There is a time honored tradition in PhD programs known as Qualifying Exams. These exams take place at various points in the PhD candidates journey but in all cases they are win or go home. They are a test of your knowledge, a rite of passage, and usually the first flaming hoop of death that the candidate must successfully jump through.
Quals, the less intimidating slang that is slung around, usually happen within the first one to two years of a students career. In most programs that I am familiar with they are the crossing point between being a PhD hopeful and a PhD candidate. In some cases, passing quals also brings a raise to the newly minted PhD candidate (at my old uni this was the case, not at my current uni.. bummer!). Of course, if passing quals brings all this grandeur and joy to the candidate, failing quals means utter dispair. If you fail quals, you are out.. done.. finito.. completely dead to the academic community.
Quals at my current university are a standardized test, all PhD candidates in this field take the same written exam and then must write a review paper on some biological topic that will be assigned at the end of the written exam. The written exam is 12 questions of which you must answer 8 in the 9am-5pm time allotted. That is both good and bad.. bad news first, they are giving us 8 hours to answer 8 questions.. this means they will not be simple questions! Good news, well at least we get to pick the 8 we feel the most confident about answer. That's part one of the exam. Part two will be a list of six topics from which we select one and have 72 hours to write a comprehensive review paper from the primary literature on the topic. I have heard from previous survivors that the topics will be hand selected for each candidate to ensure they do not overlap with any topic you are currently studying. Thus since I study plants, I can probably count on six mammalian topics.
On the bright side of quals at this uni, they have given us a list of study topics for the written exam. It has 20 categories and spans 5 textbooks. But at least it is a list.. right? My study plan, there are 21 weeks until quals and 20 topics. Tackle one topic a week, comprehensive study sheets and flashcards to review over the rest of the weeks. Preparation, preparation, preparation.. that is my game plan!
And notice above I said this is the only the FIRST flaming hoop of death...