I knew I should try to improve myself.

  • Not too much.

  • Nope

  • no.

  • No one else cared much.

  • I felt that my classmates viewed me as the silly person around. It took me weeks to fully recover.

  • No

  • My peers treated me the same

  • Peers were all wonderful. No one made a big deal about it whatsoever.

  • No change in how peers treated me.

  • I was comfortable in paper writing and applied technical research, so didn't affect self-perception/peer treatment that much. I did become closer friends with other people that failed in my year.

  • My peers were fairly OK overall except for one particularly stupid lab colleague.

Question 5: Is there any advice you want to give to students who failed their prelim exam?(17 responses)

The main advice is that it’s ok, and you are not alone.  This happens to many students, and it doesn’t mean you are stupid or bad at your research area or grad school or a PhD.  Try to not let stress take over, and focus instead of what skills you need to work on.  Students recommend spending more time studying, being a GSI, using flash cards, and having many practice sessions in front of senior colleagues or peers.  Seek advice from friends and professors both about what you can do differently and also whether you are happy in academia as a whole.

It’s ok; you’re not alone

  • Don't stress out! Failing isn't the end of the world!

  • It happens to so many of us.

  • You are not alone, and it doesn't mean you are bad at your research area or grad school or a PhD. Exams are hard, especially an oral exam in front of three Berkeley professors who are experts in your field. Also keep in mind, they really do want to see you pass, despite what it might feel like during the exam or after the first attempt. Just try to focus on areas you might have gotten tripped up and practice even more in front of peers.

  • It'll be ok. Try to figure out what happened during the unsuccessful attempt and work toward improving that skill. In the end, it'll make you a stronger individual.

  • Be calm. You have chance. And you have to show your enthusiasm in research when your are answering the prelim question on a whiteboard

  • Every exam is different, there is little correlation. A different committee might ask you entirely different questions.

  • It's shitty and awful and I'm sorry you have to go through this.

  • You know you can do it. :)

  • If you're on a funded project, things will probably turn out fine.

Study, GSI, Practice Prelims, Flash Cards

  • No stress. Study hard prepare and you will pass.

  • Study hard and you shall pass...

  • GSI an upper division class in your field. Study with others. Get other students to test you at the board.

  • Anki. The process of making the flash-cards for my subject area was invaluable; the studying was also helpful, but making the cards was surprisingly effective.

  • Practice. Practice. Practice. If you have exam questions from previous years, just try to go through as many as you can. Then have senior colleagues or peers test you with questions of their choosing. Getting them right is not as important as learning to manage your anxiety while under time pressure.

Seek Advice / Be Introspective

  • Talk to your prelim committee. they will tell you what they expected and what you could do to improve.

  • Don't be embarrassed about failing. Talk to your friends.

  • Seriously consider whether you want to take it again and if you really want to be in academia. Sometimes I feel even after passing it that I would have been better off leaving for industry with a master's degree.

Question 6: Is there any other advice you want to give to students who haven't taken the exam yet?(12 responses)

First, be introspective and seek advice.  Figure out your weak points and identify methods to address those issues.  Talk to students who have taken the exam previously for tailored advice on your particular prelim and committee.  Review the old prelim problems (particularly the ones by professors on your committee).  Try to not less stress take over, and build confidence in front of the white board by practicing many times in front of peers.  Consider taking the prelim that aligns best with your comfort zone, and know that the professors are not your enemy.  That being said, this is a very subjective process and often the individual scores do not make a lot of sense.

Key Points:

Be introspective, seek advice

  • Know more about your weak points. Try to do something extra to address that issue.

  • Talk to students who have taken the exam previously. Pass or fail, their experience can inform where to devote your preparation efforts. Also, be honest with where your strengths and weaknesses are. Often, understanding the intuition is insufficient.

Study / Review old prelim problems

  • Make sure you are technically proficient and do a substantial number of practice problems, both on paper and on the whiteboard.

  • Knowing old prelim questions is really helpful

  • For the prelim, knowledge of the material is quite vital, but only if you can make sense of a problem and express the gist of a solution under pressure. Professors can be intimidating, but deep down want you to pass. Once you know your committee, try to study the type of questions each of the professors is most likely to ask from previous year exams. The questions will differ, but each professor tends to have a prelim style based in part on their research fields.

Practice in front of others

  • As confident as you might feel about the content, practicing on a whiteboard in front of older students or peers is the closest you can get to the real thing, so I would recommend that.

  • Practice a lot! With other people! You just have to try to force your way through the anxiety

  • Don't get hung up on getting the right answer, focus on timing and board presentation/organization.

Don’t let stress take over

  • To be careful and don’t let stress take over. Stress is the major problem in the prelim.

  • Study but don't stress if you fail. I failed more than once. And don't let it affect your confidence, sounding confident in your answers is part of passing the prelim. (So it's kind of a bad cycle.)

Other

  • The score you get might not actually make any sense

  • The professors are not your enemy! They want you to pass, despite what it feels like. They're not trying to dupe you out of the PhD with trick questions or crazy hard content; they're just probing the extent of your knowledge and trying to assess if it needs more developing or not.

  • If you have an option to take a prelim that is easier for you/more comfortable, do it regardless of your adviser's wishes.

If you would like to add advice to this list or to volunteer to participate in a roundtable on this topic in the spring, please contact Heather Levien, heather@berkeley.edu, (EECS Grad Advisor) or Sylvia Herbert or Vidya Muthukumar, the EEGSA officers who worked hard to make this project happen.