My second year at Clemson was just as difficult and overwhelming as the first year (yay). Because I was “year-zero” (see this post for more) my first year, I was required to take one year of lower-level (undergraduate) physics courses before enrolling in the official graduate-level courses. So, “year one” really began my second year when I enrolled into the graduate level courses of the physics program: Classical Mechanics (I), Quantum Mechanics (I&II), Mathematical Methods, Statistical Mechanics, and Electromagnetism. I’d like to say that the prior year of taking very similar courses that I breezed through my year one, but that would be a big fat lie 😅. I struggled the whole way through. When I say I was studying morning and night and most of my weekends, I mean that. A small group of us in class would regularly work together on homework problems and study for tests. We continued to do this the entire year and even into the summer following the end of year one, when we were all required to prepare and take the Written Qualification Examinations (ooooooeeeeooooooo 👻🙀)
There are three “quals” that all PhD students HAVE to pass if they want to continue their PhD research at Clemson: Classical & Statistical Mechanics were on one exam, Quantum Mechanics on the second, and Electromagnetic Theory on the third. Every student is required to pass all three.
Like, can you JUST IMAGINE THE STRESS WE ARE UNDER?!?!!?!? CAN YOU?!?!?!
The three quals are given each their own examination day with up to four hours to work on 6-8 problems over the course of one week. And if that’s not horrifying enough, the entire department then confers together and discuss/debate/challenge students’ performances on the tests. I am certain I speak for the entire graduate student body in the Clemson Physics PhD program, but this was my own personal hell. I still torture myself wondering what was said in that conference room about my performance 😩.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel though!
The first 1-2 years are very clearly a stressful time of the early PhD career as a Clemson graduate student, but it really is a whole lot different after you finally make it past the Written Qual bump! At this point, you are done with your core coursework and can now finally start earning some research credits and start focusing on the stuff that you came here for.
This moment comes at the end of the year one – once you have finished those six graduate courses; you’ve taken all the final exams and have all your final grades, which is generally a time to rejoice and relax, right?
The clock actually just started. And it’s ticking. You got three (3!!) months to prepare for possibly the most difficult obstacle of your academic career. To be fair, you did also have about 1-2 years of relevant coursework that will hopefully come in handy.
Are you guys sweating just reading this?
Cause I actually have another complication to throw into the mix. This one is a given though, and hopefully doesn’t catch anyone by surprise, since it is a common practice for both undergraduate and graduate students. This concept is the measure of academic standing, aka needing to meet a minimum grade requirement to continue as a student in the program. This part can be confusing as a fresh graduate student, because you come into the program and you start hearing about how “GPAs don’t matter at this point” and how it’s really your research background and skillset. I am not really sure where exactly that should apply because even now as I prepare for postdoctoral positions after graduation, they all ask for transcripts with complete grades lol.
P.S. University: could it maybe not cost me $15 to send my own academic record (electronic, too; what does that cost you to send an e-mail, I mean really) to potential employers?!
Idk, maybe they are just trying to make you feel better because it can be hard for some students who come into the program and are used to being the top of their class, but then they are making 50% on tests (which can sometimes be a class average) and they will beat themselves up over it even if it’s the highest grade in the class (not kidding, I’ve seen it!).
The bottom line is, you actually do have to have a minimum GPA of 3.0 to remain in good academic standing with the graduate school. So, your GPA does actually matter even in graduate school. At the very least, it matters the most those first 1-2 years when you are actually taking coursework. This can be tricky to maneuver your first year and is even harder if you don’t have the right support or guidance.
I wish I could offer up some advice for this delicate time in your PhD, but I don’t really have anything general enough to share here. We are all going to have different education levels coming into the program. Some students are coming in with two degrees in Physics already and others just completed their 4-year degree in Chemistry. The resources you require to get past the written quals will vary because of this. The written placement test you take when you first arrive at Clemson is meant to help you anticipate where you may fall among your incoming class. You will also have an opportunity to discuss your placement test score with the graduate student coordinator (GRC) who should ideally provide you with the most likely path for you to succeed.
Gosh. My post about my second year turned into the cliff notes version of the graduate student handbook. My b y’all. That whole year is honestly pretty blurry for me (and uneventful, as you may have guessed). The one thing that sticks out to me that year was meeting Noah ❣️ (my beau). We were neighbors and met at the community pool at our apartment complex the summer before heading into those graduate courses. Oh, I also got my first cat on September 11, 2017 — during the fall semester of year one. It was when a tropical storm swept through the Southeast and cut the power to much of the area for about 24 hours. Naturally me, my boyfriend, and my roommate decided to go to PetSmart to get a toy for Ruca (yes, during a tropical storm 🧐) and came home with my cat, Mars. No, Mars was not the toy. He is 4.5 years old now and has established my morning routine for me.
Below I share the social media post featuring me and one of my best study buddies from year one when we learned that we passed our written quals! Allen and I spent (what felt like) every waking moment together studying for those exams. I miss arguing with you, Allen! Cheers to good memories but many more cheers to having this stressful time of our lives far away in the past 🤓.
WARNING: the caption text features a couple expletives, I do apologize.
Please note the aformentioned PhD requirements are specific to Clemson’s physics PhD program. Each program varies even just among the graduate school at Clemson and at each academic institution.