PhD students pass an important evaluation without leaving their homes

Man using laptop outdoors

PhD candidate Liam Hallada, who is studying the migration of neurons in the brain, completed his preparation for qualifying exams at home, away from his lab, under COVID-19 safety measures.

As PhD students in the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences complete their second year of studies, they must undergo their qualifying examinations, or “quals.” This pivotal evaluation is more of a proposal than a test, but the quals still help the faculty confirm that each student is prepared for full-time doctoral thesis/dissertation research.

This year, the second-year students are taking their quals by way of video conferencing as a result of COVID-19 precautions at St. Jude. This is a new and challenging way to make such an important presentation and field more than an hour’s worth of complex questions from their dissertation committees.

As the first generation of graduate students to face this new normal, they have plenty of practical advice for other students who will be facing the same challenge.

In addition to members of each student’s dissertation committee, all three of the Graduate School deans joined the teleconferenced qualifying exams. We felt it was important to show our support to each student since these were unconventional quals.

To be honest, we weren’t sure how well-prepared they would be, given the unique circumstances that COVID-19 places on everyone: working in isolation from small office desks or kitchen tables, some with young children at home.

We know our students are incredibly talented, but we considered delaying the qualifying exams until we are all back together on campus. Instead, our students showed us how resilient they really are. Each was thoroughly prepared; gave sharp, concise presentations; and handled the questions professionally and thoughtfully.

Every one of the second-year students who have presented thus far were given straight passes by their committees and are now PhD candidates. This is an incredible feat given the adjustments they have had to make to their lives and their science.

We are confident in their ability to think and write critically about their research, but we are inspired by the resilience and creativity they have shown in these unconventional times. We look forward to seeing their progress over these next few years as they work to finish their PhDs.

About the Author

Racquel Collins

Racquel Collins, PhD, is assistant dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. View full bio.