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i narrowly passed my thesis proposal defense the other friday. it wasn’t catastrophic or anything like that, but it certainly didn’t go as well as planned.

for one thing, the oral examination was much more serious than i had anticipated. i hadn’t been so naive as to think my orals would be fun — a fellow second-year grad student, who had considered opening his proposal defense with a joke had been advised by a more senior student, “it’s best not to start your talk with a joke. actually, it’s best not to have any jokes in your proposal. in fact, try to spend the entire two hours like you’re on the verge of tears.”

still, i hadn’t anticipated how much of an “exam” my qualifying exams would be. [stupid, i know.] from my graduate program’s advisory guidelines, i knew i’d have to convince a group of faculty that the research i intended to pursue over the next few years was both feasible and valuable. what i didn’t appreciate, however, was that my general knowledge of biology and computation would be tested. for instance, i was tossed questions so fundamental about biology that i was thrown off balance. the worst was: “what’s a gene?” — i fell into the trap of trying to offer some overly profound answer (and floundered long enough to look like i had no idea what a gene was).

in the end, i received a “tentative pass” for the oral portion of my quals. although not having a sharp answer for what a gene was probably didn’t help, what proved much more damaging was my spotty understanding of how the data i work with was collected and my sparse thought on the experimental implications of my research. getting called out for that of course wasn’t fun, given that the faculty i had invited onto my committee: ed delong, drew endy, and manolis kellis … saying these guys do science is like saying lance armstrong rides bikes or bostonians like their baseball team.

thankfully, however, it occurred to me midway through getting upbraided for not knowing enough about promoter region detection was how special the whole qualifying experience was. here i was, explicitly being mentored by 4 world-class scientists on how to do good science: how to become an active consumer of data; how to influence the progression of a particular subfield. to be taught those lessons by research giants is a wonderful privilege and a very welcome compliment — some people must think i’m worth grooming.

+5 points for lawrence’s fragile ego.

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