Preparing for Qualifying Exams and
Dissertation Proposal Defense

If you are a PhD student preparing for your qualifying exam or dissertation proposal defense during the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few tips to combat feelings of uncertainty and stress, and successfully pass your exam and advance. 

Thank you (and congrats!) to students who already completed their quals this year and provided helpful input for this page.

These tips are for all PhD students. An asterisk indicates the point is more relevant for social and population students, whereas all are relevant for basic science second year students.

What to consider before your exam

  1. Utilize the digital whiteboard feature to draw and explain scientific concepts and mechanisms during your exam. Some graduate students have been able to utilize a tablet, stylus pen, and drawing app (for example, OneNote, Krita, Adobe Illustrator) to draw and save concepts before the exam. 
    1. Sharing a whiteboard on Zoom
    2. Screen sharing a PowerPoint on Zoom
  2. Alternatively, if you have access to a physical whiteboard in your dwelling, you can draw on the whiteboard or pieces of paper, and have your camera point to it.
  3. *Determine the most ideal time of day to schedule your committee meeting, keeping in mind a time of day when you are most alert and attentive.
  4. *Share your logistical plan with your committee, and outline any physical or technical limitation to set appropriate expectations. Let them know what Zoom and IRL tools you'll be using (eg. real whiteboard vs. Zoom whiteboard).
  5. Practice your Zoom chalk talk or PowerPoint presentation with fellow cohort and class mates, labmates, and friends. Ask them to help take notes on what you are physically doing during your presentation so you can practice maintaining your posture while answering questions. 
  6. *Recognize Zoom fatigue, burnout, and decision fatigue are real, and may impact your level of focus and attentiveness, as you prepare for your qualifying exam. Why Zoom chats are so exhausting.
  7. *Be kind to yourself during your qualifying exam preparation. Remind yourself you are preparing for a major milestone under extremely difficult conditions. To ease some of the stress and uncertainty, see resources for your mental well-being.
  8. *Organize your articles to help you manage how much reading you have to do, and keep in mind that your goal is to gather relevant and key information from each article, rather than trying to retain every detail.
  9. Develop discrete and manageable tasks and goals in preparation for writing your written proposal and developing your oral presentation/chalk talk.
    1. Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
    2. Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
    3. Achievable (agreed, attainable)
    4. Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
    5. Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
  10. *Schedule weekly "co-working" meetings with a fellow graduate student or postdoctoral researcher to experience working with others. This is help to reintroduce structure in your day and help you to brainstorm ideas for your proposal and exams. If studying for written quals, consider assigning individuals to lead study groups sessions and collaborate on study guides.
  11. *Reward yourself. Take time to relieve stress by rewarding yourself with fun study breaks (e.g. practicing meditation or watching one or two episodes of your favorite TV show).

What to consider the day of your exam 

  1. *Hide the self-view. Seeing yourself on camera is distracting and makes you feel as though you're on display. Once you're happy with the position of your camera, use gallery mode and hide the self-view.
  2. *Use headphones and connect your audio through the phone (if you're not already using it). Your committee will hear you better, and your audio won't be interrupted by wifi issues. 
  3. Pause often. Talking too quickly is even more problematic on Zoom than in person. Take a breath before answering a question, and between thoughts. 
  4. *Run a test. You probably don't know what you look and sound like to others on Zoom - try it with a friend (or another device) to check your sound and picture quality.
  5. *Consider turning off the virtual background or the video altogether. Both of these are a strain on your computer, and may lead to lags, glitches and pixelation. If your computer can't handle a video stream, let your committee know that you'll have to turn it off. 
  6. *Be kind to yourself the day of your qualifying exam or defense. To ease some of the stress and uncertainty, visit UCSF's Student Health and Counseling Services Stress Toolkit and Resource guide.

What to consider after your exam

  1. *Celebrate your accomplishment! Call a family member or friend to share the good news. 
  2. *Reward yourself! Enjoy your favorite movie, TV show, or book.
  3. *Remind yourself that "YOU DID IT!"

Additional articles and resources


D'Anne Duncan, PhD, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Learner Success

Nicole Foti, Phc, Sociology PhD Program