The race begins!

The time has come for me to study for the oral portion of my qualifying exams.

In order for a PhD student to advance to candidacy and start her dissertation, she has to pass a written and an oral exam. Different schools and different fields handle the exam differently, but in my program the written part of the exam is taken during the first year, and the oral part is taken at the end of the second or beginning of the third year. I’ve already passed a written exam on ecological principles and must now prepare for the oral portion.

n20905715_35294736_159My oral exam committee is comprised of 5 members who are each responsible for quizzing me on one topic. The topics are estuary ecology, behavioral ecology, mechanisms of behavior (i.e., genetics and endocrinology), quantitative methods (statistics and modeling techniques) and ecological principles. I’ll spend approximately 30 minutes presenting my dissertation topic to them and the next 2.5 hours fielding questions related to the fields mentioned above. It’s on bitches.

If I pass, I advance to candidacy and begin research (woohoo!). If I fail, I either have to take the exam again, or I have to jump through hurdles of the committee’s choice to prove that I know my stuff. If I fail again, I’m out of the program.

On the plus side, I’m expected to spend the next few months seriously studying the topics that I want to spend the rest of my career working on. How cool is that?!

Some of the questions I’ll study include:

1) What role do parasites play in food webs?

2) What role might parasites have played in the evolution of sex?

3) What is an estuary? What ecosystem services do estuaries provide?

4) What do we know about the role of testosterone in behavior? What about its role in immunity?

5) What do we know about the role of cortisol in behavior? What about its role in immunity?

6) What do we know about how dopamine and serotonin influence behavior?

7) How do parasites influence mate choice?

Your mission, dear reader, is to help whip me into shape! As I study for my oral examination topics I’ll create posts highlighting the cool things I’ve learned. If you have a question related to the topic I’m posting about, please ask. This will help me get a more complete understanding of the topic. If you think I’ve described something in a vague way, call me out. Vague descriptions probably mean I don’t completely understand what I’m talking about.

OK, I’m off to read my first assigned paper!

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7 thoughts on “The race begins!

  1. Yay! And here I was, thinking I’d have to comment on something again so you’d post more (how arrogant of me!). Don’t think of it as 3 hours of hell – it’s 3 hours of Jeopardy with Alex Trebek! Oh, and you’re the only contestant! 😀 Anyways, I actually already have questions:

    Why estuaries in specific? Are there higher levels of parasite infection in estuaries, as opposed to inland swamps or riverside locations? Greater biodiversity of parasites perhaps? What kinds of parasites in specific do you plan to look at? What regions of the world – considering an estuary in, say, Maryland, would look very different from one in Nigeria – do you plan on looking at, and why?

    Have fun studying (and maybe tell us what articles you look at! That would be cool!) And remember – vague statements are bullshit, and bullshit works wonders as a fertilizer!

  2. Hi, Jonathan.

    I actually am pretty excited about my prelims. It’s an opportunity to get 5 brilliant people from different disciplines together in one place to give me feedback on my dissertation ideas. It’s pretty useful!

    I’m studying estuaries in specific because the host/parasite system that I will be studying is found an estuary. At the moment I don’t know a thing about estuaries, but because it’s important to understand the system your’e working in I’ve decided to make it one of my topics.

    I actually don’t think scientists know enough about the load and diversity of parasites in different ecosystems to be able to answer your second question (are there higher levels of parasites in estuaries…?).

    I specifically plan on studying the trematode parasite Euhaplorchis californiensis, which I mentioned in an earlier post. They infect California killifish in estuaries along the Pacific coast.

    We know a bunch about estuaries along the east coast of North America, but not too much about west coast estuaries. I’ll scour the literature for information on west coast estuaries while also reading literature on east coast estuaries. Hopefully by the end of my studies I’ll be able to compare and contrast these two systems.

  3. Ugh, Orals were one of the big reasons I did not immediately pursue my PhD after my Masters. Good luck – I remember them in my department (Computer Science) and I remember the pained looks that the candidates had days before.

  4. I’m excited! This is like work-free background research for me in a field that really fascinates me but that I don’t have time to delve so deeply in myself. Sweet! And, of course, good luck!

    On another note, besides Parasite Rex, do you have any suggested readings on parasitology? Technical reading is fine, but if you know of other good ‘popular’ science books, I’d prefer to start there (I’m lazy).

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