I Once Knew A Guy Who Failed His Prelims

Prelims | New Faculty


Back in grad school, I settled into my 7-10 p.m. class on a cold February night in a drafty classroom that had most of us in our winter jackets. The prof started out by asking how everyone was, how their week was, etc… to get warmed up and a guy in the class raised his hand. The prof gestured to him and he said, “I failed my prelims today and my committee recommended I find something else to do, what does that mean?”

And then there were crickets. I think even the prof had to take a few seconds to gather some thoughts. Not expecting a bomb like that, but rather something like, “my kitten climbed the curtains” or “i saw that new movie” took a moment for everyone. The prof gathered up his gumption and said he was sorry and that perhaps, grad school isn’t for everyone. He then asked the man to meet one-on-one during the class break so as not to totally traumatize anyone (including the prelim bomber) anymore. The guy was totally devastated. He was on the verge of tears.

It came out later on that several things had led up to this time and place: his adviser had warned him that he was NOT ready to take his prelims. His adviser told him if he pushed and insisted, the outcome would ultimately not go on the ‘passing’ side of the fence and he would be setting himself up. The grad student felt pressure because his wife was moving along in her program faster and in his culture, women were NOT to outpace men at ANYTHING. This led to major insecurity on the grad student’s part and hence, the big push. The adviser told the grad student that if he insisted on pushing his prelims and failed, he would likely be asked to reconsider his life choice and re-evaluate grad school as a whole. The grad student was given warning.

As a faculty, it can be hard to contain you, oh noble grad students. You are beyond intelligent, but also beyond ignorant. You have this chip on your shoulder that we do not understand, no matter how hard we try. We were even you, but yet we do not understand. And that’s usually ok. Until you act like this guy. Then, we run out of empathy, understanding, and patience very quickly.

LISTEN TO YOUR ADVISOR. Even if you don’t like it. Especially on things like this. We’re usually not wrong. We’ve worked with your committee members. We know your skills and writing abilities. We know if we’re going to have to carry you like an infant child in one of those backpacks or if you’ll bust out and shine. Don’t do what this guy did. Even if you’re thinking, “my adviser cancels our meetings and it doesn’t look like he/she reads my stuff” we at least are skimming enough  and talking to you to know whether or not you’re ready to talk the talk and form some ideas and opinions on what we’ve asked of you. We’re not trying to be the “big, bad wolf” to your “little red riding hood” grad student nature, we’re trying to help you NOT set yourself up for failure. Promise.

Trust us enough to not be too pig headed and stubborn. Don’t be like this guy. I never heard or saw him anywhere after that course ended and I think he dropped it before the end of the semester, although I can’t remember anymore. No matter what his reasons were for pushing so hard to take his prelims that he failed himself by not being prepared and listening to adviser, he should have known better.

Is grad school for everyone? Absolutely not. He might have not finished for 100 other reasons and this may have been his advisers nudge. We will never know. The big take away here: listen, trust, and sometimes, it’s ok to know yourself well enough while other times, put your grad school faith in your adviser. There are cases when the advisor/student relationship is also bad, leading to conflict in many areas, and an unhealthy ending to grad school. Know yourself. Sometimes, grad school is not your calling and that’s ok too. I know you’ll be successful, even if it’s not in the world of academia.

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