So I have just crossed two of the four hurdles towards my next doctoral degree. I have completed all the course work (the last one was very demanding) and cleared the much-dreaded Qualifying Exam.
Now what is a qualifying exam? In different countries it comes with different names, shapes, sizes and formats. In the US and Canada it is called Comprehensive Exam, in other countries it is referred to as General Exams or Preliminary Exams. It consist of a long written part spanning for few days followed by an oral defence where you respond to the committee of 3-4 professors. You have only two shots. If you fail once, you can take another one. And that’s it. The objective is to test your overall knowledge in the field you will be getting your PhD and also see if you are deemed fit to be called a scholar. It is not simply a test of the cumulative knowledge of the courses you have taken (I took six) but a test of your preparation to work independently at the highest level hereafter. In other words, it is a rite of passage from being a student till now – to a distinguished title or status of being referred to as scholar, doctor, etc. Simply put, as a student you absorb knowledge. As a scholar you produce knowledge. Big difference. The next step is for you to produce something new in the form of a dissertation, which, if accepted, confers you the title of doctor. Doctor comes from Latin word, docere, which means “to teach”. In other words, after your knowledge is accepted by the discipline, you are also entitled to teach it to others. This practice has its roots in Italy that saw some of the first universities in the western world (e.g. my Alma mater, University of Bologna). Now, of course, titles of PhD and doctors have changed in their meaning and purpose.
To come back to my experience of this Q exam, it’s been few months of consuming lots of coffees, kit kats, communication theories, research methodologies and selected works from philosophy, religion, sociology, history, anthropology, sociolinguistics, semiotics and technology. Communication cuts across many fields and take almost all the theories from sociology. The written exam was a solitary confinement for 3 days in a row (you can also choose to spread it over a month but I like getting done away with) – each lasting 8 hours to finally produce some 12,000+ word length of what could be the last humanly readable paper. After this, no one will understand what you write. 👿👿👿
Then the oral part was a 3-hour slash-and-burn farming on my ideas 😂😂😂.
Now that I am done with it, how do I feel? I don’t know. Have I learnt anything? A lot. Do I feel wiser? Not at all. In fact, now I feel less confident (or may be more humble) than before I started. I was sharing this feeling with another Bhutanese friend who is also in a PhD programme. He is going through the same kind of transformation. Basically, PhD is a process where you finally know how much you don’t know – and that is really a humbling dose. And perhap the greatest lesson one learns in a grad school.
So then, is one of the ultimate objectives of knowledge to make you more humble? Perhaps. When I look around and imagine some of the most learnt Bhutanese I have come across – people like my family lama – Rangshikhar Rimpoche, my lama-friend – Eminence Tsugla Lopen (I say “friend” because I am spiritually not at the level to be his disciple), our historian, Dr. Karma Phuntsho and then my last employer, RTC President Thakur Singh, they are all very humble people. In fact, in Bhutanese we say “behaving like someone has no knowledge” if your acts are rowdy and uncultured. Maybe there is a wisdom to that.
I guess, ultimately
Knowledge makes you humble. Ignorance inflates your ego.
Coming back to the Q Exam, I am sharing my experience not to scare anyone but to show how the system works. PhD is absolutely doable. I hope our universities back home will offer because it leads you to another world of knowledge, discovery and perspectives of life. You should go for it – especially if you are a teacher – in a school or in a university. But don’t go for it, looking forward to a fancy title and the world to bow down to you after you complete it (see the cartoon below). You should go for it because learning excites you, it makes you really happy and you can leave behind some knowledge for mankind. If I can, so will you. I am not even doing it in what I studied in undergrad (engineering) or my career (film and journalism). Those subjects would have been too easy. As is of me, I chose the red pill and I am looking broadly at communication as a tool in sociolinguistics and philosophy. These are challenging concepts but very exciting.
As I wrote in my earlier blog entry, you should keep learning because if you stop learning, you stop living.