I just completed my qualifying exam and in this blog post, I will detail what I think I learned from the qualifying exam (quals) process. In the CISE department at UF, the qualifying exam is the first milestone used to assess the student’s ability to successfully complete the Ph.D. program. This exam involves a literature survey of the student’s field of research. For my qualifying exam, I wrote a survey paper titled “An Overview of the Effectiveness of Exertion Games (Exergames) for Children.” I focused on this topic since my research interest involves exertion games (games that promote physical activity) for children. Below are some of the major lessons I learned from the writing process.
- START EARLY: The process of writing the qualifying exam involves dedicating a large amount of time, so it is important to identify several semesters before when you would like to write the qualifying exam and inform your advisor and committee members about your decision. It is also important to identify the papers you would like to review and start reading these papers early.
- PLAN ACCORDINGLY: The semester I decided to write my qualifying exams, I also attended several conferences and took one class. I found out this was not ideal as this took away from the time I should have used to focus on my quals.
- IDENTIFY YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION/CONTRIBUTION: You should review prior surveys in your field of research to identify research questions that are novel. Identifying your research question/contribution would also ensure that your survey is focused and not too broad and will help in gathering papers that can help answer these research questions.
- IDENTIFY A METHODOLOGY: It is very essential that the papers reviewed in your survey were gathered using a systematic approach, as this will ensure that your survey is grounded and can be reproducible. Furthermore, it will help others understand why the papers in your survey are the only ones you selected. To ensure that your methodology is good, make sure you formulate your research questions/contribution, identify your inclusion and exclusion criteria, select your keywords, and identify the sources you want to focus on. To structure my methodology, I looked at methodologies employed in other surveys in the exergaming field and from quals written by my peers.
- STRUCTURE YOUR PAPER LIST: When creating your paper list, ensure that you have a preliminary structure to group these papers as this will help make sure your survey is on the right track. Furthermore, these groupings can be modified and transformed into sections in your survey.
- ORGANIZATION: I cannot overemphasize the importance of ensuring you organize your papers, as this makes the writing process easier. I organized my papers by creating an Excel table that details each paper, its findings, and its contributions. Organizing your papers not only helps to ensure that you are capturing the important points mentioned in each paper, but it also enables you to have a top-down view of all the papers to be reviewed so you can ensure that your survey properly answers the research questions.
- YOUR PEERS ARE A RESOURCE: For most students like me, the qualifying exam is most likely the first time you are writing a survey paper, which may seem overwhelming. A useful resource in this situation is your peers who have gone through this process. They know what you are experiencing since they have also been through the process. Hence, you should seek their advice on issues you are facing, look through their exams to familiarize yourself with the writing process, and send drafts so they can provide constructive feedback. By doing this, you will be able to address a lot of comments that would have been identified by your committee.
- HAVE A MAJOR TAKE-AWAY: This was one of the mistakes I initially made in my survey. I was trying to capture different ideas which made it difficult for my committee to understand the major takeaway from my survey. Furthermore, the structure of my survey made it more difficult, as it did not match the contribution I was emphasizing. Using the feedback from my committee as a guide, I identified the major idea I wanted readers to take-away from my survey and structured my survey around this idea. Once I did this, I found out that the writing process became easier.
- WRITING IS AN ITERATIVE PROCESS: I could remember when I first got the feedback from my committee stating “major reviews.” I felt really downcast because I thought I did not write a good enough paper and I had to rewrite my paper again. However, after speaking to my committee members and thoroughly studying my reviews, I came to the realization that writing is an iterative process and I did not write a bad paper, I just needed to make changes to make the contributions of my survey clearer. Therefore, it is important to realize that as this is the first-time writing a survey paper, you may not get it right the first time, so iterate on it as much as possible because at the end you would have an outstanding paper. Furthermore, one of the main goals of the qualifying exam is for students to be able to submit the survey paper to a journal, so this process will also help strengthen your submission and improve your chances of acceptance.
To conclude, the qualifying exam writing process takes a lot of time but at the end in my view, it is worth it, because you learn a lot during the process. In my case, I gained an understanding of what has been done in the exergaming field and what is yet to be done, which helped to clarify my contributions on the FunFitTech project with respect to designing exergames for children. The qualifying exam process also helps you become a better writer and a more informed researcher in your field.