An epic tale

It's been a very stressful month since my last post, but somehow (and probably not wisely) I have kept up my baking, and even remembered to take pictures of the results.

And thus begins my epic tale of the Qual.

For those of you not well-acquainted with the world of academia, I'll explain the situation a little:
The path of pilgrimage to the Ivory Tower is fraught with obstacles, trials, and rites of passage to weed out those who lack the ability or determination to achieve the final goal, which is Knowledge. The Qualifying Exam occurs a little ways down the path, after one has toughed it out through the Undergraduate Education and Graduate School Admissions, as well as the First Year of graduate school.

In the Qualifying Exam, pilgrims are asked questions that should allow them to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen subject. In the specific case of Physics in the Cornfield, eight questions in what are considered the four Main Topics of Physics must be answered in two three-hour sessions. To pass this test, the pilgrim must have sufficient knowledge of concepts and equations from his or her senior level undergraduate courses and be able to write very quickly. Upon passing, he may continue along towards his PhD. However, if he fails, he must try again in a year, and if he fails again, he is no longer allowed to pursue his degree.

Knowing this fully, I entered into my studying much later than my brighter peers, and had significant trouble forcing myself to focus and start working through the many old problems available online. I spent time reading textbooks, making formula sheets, cleaning my apartment, sleeping a lot, and getting very frustrated with old problems from 1995.

That weekend, I made brownies (59), because brownies are simple, and because marbled things are pretty. I failed to realize in advance that the coconut and condensed milk in the light part would not have a very strong taste, and so I was sorely disappointed to taste a brownie, and to only have the coconut texture to let me know it was actually in there. Without the taste, the texture just made the brownies seem weird.

Riding on the tails of this disappointment came terrible unhappiness at my lack of work ethic, and the realization that the only way I could possibly get through would be by God's grace. So after some serious praying, I dove into the next week.

Early in that week, it dawned upon me that it was foolishness to continue on my quest alone, and so I joined two of my stronger (i.e. smarter) friends in their studying. Their motivation was catching, and my difficulty with the subjects was alarming, and so the next several weeks passed in a panicked flurry of practice problems and pasta. For, indeed, I switched over into a mode where I spared little time for non-Physics endeavors, including food.

When I did spare a little time for cookie baking, I attempted to make chocolate meringues (60). Clearly, I did not leave enough time for whipping them, as the one shown in the picture on the left had the most shape. Aesthetically, these were a complete failure. However, they still tasted good, and although they required two hours in the oven, I was able to spend those two hours busy with... you guessed it... more practice problems.

In the final week before the Qual, my peers and I started doing practice runs of the exam - we would take old exam sets and sit down from 7-10pm in a poorly-lit and steeply-inclined auditorium, in order to get used to the misery of the real test. After each practice test, we'd get together and compare answers. Or, rather, I would look at what my friends had done, since I wasn't really able to do a lot of things. My level of panic growing, I stayed for later nights as my more prepared peers took evenings off, making lists of the things I knew I needed to understand, finding problems related to those concepts, and working on them until I thought I maybe had some idea.

At this point I was desperate. My list of concepts ran four pages long, and each of those concepts took at least half an hour to master. By the weekend, I knew that I had to forgo the practice exam schedule and just focus on my weak points. So I worked out problems, skipped the Annie Get Your Gun cast party, and tried my hardest not to do anything too unwise before the test.

During a short break I whipped up some ANZAC Biscuits (61), which seemed appropriate as they're the cookies Australian families would send to soldiers in World War 1. This wasn't war, but I certainly had no time to go the grocery store or to roll out dough, so these were a great way for me to keep up with my baking. The taste of these was rather sweet - perhaps because I could only find sweetened coconut, and the only real flavor came from the golden syrup the recipe called for. Unfortunately, this was another case of coconut providing texture but not much flavor.

Monday came, and I was a mess. I was so scared about the exam that night that I couldn't eat and had to force myself not to listen to the voice in the back of my head, repeating over and over, "I can't do this. I'm going to fail." Fortunately, several friends and family members emailed and called, wishing me luck and reminding me that they believed in me (which totally sounds like the climax of an 80s movie or a 90s anime where the heroine is just about to give up).

So on Monday night I took the first half of my test. Some of it was alright, some of it was awful, and I came out of it totally numb. After an evening of beer and Rock Band, I returned home to sleep. I awoke on Tuesday more scared than I had been the day before - although I knew that the four specific topics from the night before wouldn't be repeated, they still could ask anything else, and there were still so many topics I hadn't mastered. In addition, I figured I had only gotten half of the points on the first part of the test, which meant the pressure was on to perform better on the second part. Knowing this, I entered into another studying frenzy, until the exam was near enough that I had to go to the Physics building.

I entered into the second part of this ordeal completely aware of the inadequacy of my preparation, and completely terrified. When the exam had concluded, I had no idea if I had done well enough to pass. By the time the letters were distributed on Friday I had completely convinced myself that I had not passed and would have to go through it all over again next year. So as I opened my letter, I steeled myself for the "I regret to inform you..." that meant failure, but instead I found:
I am delighted to be able to tell you that on the basis of your written qualifying examination and your record as a graduate student in this department, the Qualifying Examination Committee recommends you as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree in Physics.
Unlike the Committee Chairman, I was not delighted - or, rather, not just delighted - I was ecstatic, incredulous, completely in shock. I had to read the letter again to make sure it was real.

It was definitely real. The letter is now stuck my refrigerator as a monument of the fact that miracles do happen, and as a reminder that someone, at some point, thought that I am good enough to be in this program, and to be chasing after this PhD.

So, bridge crossed and giant defeated, I celebrated that weekend with fancier baking: vanilla cookies made into a sandwich with white chocolate raspberry filling (62). The filling was made with the juice from fresh pureed raspberries, heavy cream, and white chocolate, which means that I was in heaven. Somehow it ended up that too much liquid got into the filling, so it was very runny, but I added more white chocolate and that (mostly) solved the problem. It was good, in this case, that the actual cookies were very simple and not too sweet, as they were necessary to balance out the richness of the filling.

It would be nice to end the story here, to say that all has been well and calm ever since, but that is far from true - the long journey towards my degree continues, with small trials (like dysfunctional circuits), and other milestones (like the Preliminary Exam) to be passed on the way. For now I fill my time with research, exercise when I can get it, and my ever-continuing baking projects.

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